Our last day of volunteering in LA was rainy. We returned to the Union Rescue Mission. This time was much different from serving in the food kitchen. Our job that morning was to spend 90 minutes to 2 hours enjoying activities with folks who were in the "Day Room" to get off the street for a while. There was a little bit of a stereotype because they sent us with board games and cards to the men's day room, and the ladies on our trip took nail polish and coloring books to the women's day room. This was a bit awkward at first. It seemed kind of weird to try and get people who were "down" to play games, but that was my pre-conceived notions. We set up some tables with chess, checkers, Connect Four, UNO, etc. And we had enough room indoors to play Corn Hole (bean-bag toss). At first, I tried asking a couple guys to play corn hole, and they declined. Myself and a member of our group decided to just start playing and see if anyone wanted to join...no one did. After that game, we moved over to the game table and played Connect Four. One of the guests in the day room came over and asked to play, I was glad to have someone join in so I obliged. I'm not going to lie, I assumed it would be an easy win. Most of the folks have some kind of mental or emotional health issue going on in one way or another, and this guy looked like he fit right into that mold. To my surprise, I lost. I got to aggressive going for the win and didn't pay attention. Shame on me for stereotyping him and elevating myself. It was a good game. He didn't want a rematch though.
The next guy shared his name with us, Adolfo. Three of us began playing UNO with Adolfo. He told us his dreams of writing songs and being a musician. If I remember correctly, he plays guitar and sings. We encouraged him and had a fun time teaching him to play UNO. Towards the end of that game, a guy named Jason came up and began telling us his story. Jason looked clean and very well taken care of, and he was in a wheel chair. He said when he was a kid his dream was to be a major league baseball player. Then at age 12 he was at a Halloween party and trying to impress a girl who was already taken, he took off running across the street. When he turned around to come back, he didn't check for cars and was hit and suffered an injury that left him paralyzed from the waist down. As he grew up he went to a couple different colleges and became a successful graphic designer. He eventually attended seminary at DTS in Dallas, TX, and felt called to be a pastor. While in seminary he was an apartment manager with a good friend of his. But along this time he also became an alcoholic, and that's when things began falling apart. One night after being at a party with his serious girlfriend, he was drunk and knew he shouldn't drive home. So he parked in the parking lot of McDonald's nearby and fell asleep. He awoke to someone tapping on the glass, he assumed it was the police. Instead, a guy said, "Wanna get high?" Before he could really get himself awake and respond, the guy had walked around to the passenger side of his car, opened the door, and got in the car. Jason watched him light up a bong of some sort, and soon joined him. It turns out the drug was crack cocaine. Jason was hooked, and his life spiraled out of control and he lost pretty much everything. That was twelve years ago I think. He's been clean for a few months now and working on staying that way and getting off the streets and back to graphic designing. It was amazing to hear his story and how willing he was to tell it. Keep Jason in your prayers with me.
Shortly after Jason finished, it was time to clean up and head to our next stop: Alexandria House. Alexandria House is transitional housing for women and women with children. When you drive down the street it is full of tall apartment buildings, and in between are these two houses that don't look very big from the front. The ministry was started by a Catholic nun and some friends a couple decades or so ago. They don't receive grant funding because if they did, they'd have to kick residents out after 90 days. They want to give these women enough time to turn things around and make it on their own. Behind one of the homes, there is a building that houses their preschool and after school programs for the kids that stay there. Behind the other house is a garage. Right now, the garage is full of stuff they will sell in a thrift sale. They hold two each month. The first is for the residents to take whatever they need/want. The second sale is open to the community and people can make donations for what they want. Alexandria house provides a safe place for women and their children to live and learn. While we were there, we wiped out all of the cabinets in their kitchen, and stacked up some of the items for the upcoming thrift sale. This ministry serves a great purpose because often times women have no where to go if they face domestic violence or other situations that put them out of their home. I was very impressed how they help the women learn and grow as well as give them a place to stay. Most stay for about a year to 18 months until they "graduate" from the program and have a job and housing of their own. It was great to hear their success.
That was what we really came to LA to do, to volunteer, but more importantly to hear the stories of people who have experienced life much different from what we have. Those stories impacted my story, and because of that, I can reflect and ask myself, "What story am I telling with my life?" By doing all the good I can, to all the people I can, in all the places I can, I hope my life story reflects the Gospel story much like the people we met this week, a story moving from death to life.
