Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Looking Into the Eyes of Christ

"You have heard some say, 'We don't need those people.' Well, Jesus is one of those people, and that is a great part of what it means for God to walk among us in human flesh." - Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Address at Trinity University, July 8, 2008

In this second day of considering how to live up to the standard set by Jesus and become more involved in reaching out to our fellow man, this second quote from the Presiding Bishop hit me like a thunderbolt.

"Jesus is one of those people." A carpenter from the poor town of Nazareth who wandered around with twelve men, living among the fringes of early-1st century society, shunning any sort of wealth, living wherever he was welcomed - wherever he could find a place to sleep - wherever he could find a meal. In reading this quote, though, I don't wonder if the bishop hasn't put the emphasis on the wrong word.

Read it her way again. Now, read it this way: "Jesus is one of those people." The first way, a statement of condescension; the second, a surprising statement of fact.

In the past, as I've walked by those who sit in doorways, beg on street corners, drag their possessions up and down the sidewalks of the city - not knowing where they came from and really not caring where they are headed - I tend to not look. I glance away not because of nerves or a need to shut out the problem, but rather because a certain amount of cynicism has built up over the years: the man who came up to me to borrow money because his truck had broken down and he couldn't get home from work, only to approach me the very next day with the very same story before suddenly realizing I had heard it all before; the one who asked for money for a meal only to walk instead into the package story for a bottle of liquor; the stories in the paper of young girls who live under bridges and who trade sex for drugs. Each of these people needs help, but I can't do it all alone and I was frustrated with the results when I did.

In today's economy, though, things have changed - and have changed dramatically. No longer do you look into the eyes of a man or woman huddled in a doorway and simply see the alcohol-riddled shell of a person, or a runaway, or a person looking for their next fix. Instead, you now look into the eyes of an engineer who has been laid off, burned through his savings, and lost his home. You look into the eyes of a young mother with three children who doesn't know how she will find their next meal. You look into the eyes of an older professional who lost everything as a result of shady hedge funds and crooked brokers and who is too proud to ask for help.

The eyes of the people you see on the street now are far different and tell far more stories than simply the tales of drug addiction or drunkenness. The group of people crying out for help through their stares and sad glances is far broader than we in this country should ever have allowed.

Their faces are the face of the suffering Christ, the rejected and scorned Christ, the crucified Christ. The Christ who on Friday had no hope. It is up to us to help these people with the transition to the Sunday miracle. Can any of us do it alone? Of course not - but the bishop's words are a stark reminder that we need to try, for every face you see is a creation of God and is in the image of God. Peter denied Jesus three times and was still forgiven; how many more times must we deny those in need?

No longer is it enough for me to tithe and contribute to charities and go merrily on my way. I need to get involved, and show my daughters the true value of helping their neighbor and the true worth in every man, woman and child.

We have Millenium Development Goals - not Millenium Development Hopes. It's up to each of us to reach those goals and - again - live into the full stature of Christ.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Crisis of Faith

Now that the title has grabbed your attention, I'll clarify and say that the crisis of faith - my faith - isn't with the having of faith. No, the crisis is of living out my faith in the world.

As someone who has been actively involved in the life of the last three churches I've attended - as a vestry member, a former youth leader, and a person keenly interested in organizing exciting and thought-provoking events and speakers - I'm always one of the ones encouraging others in the congregation to live outside the four walls of the church and to engage in the larger community. I once read that the people in the church aren't the ones who need help, but it's the ones outside the church who are in need; as such, I think it's important that congregations get more involved in the life of the larger area they serve.

Suggesting that people become more involved and actually becoming more involved are two different things, however, and I have fallen far short of realizing the mission that I'm encouraging others to undertake. In doing this, I'm also falling short of what it means to be an Episcopalian and a Christian.

