Tag Archives: Brokenness

The Idea of Brokenness is Great…

I like the idea of brokenness. I like thinking and talking about the fact that the church is a place for broken people, where broken people can be accepted and loved. I like Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and all that.

I say that I like the idea of brokenness, because the idea is much better than the reality.

I spent quite a bit of time yesterday mopping up a leaky pipe at church. I also found myself grumbling. Grumbling that I didn’t go to seminary to mop up a leaky pipe, grumbling that our old building has so many troubles, grumbling because when I would picture where I would be at my first charge, this was not it. I was grumbling because our building is broken, and I have neither the patience nor the skill to put it back together.

Our building is only the beginning of the brokenness in our community. Some folks have alcohol problems and still smell from last night’s bender. Other folks had a misfortune early in their life, and this has had negative effects for the rest of their lives. Some folks only have a ninth grade education, while others are transient — here at times and suddenly gone for a while. There is certainly a good deal of visible brokenness in our community.

Sometimes people speak to me about how noble I am for serving a church in such a troubled community with so many broken people. I often chuckle. It is something which is easy to admire from afar, but difficult to admire when one is in the midst of brokenness. At times I find myself frustrated, even cynical.

Blessed are poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

I come from a subculture in which we hide our brokenness. We put on “church-faces,” the false facade that we plaster on our faces when we go to church to give the impression that everything is fine even when it is not. We all ask everyone some variation of “how are you?” The appropriate answer is some variation of “good.” Deviations from this appropriate answer, particular if the answer is “bad,” immediately receives negative informal sanctions. We are not prepared to deal with brokenness.

With this desire to hide our brokenness, I think that we like to believe that we are not broken, and “those people” are the broken ones. We have jobs, and refinement, and adequate places to live. We have morals and values, and we are very much unlike “the broken” whom we generally see as projects.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

There are places which are centers of brokenness. Hospitals, nursing homes, and inner cities are places where brokenness is visible, on the surface, and prevalent. Generally, I have typically attempted to avoid these centers of brokenness as much as possible. If I visited someone in the hospital I would walk straight to the person I was to visit, and when finished I would leave immediately. All the while attempting to avoid as many people as possible. Similarly with nursing homes. Inner cities have been a locus of mission. I would drive in, serve in a soup kitchen for a few hours, say “hi” to a few folks, and then leave feeling as though I was able to help “the broken” while still maintaining a certain level of distance, seeing them as people to perform outreach to, but always keeping them at arm’s length.

I think in a lot of ways, I tend to be uncomfortable around people who are visibly broken because they remind me of my own brokenness. They remind me that my church-face is fake, that despite of all my attempts, I still do not have my life together. When I am in centers of brokenness and surrounded by people who are visibly broken, I am reminded that I, too, am broken.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

We are all broken, just in different ways. For some of us our brokenness is very visible on the surface, for others of us, our brokenness lies a bit deeper. I need to come to terms with my own brokenness because brokenness is at the core of the Christian life. Without brokenness there is no need or desire for restoration or redemption, and in this case there is no hope. Our understanding of the kingdom/queendom of God is predicated upon the fact that we are broken, and that we must come to terms with our brokenness.

So I continue to pray, that I will not only recognize my brokenness but come to love my brokenness; that I will not only be able to tolerate the brokenness in others, but love the brokenness in others; that I will not only like the idea of brokenness, but also the reality. When I can learn to love my own brokenness and the brokenness of others, I can dwell with and walk with others as we all look forward to redemption and restoration. Brokenness is not the goal, to be sure, however, it is the road toward the goal of true wholeness. Brokenness is not to be sought after, but rather acknowledged and accepted as a part of the human condition, always seeking the wholeness that God offers. It is only when I can do this that I can learn to live in community with broken people, not just seeing them as objects of outreach or mission projects but as people created in the image of God.

At the end of the day, it is important that I recognize and remember this: there is only a place for me in the body of Christ because there is a place for the most broken.

That Which Gives Us Value

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From Jim VanMaastricht on Flickr

On Sunday mornings, I lead worship at my church.  I look out and look at my congregation.  Many of them are unemployed, some of them stay on the street, many of them struggle to make ends meet. Many in my congregation are visibly broken and noticeably hurting.  We collect an offering, because stewardship is important regardless of whether you are rich or you are poor.  Our offerings are never large, and they are never enough to cover the expenses of the church.  However, our offerings, even though they may be humble, are a honest and heartfelt offering to God in response to God’s goodness.

