Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Hope When Broken is Normal

The world seems more broken lately. It's hard to even make the list of how exactly it is broken. The news cycle ebbs and flows with stories of violence between Israel and Palestine. News from Ukraine and Syria fill the ebbs, at least as far as world news goes, with some ebola sprinkled in for good measure. Riots follow the death of Michael Brown. And yes, Robin Williams' suicide fits in there, too. I admit, I feel differently about his death than I would most celebrities' deaths. Some gifts that people share with us are life-altering; his definitely was.

Yet, it's strange, because somehow, all this brokenness feels normal. It feels like the reality of the world I was born into. I make it into the category of "millennial" no matter who is drawing the lines. Sometimes I just squeak in with my 1984 birthday. Others people who study demographics draw the line a little earlier, 1981 or so. As with most things, there's ambiguity about when something truly begins or changes. Suffice it to say, though, that I am thoroughly a millennial. My distrust of institutions surprises even me. Friends are family and I trust friends to help me make decisions more than other generations have. And yeah, I'm just fine with making pot legal and a liberal view of economics is putting it mildly. The list could go on and on.

My personal theory is that being born in the United States after Vietnam created a lot of the world views for my particular version of millennial, particularly distrust of institutions. I've also grown up as 24 hour news cycles were being created. In my lifetime, the shift from evening news to news bombardment has happened. Now it's a world of clickbait to see which news sources can get the most traffic. I don't remember a world where there weren't US troops somewhere in a desert on the other side of the world. At times, it's a frightening echo of the book titled for the year of my birth, 1984: we're always at war somewhere. In my lifetime, we've mostly not called the endless something somewhere war. Partly due to where I grew up, the problems of poverty have always been part of my life, even if my family was mostly comfortable. The Great Recession just took what I knew beyond the hills of Kentucky.

I don't say any of this with anger or even disillusionment. I'm mostly neither optimist nor pessimist, just realist. In fact, plenty of people find my detachment and analytical habits maddening. (And I'm good with that.) Yet, all the things that make me so typical of my generation lead me to the thing that makes me atypical for my generation: I'm still doing church.

I might have SBNR leanings in my faith language. I might have just as little hope and trust in the institution of church as I do other institutions. I'm a religious sampler in a lot of ways and a Christian tradition sampler in many more ways. Being in ministry within a particular tradition is a near-constant negotiation for me. No one would ever describe me as orthodox; I call it mannerism in practice. In the midst of all of my doubts and weirdness about my faith, though, I can't shake the hope of the reign of God.

The idea that maybe, probably, hopefully, the reign of God is at hand, breaking into this world at any moment, ready to redeem, to pull us out of the worst messes, holds my imagination. I get glimpses from time to time. There's are brief, glittering moments when it seems like something so new, straight from the hands of God, is about to take over all the brokenness. Then the glimpse is gone. And I want it again so much that I keep going, keep putting faith in the fact that it was not merely a glimpse, but something new coming.

And I live that hope with the church. The broken, often-crazy, weird beyond all belief thing that is the church. I do it despite church life being out of sync with my life a great deal of the time because they're the people who get it. They're the people who have also seen the glimpses and long for more. They're the people willing to say, "Yes, let's give this reign of God thing a shot," even if they're not remotely sure what that looks like right now.

So I do church. And I proclaim faith that God is doing a new thing in the midst of all the brokenness. And somehow, it gives voice and life to all the millennial who-knows-ness I feel most of the time. So I do the reign of God things that I understand and I pray that God will redeem all the messes and mostly, I live in the hope that God is not done with this world or with me. And maybe, just maybe, there is salvation after all.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Sell Everything?

His name was Michael, that charismatic cook at a rescue mission. His theological language never matched my own, but I could never help but smile around him. He always had his volunteers sing at the end of our time together, re-writing songs most of them had never heard with Christian lyrics. I always giggled inwardly, wondering what these beloved but self-sheltering people would do if they knew how much profanity was in the original lyrics.

As we circled up at the close of the evening, he pulled a black, well-weathered Bible from somewhere and would hand it to one of us to look up a Bible verse or two. At least twice, he had us read the story of the rich young ruler. The adjectives are taken from a multiple Gospels, but the story is the basically the same. Someone comes to Jesus asking what he should do to enter the kingdom of heaven. When Jesus tells him, "Keep the commandments," he answers, "I've done this since my youth." Then, the more difficult response comes, "Sell everything you have and give it to the poor." In at least one Gospel account, the man goes away very sad, for he had great wealth.

Michael would always add, "This is not a commandment, but a prescription for this particular man's ailment." I don't know if that's actually what he believed or if it was his way of letting off the hook the people who came to his kitchen to volunteer. After all, most were overwhelmingly wealthy by the standards of the people who ate from his kitchen every day. Living comfortably in the US, by global standards, means everyone there was rich.

For what it's worth, I'm pretty the real answer was somewhere in between. The man standing there with us knew better than most do about how difficult it is to bridge the world between people who are firmly middle class--able to pay all their bills and have some disposable income--and the people who are the poorest around. He was the one gently telling our teenage girls to not walk between the tables. He was the one who had called the police more times than he could count. He was the one who had spent many years hearing the same stories of addiction and illness coming out of so many mouths.

I'm more sympathetic that that rich young ruler than I would have been a few years ago. Yes, he probably was too attached to his wealth. But as someone who has now regularly turned away the poor for a few years, I don't think he was a bad guy so much as he knew the difficulty of loving the poor, which yes, includes giving them your money.

Last week, a man I recognized came to the church mid-week. I was in a part of the building where he saw me, and I sent him to the secretary. I knew his story, or at least the one he would offer. He lives in his car and needs some help with a hotel. I first heard this story over a year ago, the first time I told him we had no funds for that sort of thing. Back then we had a conversation about where he could go for help, where he could find a program that would help him get a home and not have to live in his car. He wasn't interested in it. He was just fine where he was, if I could just put him up in a hotel for the night. The secretary had run into him at one of the other churches where she works as well. He offered the same story there.

Two weeks ago, a woman came asking for help with money to get her into Section 8 housing. I found a couple holes in her story pretty quickly. I know she lied to me about at least one thing. She used every guilt-tactic possible to get me to give her something else. While we were talking, one of her kids jumped the fence into the church courtyard where the playground is. The others let themselves into the building and found their way through the classrooms out to the courtyard, too.

Ask your pastor, or your church secretary, or anyone who regularly works with the poor. All of them will have stories of being yelled at, of vandalism, of scam artists, of calling police. All of them will have stories about how very, very difficult it is to love the poor.

Back to Michael's interpretation of the rich young ruler. Actually, I don't think Jesus' words were a specific prescription to that one person in that one place. I think they were words for us all. "Sell everything you have and give the money to the poor." I also know they're crazy hard words to hear, much less live. I think that's why we've had to read and hear them over and over and over again for a couple millennia. Let's start with confessing what we often refuse to admit: loving the poor is hard. Jesus reminds us we have to do it any way.