In an address to the Urban Caucus in February 2007, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori talked at length about what we as Christians are tasked to do in the world. As she said, "That vision of a healed and restored world is what you and I are charged with being and doing in this world ... Jesus himself acts out those images in feeding the multitudes, healing the sick and urging the people around them to feed them and restore them to community ... The Millenium Development Goals are a contemporary illustration of the work that Jesus did himself - and of the work to which he continues to call his followers ... We would do well to recall that we cannot love God whom we do not see if we do not love our neighbors who we do see. The world is not reconciled as long as some live without - without food, good news, adequate housing, peace, clothing or justice ... The work of this church is to build a world of shalom ... adequate food, drink, housing, employment, health care, education, equality, and the peace that only comes when justice is present and available to all."

I talk a lot about what I see wrong in the world and what I think should be done to fix it. Jesus, however, didn't talk - he acted. If I don't start acting, I will never - as the Presiding Bishop wrote - live into the full stature of Christ. So why don't I act?

At this stage in my life, my mind (politics) and my heart (faith) are really coming into conflict with each other. As I wrote a few months back on this blog, my position on the death penalty changed when my belief that everyone should receive a New Testament forgiveness (heart) superceded - after much internal debate - my desire for harsh, Old Testament punishment (mind). Many of my friends and I have debated the current health care reform efforts in Congress, and I am torn between my belief that everyone should have health care coverage (heart) with the belief that the government shouldn't be the body responsible for running the program (mind). I am conflicted about the fact that something should be done to end world hunger, disease, and poverty (heart) versus the thought that we shouldn't leave it up to organizations like the United Nations (mind).

Does this make me a flawed Christian? Of course; there is no perfect Christian. Is it too late to change and become more actively involved? Of course not; it's never too late. But as I blogged quite a while back, there's a certain amount of cynicism that I must overcome - especially when it comes to confronting those on the street who approach me for help. It's easy to help those you don't see - the food banks and homeless shelters that solicit through the mail and receive assistance through my tithes at church. The difficulty comes in helping those right in front of you, and that's undoubtedly where I need help.

Again, I turned to the Presiding Bishop's words: "Give to everyone who begs from you, and lend expecting nothing in return ... none of what we have is really ours; it belongs to God and we are only stewards ... Don't give anything with strings attached, for those strings are a kind of shackle that binds the receiver and the giver. Give freely, and set the other free in turn."

All of this can actually be summed up as a series of two questions presented to us during the homily of a mid-day Eucharist I attended earlier today: “What is it that makes God concrete for you? What do you do to make God concrete for others?”

What makes God concrete for me is simple: my family, my friends, my health, and the activities in which I'm involved. But I have a long way to go if I'm going to make God concrete for others - and become a better, more effective Christian in the process.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Some Brief Thoughts on Prayer

These comments from the book Jesus Wept, by the Episcopal priest and writer Barbara Crafton, jumped out at me as I read them earlier and have given me a great deal about which to think. I feel certain they will for you as well."

We must begin by questioning the importance of words in our prayer. We are wedded to them, afraid of getting them wrong, irrationally afraid that if we pray for the wrong thing something terrible may happen ... We pray as if it were all up to us, when in fact, almost none of it is. We pray as if we were giving God treatment plans to follow, as if nothing could possibly work out well if we weren't there to plan it. We imagine that we must 'know what to pray for' in advance, and that we cannot pray if we don't. That if we cannot 'name it and claim it,' our prayers will be to no avail ... Often we do not know what should happen in a given situation. And sometimes we know that the things we long for cannot be ... We cannot look at prayer with an open mind and not conclude that, whatever else it may be, it isn't like placing an order at a pizza parlor ... God is in and around all of human history, absent from none of it. God is not a figure outside of our experience and in need of information about it. We don't really need to pray about anything; we're not in charge of much of what happens in the world. We can content ourselves with prayer from within it all.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Hubble, the Universe, and Our Place In It All

My only thought for today is to take a moment and just consider how grand is the universe we are fortunate enough to inhabit. All it takes is a quick look at these photos from the Hubble Telescope, which show the work of a true Creator and Master Artist...