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Archive for September, 2008

From a Distance

One of my greatest struggles in ministry is helping the people who come to my office. They are usually not members of my church and they are usually looking for money to pay a bill, get food or fill their gas tank. I know that paying the bill or giving them a gift card to the grocery store or gas station is a temporary fix, a band-aid on the bigger issues they face. My help is needed and appreciated, but ultimately it is incredibly temporary as evidenced by the fact that most of the people I help end up coming back for the same help again. What adds to my frustration is knowing that even if I were able to do something more for them (find the a job or job training, etc, etc), 90% will always be poor. Is this what Jesus meant when he said “The poor you will always have with you”?

Over the weekend I heard an article on “This American Life” about a Harlem program called “Baby College” that seeks to help parents of infants and toddlers be better parents. They cited research that shows assistance to adults (and even teens) produces temporary results, but assistance to infants and toddlers, especially in the area of communication and literacy has a lasting effect and does the greatest good towards ending the cycle of poverty. Do I stop helping adults? Well, no. Because if I continue to help the adults I am making a difference in the life of a child by keeping food on the table, a roof over their heads and air conditioning or heat when it is most needed. And this help is given knowing that my family is also just a paycheck or two away from financial disaster ourselves. (Gulp!)

So today I received a phone call from an ex-offender who had been released from prison a few months ago. The story goes that he has been imprisoned for most of the last 25 years. He got into trouble as a teen and at 16 years old was sentenced as an adult for what sounded like an accidental death. He claims to have been willed the deed to a house in my town by his grandmother who died back in December or January. He was staying with a cousin who lives in a government project that doesn’t allow ex-offenders to visit for more than 72 hours and his time was about to be up. He needed $100 for gas and food to get him to my town which is about an 8 hour drive away.

How’d he choose my church? Well he was part of a prison ministry that was administered by a seminary affiliated with my denomination. Now that he’s out, he knows he needs to get involved in a church to help him stay on the straight and narrow. He chose my church because of its affiliation and location in the town where he has a house to claim.

Unfortunately I have been unable to verify the claims he has made about having connections here. The folks with the same last name know of no relation that fits his description and the address he gave is not a valid house number on the named street. It’s all very troubling. I want to help, but how?

What comes to mind is a poster that hung on the door of the HR person at a previous workplace. “Failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” Sounds a bit tough for this situation, especially when I have a gospel mandate to serve. He gave me 2 1/2 hours to get him $100 and he’s not even in the same state as I am. It took me 3 hours just to get a hold of the pastor of the local church he tried to get help from yesterday. In the meantime I searched on the internet and even called his local law enforcement agency to investigate options for assistance. I also called a member of my congregation who is involved in prison ministry here. And I checked with the courthouse to see if I could verify his relative’s name and location.

My church member encouraged me to help, but none of the other pieces seemed to come together. Have I failed? It feels like I have.

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If Only For a Moment

Last Tuesday I woke up in a Holiday Inn Express in a Chicago suburb; and for the first time in I don’t know how long I woke up with a totally clear head! No gooey, itchy ears, no fullness in my skull, no tension on my head and neck muscles. It was amazing! My waking thought was truly “God? Have you healed me!?” I felt more normal than I have felt for at least the last two years, probably longer. And I really wanted to believe that God had healed me that night as I slept. I got out of bed and took a shower, brushed my teeth and ironed my clothes. All the while I was wondering what had happened and how could I keep this feeling?

As I headed to the hotel lobby to get some breakfast, I wondered how long the feeling would last and what would happen when I ate. There wasn’t much to choose from that would travel to the hotel where my conference was meeting. I choose a danish. Not a good choice. I added to it a Chai from Starbucks. By lunch time the clarity was beginning to fade.

What part had I played in this momentary healing? Was it the Thai food I had for dinner the night before? Was it that I didn’t eat anything after dinner? Was it the brand new hotel that didn’t have any mold or dust accumulation? Was it the pillows and the comfy bed? Was it getting uninterrupted sleep? Was it the healing with the church that I was working on and experiencing? And what was making the clarity disappear? Was it what I was eating? Was it mold somewhere in the conference hotel? Was it the hurt I still feel from the church?

Whatever it was that caused my momentary sensation of healing, and whatever it was that caused it to slip away, it has restored my hope that I can indeed be fully healed. And it has fueled my quest to find that healing. Now that I am home again I continue to pay attention even more fully to what I am doing and eating and how I am being. I do believe that the illnesses we suffer are directly related to our emotional and spiritual state. An injury to our psyche can produce an injury on our immune system. It’s no accident that we catch colds and suffer infections more easily when our minds, bodies and spirits also feel under attack from pressures of work, family, money and stress in general.

Eighteen months ago, as I was looking forward to my skull base surgery, I attended a conference on clergy wellness. It was there, in worship with colleagues and others, that I first had the epiphany that my tumor was/could be the result of my relationship with the church. I was hurt, and while I thought I had dealt with it in my mind, and thought I had dealt with it in my heart, still the hurt remained. And while I would not allow the hurt to be in my mind or in my heart, the hurt had to find a home. The hurt found its place stuck between my heart and my mind on the vein that brings the blood back from the brain to the heart. The hurt was there, shut out by my mind and closed off from my heart. Where else could it go?

The conference I attended last week was for clergy, hosted by the head of my denomination. When I registered in May my congregation reimbursed the registration fee out of my professional expenses budget. I had heard there were scholarships available, even knew a colleague who received one, but I didn’t think I could get one. I didn’t think I would qualify. I didn’t think I deserved one. I didn’t even ask about it. Then, late in July, I received a phone call that knocked my socks off! The denominational offices called to tell me I had been given a scholarship and that even though my registration fee had already been paid, they would be sending me a check. Me! A check!

I couldn’t believe it! The words were too wonderful. It was like the church had just called to tell me I was still loved and appreciated, and what’s more, the church wanted me…ME…to be a part of it. It brought me back to the first denominational gathering I had attended 20 years ago. At that time, I was one of 3 college students who attended a church wide planning conference. Then, also, I had registered and paid my way (I don’t remember how I did it), but when I arrived at registration a lovely woman about my mom’s age told me I had been awarded a scholarship. When I protested, saying “but I’ve already paid”, she told me to “please, take the money, we want to you have it, we’re glad you’re here; maybe you could use it in the bookstore?”

I still don’t know who was responsible for deciding to give me a scholarship for the clergy conference, but I made sure to say thank you to several people that week. I even wrote it on my evaluation form. What a beautiful gesture of welcome, hospitality and appreciation! Did they know I needed it? Not for my church expenses, but for ME? I don’t know, maybe they did. Whatever the reason, it had a special meaning just for me, that maybe nobody knew it would have. And though I still struggle in my local church, this conference has bandaged some of the wounds, and healed some of the cuts and helped me find reconciliation in the wider church.

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