Many people may look at our church and see little value in it.  We are a small church, we are made up of simple people.  Those of us who are employed do not have particularly spectacular jobs.  We are not up on the latest fashion, and our building sometimes feels as though it’s held together with duct tape.  We have a relatively small number of people in worship on Sunday mornings, and we don’t offer a lot of other programs.  Many in my congregation are invisible people: no one wants to see them, no one cares to see them, no one wants to speak to them.

We like to jokingly talk about how we’re all kind of messed up, although that is quite true, the only difference between us and a church made of upper class folks is that our “messed up” nature is in the open.  Our congregation is made of up folks whom many people might look down their nose at, or will call a “social problem.”

It’s true, we are broken people, but I think that we’re honest about our brokenness.  We are imperfect people, but we don’t try to hide our imperfections (and often we cannot).  We are a people who are wholly dependent on the grace and provision of God, and we pray every day for our daily bread.

We are not a self-sustaining church, we don’t have many tangible resources to offer to other churches.  We are almost wholly reliant upon outside support by churches and individuals who think that what we do is important and that our ministry is valuable.  But what makes our ministry valuable?  What gives our ministry value?

Simply put, our church has value because those to whom and with whom we minister have value.  The folks in our neighborhood don’t have value because they have special skills that are particularly in demand, our folks don’t have value because they have resources which greatly benefit our church or the community, our folks don’t have value because they are especially theologically or biblically astute.  Our folks have value for one simple reason: they are made in the image of God.

When it comes down to it, though, isn’t that the only reason that any of us have value?  We have a relatively new cultural language when talking about the value of people.  We talk about “job creators” and why they are more important than others.  Sometimes people talk of a “productive class.”  We place a monetary value on people and regard them accordingly.  This narrative, however, is tragically false.  Any value that we have as people solely arises from the fact that we are made in the image of God, and we all equally share this value.

This is why our ministry has value: because we teach people that they have value.  One of my favorite things to do is to look someone in the eye and tell them, “You are made in the image of God.”  Not simply some abstract concept such as, “humankind is made in the image of God,” but a personal “you.”  I want people to know this and I want people to believe this. Everyone needs to have a sense of value and everyone needs to be able to have dignity.

Some people know this, but they don’t really believe it.  It is a difficult thing to believe.  It is difficult to believe that we have worth or value when no one seems to care much for you or about you.  When your landlord won’t fix anything in your flat, when you can’t get a call back after a job interview, when people are afraid to drive through your neighborhood, when people won’t shake your hand or sit next to you.

Sometimes this is difficult for me to remember as well.  Sometimes someone shows up at church in the same clothes they’ve been wearing for at least a week, sleeping under an overpass.  Sometimes they smell of alcohol.  Sometimes it is difficult to remember that these folks, too, are made in the image of God.  This understanding, this deep belief is crucial.  It is not simply a way to feel better about oneself, it truly forms the narrative in which you see yourself or others.

I always say that God meets us right where we are, but that God loves us too much to let us stay there.  Part of discipleship is to be transformed more and more into the image of Christ, it is to allow God to transform us into better people than we are.  This transformation is not so that we will have value, this transformation is because we already have value.  God doesn’t transform us in order to make it possible for God to love us, God transforms us because God loves us.

I love and care for my people not because they have great skills or can do great things.  I love and care for my folks because they have the highest value that one can claim, being made in the image of God.  None of us are valuable because of what we can do, or what we have.  We are valuable because we are children of God. This can be a difficult lesson, not only for others, but for ourselves as well. However, it is a lesson which we must continue to strive to learn, because it is only when we understand that our value or anyone’s value is in being children of God made in the image of God, that we will ever understand the value of ourselves or anyone else.

I almost gave up on someone, and I’m glad I didn’t

Under the bridge

From twbuckner on Flickr

Like many inner-city ministries, we often have people show up who are at various levels of intoxication.  We, as a rule, do not turn people away simply because they are drunk.  If people come to a worship service intoxicated, or show up to our Saturday morning breakfast program intoxicated, they are welcome to join us so long as they do not cause problems. We don’t encourage drinking, and we don’t encourage people to show up intoxicated.  However, it is difficult to minister to folks who are broken and hurting if you turn them away at the door.