After we finished up lunch, we headed to downtown LA to the offices of Homeboy Industries. This ministry focuses on people who have been a part of gangs and/or incarcerated and provides services to get them a healthy life outside of gangs/jail/prison. There are classes for all different areas of life. They have a bakery and a cafe (the food is REALLY good!) that provides jobs for these folks, and connects them with a renewed sense of purpose and meaning. We heard stories from multiple people of how their life has turned around because of Homeboy Industries. One of their major offerings is tattoo removal. This helps people be able to get employment and to cut ties and start a new chapter of life. The people who are in the program at Homeboy Industries consider this their "family." They are connected and help each other and encourage one another. You can learn more about this ministry and the man who founded it, Father Greg Boyle, at their website. www.homeboyindustries.org
After our tour, it was just a short walk across the street to China Town, which was a neat little stop to check out. I wish we had time for a tour of Dodger Stadium too, but I'll have to make another trip for that.
What I Learned
This is something I really learned all week long. From the moment I stepped off the plane in LA, the main thing I noticed was the diversity. Ethnic and racial diversity, socio-economic diversity, religious diversity, etc. It's all there in a relatively small space. You don't see that as much in the Midwest so it stuck out to me, but for most people in LA it's just normal. Which, to me, is a great thing! The thing I learned was that we still have a lot in common with each other even if we have different backgrounds. We can emphasize our shared experiences and create community around that instead of emphasizing our pre-conceived stereotypes and divisions. It has inspired me to seek out more diverse friendships in my community.
I had the great opportunity to go with college students to Hollywood, CA for a week of serving in the LA community and doing some sight-seeing. Most of my social media posts this week focused on the sight-seeing simply because it was easy to post those. If all you had seen were those posts, you'd think I'd just been on a fun vacation trip. In reality, we spent about 6 hours per day for 4 days serving and touring different non-profit agencies in Los Angeles. We bookended the trip with some of the touristy sites.
Monday - Day 1
Our first stop of the week is in downtown LA, in a part of town known as "Skid Row." I had heard of the 80s band by that name and vaguely knew that it was the poor part of town. I did not expect to see what I saw.
We set out to serve a meal at the food kitchen of Union Rescue Mission. We were running a few minutes early, so we drove up and down the streets of Skid Row. I thought we had entered a Third-World country. Up and down the sidewalks are tents. Some are camping tents, some are tarps in the shape of a tent. The garbage was spread out all around as if it had been searched through multiple times. One corner must have been the bike shop because broken bicycles and parts were piled high. It seemed like miles of tents, a tent city. It had been raining that week, and it was overcast that morning, which added to the dreariness of the sight. (The photo to the right doesn't do it justice, please check the video below.) Skid Row is about 50 square blocks or 0.4 square miles.
We entered the Union Rescue Mission and stopped at the Security desk to get directions to the kitchen. Just as overwhelming as the tents was the sheer numbers of people. The tents were big enough to house multiple people. There were people up and down the sidewalks, and as we entered URM, there were lots of people waiting for services. Later on our tour, we were told there were 800 beds at URM, and they put out extra cots as needed for emergency shelter, which brought their total to around 1300 people staying there. In all of LA there are about 47,000 people experiencing homelessness (though other numbers put it much higher than that, I guess it depends on how/who you count), about 2,500 of those live in the skid row area.
That day, was a special day because In-n-Out Burger had donated the meal: cheeseburger (freshly cooked on sight) and potato chips. Along with that we served salads, fruit, pastries, and Gatorade to drink. The guests saw it as a real treat.
What I learned
After seeing Skid Row and then experiencing URM, I was very encouraged that people's lives were being transformed. It is hard if not impossible to see progress made on Skid Row. There are a multitude of reasons that people end up on the streets and experience homelessness, and they all require different treatments. I was saddened that a part of our United States looks like a Third-World country, but I was encouraged by the stories of triumph we heard from people at URM. On this first day, I mainly learned that these are people like me who are experiencing homelessness. Often times we put them all in a category or class: homeless. In reality, many of us are much closer to experiencing homelessness than we realize. There's not a one-size-fits-all solution. There may not be solutions on a large-scale. But we can take care of people and give them the opportunity to be transformed. As I return to my town, I hope to get connected to local organizations and help them navigate the multitude of issues facing people who are experiencing homelessness. My first step will be to listen and learn.
Watch this video to see what a street looks like in Skid Row.
I didn't hear about the shooting in Orlando until after church yesterday. So I wasn't able to say anything about it then, but I need to say something to my church and community.
First, I grieve and mourn with the loved ones affected by this tragedy. I keep the families, friends, and loved ones in my prayers and thoughts. I pray that the community of Orlando, churches, and Christians everywhere will rally together for strength, comfort, and healing with no other cause or purpose than that we need to see the best of humanity in action during this time.