I know a few people who have been alcoholics for most of their lives, and have been on the street for years.  One of these people is Steve (not his real name, of course).

Steve regularly comes to our Saturday morning program, and he often comes for worship on Sunday mornings.  Steve is involved with our church as well as a church a couple of blocks away.  Steve is one of those people that I assumed would live out the rest of his life on the street and in various degrees of intoxication.  I helped him get his photo ID after he was robbed, and I spend time and talk with him, minister to him, care for him and about him, but deep down, I have never really expected things to drastically change for him.

Today, however, I received a telephone call from the pastor at the other church with which he is involved (he brought me in because I am holding onto documentation for Steve that he needs). I was told that Steve had agreed to go into a Salvation Army treatment center for alcoholism.  This surprised me, particularly for someone who seemed so averse to treatment before.  I could almost hear the heavenly host singing about this news.

While this was wonderful news, it was also convicting news. I had all but given up hope that things would change for Steve.  In my mind, I sometimes gave up on trying to encourage Steve to change, and I kind of resigned myself to the fact that things will be what they are.  However, this was an important lesson for me on why we can never give up on people.  There is always more at work than we can see.

God never gave up on Steve.  We can’t give up on people, because God doesn’t give up on people.  Perhaps the most important thing that we can do is not to change people, but to commit to walking with people through their brokenness, always trusting that God is working in them even when we might not be able to readily see it.

Connection with God in the Midst of Concrete and Steel

I often hear people talk about how they feel close to God while in nature: a forest, meadow, lake, ocean.  It is in these areas that many people can often discern the fingerprints and footprints of God.  I can definitely relate to this, however, I have also learned to be able to encounter God in the midst of a big city.

While I walk through the streets of Milwaukee on a warm spring day, I see people everywhere.  I see rich people and poor people.  I see business people sitting next to homeless people at a bus stop.  I see young folks and old folks.  I see some folks running and others walking with a cane.  I see single people and couples.  I see people coming and going to work, people coming and going from restaurants and pubs, people coming and going from food pantries and mealsites.  It is in these moments of simply experiencing life that I can feel particularly close to God.

There are several perspectives through which to view and understand cities.  One can see it in simply utilitarian perspective: the ability to house people in close proximity to employment and conveniences.  One can see it as a necessary evil: people everywhere, slow-moving traffic, concrete and steel invasions as far as the eye can see, and thus something which is to be avoided as much as practical.  Another way to view a city is to see it as a unique eco-system which is to be experienced, understood, and appreciated.  I generally tend to view cities in the latter way.

God did not just create trees and oceans and lakes, God also created people and community.  God granted us the ability to build, to plant, and to create. God created us to live together in community.  A city is certainly not always the ideal of community, but there is no perfect ideal of community.

There are days when there is a certain electricity in the air, particularly when the weather is warm. I can hear the bells of the ice-cream carts being pushed down the sidewalk and Tejano music emanating from every direction.  I can hear children on the playground at the school just on the next block.  The ubiquitous smell of tacos is in the air. There is a certain life that transcends words, and which cannot be experienced in environments other than a city.

It is important that we do not idealize cities either. Cities are not perfect, there are plenty of challenges.  In Milwaukee, we face high rates of property crimes and we have had a few violent incidents the last few weeks in our neighborhood as well.  We also face high rates of crippling poverty and homelessness.  However, the soul of cities can be seen in its resilience, in the fact that in the midst of these dark and ugly places, there can be light and beauty. Despite these challenges and troubles, life continues.  Children continue going to school and to play with their friends.  Adults continue going to work, going to church, going to the store, and spending time with family and friends.  Laughter continues, so does love, and enjoyment.

For me, it is in the midst of this noisy, colorful, gritty city that I can feel particularly close to God as I can see not only the diversity of creation in the various plants and animals, but also in the diversity of people, families, neighborhoods. It is in this environment that I can understand my necessary and inherent connectedness to others as well as my connectedness to God.

Ministry is terrific…or is it terrible?

There is someone who would often ask me, “so how was work with God today?”  This was of course referring to the fact that I am a pastor and with the assumption that I get the ability to spend every day in some kind of special divine fellowship.  This is true insofar as we all, in some way, spend everyday in divine fellowship.  However, my experience being a pastor of a church, so far, is not a deeply spiritual experience which is always life giving. I find much of my time as a pastor to be an experience of suffering.

I often wonder if suffering is part of the calling to ministry, something that we did not often talk about in seminary.  I am often reminded of the biblical predecessors of ministers.  It is important for me to say at the outset, that I am not attempting to equate myself or other current pastors or ministers with any of these figures.  However, the following characters are the closest role to ministers.

Moses had a profound experience of pastoral burnout: Exodus 33:12-16.  In this passage, Moses had it with the Israelites and Moses tells God very clearly that if God doesn’t show up and take care of the people, that Moses and the Israelites are not going anywhere.  Moses told God that the Israelites were God’s people, and God better start acting like it.

Later, we can Elijah defeated and killed the false prophets of Baal and Jezebel sends a message to him that she is going to kill him.  Elijah becomes afraid and flees to the wilderness where he sits under a broom tree with the intent to die (1 Kings 19:1-10).  In fact, we can see that many of the biblical prophets were subjected to great suffering.  Ezekiel and Daniel were taken captive from the land that God had given them to a foreign land that worshiped foreign gods.  There was no other way to feel more distant from God than to be taken away from the promised land.

Jeremiah’s life was one long stream of horrible events.  Jeremiah obviously suffered.  If there is any doubt of this, chapter 20 puts this to rest.  Jeremiah uses very strong language in his lament:

“O Lord, you have enticed me,
and I was enticed;
you have overpowered me,
and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughing-stock all day long;
everyone mocks me” (v. 7, NRSV).

“Cursed be the day
on which I was born!
The day when my mother bore me,
let it not be blessed!
Cursed be the man
who brought the news to my father, saying,
‘A child is born to you, a son’,
making him very glad.
Let that man be like the cities
that the Lord overthrew without pity;
let him hear a cry in the morning
and an alarm at noon,
because he did not kill me in the womb;
so my mother would have been my grave,
and her womb for ever great.
Why did I come forth from the womb
to see toil and sorrow,
and spend my days in shame?” (vv. 14-18, NRSV)

Jeremiah spent much of his career proclaiming the destruction of Jerusalem, condemning them for their unfaithfulness.  Obviously, people did not like him for this, for who likes to hear doom, gloom, and destruction? He was mocked, ridiculed, abused, imprisoned, and left for dead, and he was subsequently rescued from death so that he could continue his career of delivering denunciations.

Even further, it is quite clear that going to Nineveh was the last thing that Jonah wanted to do, and the outcome of his time there was also not very pleasing to him.

I find it interesting that terrific and terrible, although used in very different ways and have very different connotations, actually mean close to the same thing, in fact, they are from the same root.  I realize that this is likely the result of a semantic shift, but I find it interesting that the meanings of these words, the way that they are popularly used, are often conflicting.  According to Merriam-Webster, Terrific can mean very bad, very good, or extraordinary.  Terrible can mean very bad, formidable, or great as in really big.

I think that ministry is a terrific, and terrible calling.  It is something that is extraordinary, it is something that can be good, but is can also seem to be very bad, additionally, it is also something very weighty.  At times, I wonder if I misinterpreted God’s call because I have so many challenges and sufferings, however, this need not be the case.  Many ministers that I know go through similar sufferings, many prophets and others in the Bible called to similar ministries were also people of suffering.  Perhaps suffering is not necessarily the symptom of disobeying God, but perhaps suffering can be also be a symptom of obeying God.

I think about the “dark night of the soul” that St. John of the Cross wrote about, and he wrote about it as a blinding light, which makes everything else look darker, and a person is, in a sense, blinded until the person can become accustomed to the brightness.  In the story of Paul’s conversion in the book of Acts, Paul (actually Saul at the time) witnessed the risen Jesus in a bright flashing light that temporary blinded him (9:3-9).