Which brings me to my next thought: Why is this about guns? Why is this about religion? Why is this being used for political debate? Why is this dividing us further? We should be coming together in peace to support people during a great loss. I've lived in small towns of less than 1500 people for 7 years of my life. Tragedies happen and the town comes together to be there for each other regardless of race, class, or anything else. We come together because we need each other. We need community. We need to live together in Peace and Love.
Instead, we fight over gun rights, gay rights, religious rights, and divide ourselves. It is too soon for that. It is during the difficult times that we need each other to lean on. We need more good in the world, not more arguing. We need more peace, not fighting. We need to come together, not push each other farther apart.
The shooting in Orlando was an act of hate and violence. We do not need to add to it with our bickering. We need to come together. We need to pray. Pray for Orlando. Pray for comfort. Pray for Healing. Pray for Us.
Because, at the end of the day, we are all humans. We were not made to fight and bicker and put more darkness into the world. We are made to Love and be Light.
Jesus Prays For Unity
In John 17, Jesus prays for himself, The Twelve Disciples, and The Church. All of these prayers have a common theme: UNITY. He prays for himself to be glorified so that God (the Father) is glorified. He often makes claim's of his oneness with the Father. Then, when he prays for The Twelve, he asks "...that they will be one as we are one" (John 17:11, CEB). Finally, in verses 20-23, Jesus prays for all believers everywhere to be in "complete unity." All of this Unity is for one purpose: so that the world will know that God sent Jesus Christ.
Jesus Reveals His Heart
These verses come in a section of The Gospel of John when Jesus is bearing his heart to The Twelve. He is passing on to them what he considers very important. In fact, John 13:1, the preface to this section includes the phrase "he loved them to the end," which can also mean, "he showed them the full extent of his love" or as the CEB puts it "he loved them fully."
Prayers Are Intimate
It's not often that one gets to listen in on an intimate conversation between a father and son. It's even less often that we get to listen in on the private prayers of a spiritual leader like Billy Graham, or Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. Those intimate moments are usually kept reserved for those closest to the person. In this case, it is The Twelve that are closest to Jesus. He holds them dearly in his heart, and prays for their Unity. Unity with God, and Unity with one another for the sake of showing God's love to the world.
Why Is This Important?
There seems to be two things that are connected that Jesus wants deep down inside of his heart: 1) Unity of believers, so that 2) the world will believe. Jesus's heart, his mission and purpose that God sent him to do, is to Love every single human being ever. As The Church, we are called to the same mission and purpose to get people to be a part of God's family/kingdom. We can do this better together than divided. In fact, division probably hurts our mission more than anything else. Where is your heart, with Christ? Then we can work hand-in-hand. (My paraphrase of John Wesley.)
The Key IS Grace
Treating others with Mercy & Grace, and offering forgiveness when necessary is the key to Unity. Showing the same kind of love to one another that God shows us in Jesus Christ is essential. One must let go of pride and submit to one another out of love. Look at the group of twelve that Jesus gathered. They weren't all the same! They had differences! It was Jesus that brought them together for a common goal and purpose. We too can gather together, rally around Jesus, and be about the same mission. Even if we have different opinions on public policy, or about the future of our church. If we seek Jesus together, and truly submit to him and one another out of love, then I know, by faith, that God will shine through us to accomplish God's mission.
Where is your heart? Is it aligned with Jesus' heart? Do you love like Jesus? Then let's work together.
The Future of The United Methodist Church
"Divorce," "Schism," "Separation," these are all terms I've read when people talk about the future of the United Methodist Church. I just have one question...
Why Not "Reorganization"?
Can we re-organize? That is a lot of work, but it doesn't sound so negative. We love each other, right? We all love Jesus, right? Let's call a new "Christmas Conference" or something and start over. It would fundamentally change the nature of General Conference, but it seems like not much is changing with the way things are. Simply using the term "Reorganize" could help us a lot. Being over-dramatic and bickering back and forth about playing by "the rules" is not helping.
What do you think?
Am I being too naive or seeing things through rose-colored glasses? Can't we talk of "Reorganizing" instead of all the other harmful terms we're using. It has looked to me like we're kids on a playground saying, "Well, if you won't play by my rules, I'm taking my toys and going home!" Maybe what we need is a group of people so committed to sharing God's love in Jesus Christ together with one another that we completely re-write "the rules" and reorganize. Because Love is the Right Way. What do you think, is the term "Reorganize" any better for speaking about our future?