I find it interesting that amongst the prophets, almost no one responded to God’s call with excitement, and no one sought it out.  There is something terrible, and terrifying about God’s call.  A calling to ministry should be something that is acquiesced to, not sought after.  Often the only thing that keeps me going is that I feel like there is nothing else for me to do other than ministry.  People often ask me why I wanted to go into ministry.  This is, of course, the wrong question.  Rather than asking about my desire to be in ministry, the question should be why I felt as though I needed to go into ministry.  I never desired to go into ministry, I desired to be used by God however God would desire, and ministry is the way that I felt God leading me so that I could be used by God. There is life to be found in it, but it is not all, or even mostly life giving, and these are some of the sacrifices that we must give for the sake of the gospel.

My Un-Cool Church

I enjoy reading the blog of Rachel Held Evans (rachelheldevans.com), and I was particularly impacted by this post:  http://rachelheldevans.com/blessed-are-the-uncool

Her basic argument is that our churches should be the places where everyone is welcome, people who have a lot of money as well as people who live on the street, people who have physical or mental disabilities, and those who do not, those who are hip and those who are just a little bit “off”.  After all, every one of us are messed up in one way or another.

I pastor a church which is tremendously “un-cool”.  We are a church in the middle of a big city, but not a “center city church” but an “inner city church” which is in a low-income neighborhood where many people from elsewhere don’t want to visit.  Our building is an old Presbyterian church building which was built in 1931.  It’s not the cool kind of old building, it is the “old building” type of old building — the kind with tape holding the carpet together, and water damage on the walls.  We are a people who often wear second-hand clothes.  Not the “vintage shop” kind of second hand clothes, but the kind that are passed down and purchased from thrift stores.  Even my robe is second-hand (and missing a button).  Our church has an organ, and not the beautifully-restored-old-organ type of organ, but the type of organ where some buttons don’t work, and it takes a while for the pump to spin up to fill the bellows, and some of the pipes don’t sound quite right anymore. We are a liturgical church, but not the hip emergent ancient-future kind of liturgy, but the grassroots community involved kind of liturgy.

We have people that have homes and people that stay outside.  We have people with physical disabilities and people with developmental disabilities.  We also have people who, on the surface, seem to have everything together but have unseen challenges. We are a people who share two main things in common: First, we are all broken in one way or another, and second, we all equally need Jesus.

When I first arrived, my biggest concern was to “brand” the church, advertise a kind of “hipster grit” rather than “low-income grit”.  I wanted to draw in folks from the gentrified neighborhoods which surround the church.  In short, I wanted to make our church a “cool church”.  But there was a problem: we’re not a “cool church”.

We are an uncool church, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that!  We are a church that has problems, but every church has problems.  The difference with ours is that our problems are often visible.  We are a congregation that cares about one another in the best way that we’re able, we are a congregation who contributes in the ways that we know how.  We are a congregation that participates how we feel that we are able.  Some of us are empowered, some of us are not.  Some of us are committed Christians, others of us are only there because we serve lunch afterwards.  Some of us read the Bible every day, others of us barely know that there is an Old Testament and New Testament.  We are all in different places, but we are all companions together on the journey of faith.

The biggest problem with becoming a “cool church” is that it is quite possible that we would feel uncomfortable to our current congregation, and this is the highest form of tragedy.  Right now, if people are uncomfortable with us, it is because we may be too unrefined, too gritty, too broken.  If someone has a problem with that, it’s their problem.  But if we became the “cool church” and our congregation becomes uncomfortable with the change, it would likely because we would seem too refined, too exclusive, not friendly or welcoming.  This would be a problem with us.

You can say a lot of things about our church, but one thing that you cannot say is that we are not welcoming and friendly.  You cannot say that we don’t care about one another.  You can’t say that we don’t welcome everyone who walks through our doors.  So long as we strive for (and to some level attain) these things, we are headed in the right direction.  Once we become a place where people do not feel welcomed or loved, this is when we begin to lose sight of our purpose.

Some days, I think that I would like to be the pastor of a “cool church”, you know, the church that everyone is talking about because it is so neat, its music is so great, the space is so great, the one that has so many programs, and does cool things together.  But then I read my Bible and realize that this isn’t really what the church is called to be.  That would be a social club.  The church is called to be a community of broken people journeying together toward redemption.  If any feel excluded from such a church, it is no longer a church.