Growing up, I remember responding to altar calls at church camp and other events. Even on Sunday mornings when I'd go to other churches (typically non-United Methodist) I would hear an "Invitation" or altar call. When I grew up into a pastor, I've tried giving them a few times. I must be doing it wrong because many times people don't respond. I wonder why that is.
At one of the churches I serve, we receive Holy Communion every week. So in a sense, people respond to the invitation every week. This is different than a traditional "Altar Call" that usually invites people to "give their life to Christ." My sense is that we need to give people ways to respond to God during our time of worship. Some people have gotten very creative with this. I've seen prayer stations with different activities and opportunities to engage what you've heard and experienced during the worship service. But still, there's something important to the altar call that I think we've lost, and it connects directly to the mission Jesus gave us to "make disciples".
The altar call was a clear place for people to begin their faith journey. It was a starting point. I think too many have tossed it aside saying something like "We make disciples, not decisions." Ok, that's great. I'm with you on that. But, people still need a place to start and make that decision to go and take their first step, and their next step. Many of the churches I've been around have no such clear beginning point for people. We are not intentional about making disciples. We just keep doing what we've done and expect it to happen. So many of the churches I've been around continue to get smaller. People come and go, and we wonder why they didn't stay and get a deeper connection. Maybe it's because we didn't really have a good, easy to follow path for them to connect. You can't ever begin as a disciple if you don't have a clear place to start. The altar call at least served that purpose of saying "START HERE."
What I see in churches that are making disciples is they have moved the "altar call" outside of the worship service. They have a clear "START HERE" place. Many call it "Coffee with the Pastor," or one of my friends has "Open Mike Night." It is a "START HERE" place that people can get more information about how your church makes disciples. It's a place to start people on the path of discipleship. Once you have a place to start, then you can show them the options of "next steps." You can connect them with deeper relationships and help them identify their God-given gifts and passion. You can help them learn and grow. Help them follow Jesus. But first, you have to point them to the starting line.
What does your church do to have a clear "START HERE" for people in your church? (Or it could be a "START OVER HERE" for people who want to give discipleship another go and re-dedicate their lives to following Jesus.)
One of the issues that bugs people who stay away from church is the concept of Hell. It even bugs a lot of church-goers. The thinking is, "An all-loving, all-good God cannot possibly desire the eternal conscious torment of souls in flames." Many people are offended by "preachers" who proclaim a "Turn or Burn" ideology. They find it offensive that someone proclaims themselves as judge and condemns people to hell. In my own life experience, I remember hearing a number of messages at large youth events and other Christian gatherings that pushed listeners to think about death, and invite the hearer to ponder "where will you go when you die?" My response is, if that's the choice, then who in their right mind would even see hell as an option. Of course the person will choose Heaven! Duh! Maybe a better goal isn't choosing a final destination, but whether or not I have a relationship with the living Lord Jesus Christ, and living as his follower.
A Two-Fold Problem
One of the ways to get around this issue is to explain away hell, either it doesn't exist, or it means something other than what we (21st Century Culturally-influenced Christians) think it means. The response to that is usually, "that's great, but...scripture says...do you want to take that chance?" There is a great book about the interpretation of Hell in scripture titled "Her Gates Will Never Be Shut" by Bradley Jersak. I highly recommend you read it with a teachable spirit. Regardless of the interpretation of what hell is, or whether or not it exists, the real issue I see is two-fold: Condemnation and Manipulation.
Judgment and Condemnation
As I described above, the problem most of us have with Hell is how it's used in trying to convince people to be Christians. Most people don't like being stereotyped and judged, yet that's often how people hear this type of preaching. It doesn't fit with the concept of "God's love" or the character of Jesus Christ. I don't see Jesus telling the lost, "Hell is coming! You're going to burn!" He says, "The Kingdom of God is near!" This is Good News. It baffles me how often The Good News is lost because of the way Hell is used as a tool to condemn people.
Manipulation By Fear
The other problem I have with how "Hell" is often used is it feels like a manipulative tool. I have people ask me if I'm a "Fire and Brimstone" preacher. I assume they mean do I warn people of hell and how terrible it is. No, that is not me. I like to focus on the Good News of Jesus. We are all afraid of death. A lot of preaching about hell pushes us to reflect on the temporary nature of life and the fact that we will face death. This plays on our fears. To me, using fear to get someone to make a decision is unethical. I want people to make an informed decision. One that you're sure of regardless of your emotions. It can be emotional to decide, but it's not only emotional, or even primarily emotional. If anything, it's a relational decision. Will you walk with Jesus Christ, the way to God, the truth and the life? Kind of like getting married or other big commitments we make with people. You can be persuasive without using Hell and Fear as a tool to manipulate.
The Good News
So, I am okay with the concept of Hell just not how it is typically used. Jesus obviously spoke of it, and warned us about judgment. But mostly, when it came to preaching to and helping non-religious people, the least and the lost, the poor and the oppressed (those fully aware of how Hellish life is)--Jesus proclaimed the Good News of Heaven. He attracted people by heavenly miracles, and wondrous teaching. When he did speak of Hell, he usually spoke with the overly-religious hypocrites about Hell, the ones who thought they were "in" and better than others who were "out". The Good News is Jesus has overcome death and hell. Heaven is here! And Jesus is the Way to be a part of it. Love like Jesus and see what happens! Jesus doesn't need manipulation. He doesn't mess with your mind, and play off your fears. Jesus Christ is so awesome, so good, so abundant with love, he is calling your name and drawing you to him. He is The Healer. He is The Forgiver. He is The Liberator. He gives life and peace. He is Love...like you've never known before. He will change your life in ways you didn't imagine possible. Will you be his disciple? Will you be a part of Heaven? Live like Heaven. Love like Jesus.
Happy Easter! You could say that for the next 6 weeks or so because Easter isn't just a day, it's a season! What does an empty tomb mean for you?
For me, The Good News of Jesus Christ, that he was crucified, died, was buried and rose again on the third day, is summed up in Grace. When you think about the whole ordeal, it doesn't make much sense. A peaceful, helpful, loving, teacher and friend gets accused of being a rebel claiming to be king. Yet he had now sword, no war horse, no army, and showed no violence against anyone. He helped people. He healed people. He said his mission was to let the oppressed go free.
Those who were "in charge" and had influence and power didn't really like it much. My guess is, they saw Jesus as a threat to their power because he challenged the status quo. The status quo allowed them to enjoy the position they had. It was comfortable. It was safe. But not for everybody. Jesus helped those who were forgotten and left behind due to the status quo. He empowered people by "forgiving sins" and connecting them with a relationship to The Most High power, God, whom Jesus called, Father. And it changed their lives.
Easter, the Resurrection, for me is a reminder of the Grace that God has shown me. It empowers me to live in a way that defies common cultural status quo. Forgiveness does that. It looks foolish. It looks like being "soft on crime" and letting people get away with things. But God sees it differently. He sees it as a chance to restore life and love, instead of tear it down. For the most part, we operate on the terms of "retributive" justice, but God's idea for us is "restorative justice." Forgiveness empowers us to forgive others. When I forgive someone, it relieves bitterness and grudges. It keeps me from being paranoid and defensive. It makes life a whole lot more joyful and enjoyable...not just endurable.
For many of us, we have a hard time forgiving others. We operate in this "tit-for-tat" or "you do for me and I'll do for you" mindset. We have a hard time being generous with our affection (the many ways it can be shown, big or small) unless we know that person will reciprocate. I think we have a hard time doing this because we have not realized the depth at which God has generously shown us affection without any regard for whether or not we respond in kind. Because we do not accept God's grace, God's overwhelming loving kindness and mercy through Jesus Christ on the cross, we cannot offer forgiveness and operate in the abundance of life God has for us. Letting God's grace, the power of the Cross and the Resurrection to wash over you, and know that you're completely utterly forgiven and in good-standing with God will empower you to live differently and forgive others.
You have to receive this gift from God first. He took care of it for you. You can try to forgive others, do more good than bad, be generous, etc., but at some point you'll think "why? Why am I trying so hard to measure up?" And you'll realize you don't have a good answer to that. You'll be overwhelmed by all the pressure for "success". Because you expect some kind of reciprocation from others, you apply this to how you approach God too. Eventually, you might even think "I do all these good things, and I don't do all of these bad things that other people do, so now God, it's time for you to...(fill in the blank with whatever you want God to do). The point of Grace though, is there is nothing you can do to be more "acceptable" to God. He wants you. He became human flesh like you, went through the harshest suffering and pain with you, and overcame death and the grave for you. You could never earn it or deserve it. God simply loves you completely, just as you are without any prerequisites. You are God's child. Your identity comes from God, not from what the common cultural status quo or other powers of oppression tell you. You are completely forgiven. I love how the song by Mercy Me puts it, "Flawless." Watch their music video and see it for yourself:
I am a United Methodist Pastor, but I'm trying to re-define that as a Missionary sent to my corner of the USA. What would it look like for you to envision your life as a Christian more like a Missionary than a Church-goer?