Tag Archives: Urban Ministry

Being faithful with my little

I often find myself frustrated. I have been given very little.  I have very little in terms of number of people in my congregation, very little in terms of my facilities, exceptionally little in terms of financial resources, and little in terms of other resources in my congregation and community.

I don’t want to have little, I want to have much. I want to have a resourceful congregation. I want to have a big and beautiful building that will make people want to stop in if nothing other than to see the facility. I want to have a church which has a large endowment so that I can have some sort of stability and that we can follow God’s leading without having to worry about from where the money for the electric bill will come. I want to have a community in which people want to live, and where people have jobs and some sort of stability.

I often find myself dissatisfied and think about moving on to somewhere else. This is one of the problems with our governance. I am not placed, I interview and accept a call, if offered. As such, it feels much like looking for secular employment. I decide where I want to apply to. I interview, if they like me, they will extend a call which I can decide whether or not to accept.  While these procedures do have to pass through the regional assemblies, in practice, the bulk of the processes reflect secular employment. I have no term of service, I was not obviously placed here by the church.

Because of this, I feel like I can sometimes just leave and go to greener pastures.  To those type of churches in which I always imagined I would pastor. However, this is not just dependent on me. I have to believe that God placed me where I am for a reason. I am a servant of the sanctuary, after all.

“‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much'” (Luke 16:10, NRSV).

This is a sobering verse.

A judgement, almost.

“Whoever is faithful in a very little…”

Perhaps it is not a mistake that I am here. Perhaps my desires have run rampant. Perhaps my desires for more, my desires for much are too much too soon. Perhaps I am not fit, at least right now, for much.

I find myself sometimes jealous of others who have much. This makes me want to search the parish openings, freshen up my profile, and try to move somewhere else with much.

Perhaps, however, I am not in the wrong place. Perhaps I am in precisely the right place. Perhaps what is wrong is my pining for more. Perhaps I desire more than I ought to. Perhaps I have little because that is all I can have now. Perhaps God is actually smarter than I, and knows that I am not yet ready for much. Perhaps I am being taught how to be faithful with little.

Please, O God, help me to be faithful with my very little, and banish my desire for much.

When it All Comes Together

Half-way through my sermon, I saw about one third of the congregation sleeping, another third appeared to be present in body only (somewhere else in mind), and the final third appeared to be engaged.

After the service, I was told that the bathroom was out of toilet paper. It was full before the service.  This, of course, means that someone stole our toilet paper, again.  We go through quite a bit of toilet paper and most of it gets stolen.  Financially it adds up, but the larger concern is the principle behind it, that people steal from their church, particularly when we try to give it to people when they ask.

All of this after I spoke about not stealing.

* * *

I don’t need continual ego-stroking, but I do like to know that my work and my efforts make an impact. So many times it does not appear that my work makes the slightest of difference and I’m stuck wondering why I even try.

As we were all leaving, one of the children of our congregation, a seven year-old girl, came up to me.

“Pastor, I made this for you.”

It was a picture and it had some writing on it. I held it in my hands and began to decipher the seven year-old handwriting.

She said to me, “It says ‘We love God, and God loves us.'”

I looked over at her and she smiled. I smiled back, and she gave me a hug.

She gets it, I thought, she gets it in her own seven year-old way.  This is the essence of what I speak of every week.  “We love God, and God loves us.”

I won’t ever know the full impact that our church has on people.  So I keep working, keep telling people about God’s love and grace and I will keep looking at that picture, “We love God, and God loves us.

Sometimes grace comes from the least expected places.

this building is a mess

Haartz-Mason

By WickedVT on Flickr

At 8:30pm standing over a flooding floor drain with a wet/dry vacuum trying to control the incessant water is not how I typically picture spending my one day off.

However, this is exactly how I spent four and one half hours of my day off: sucking up water, and emptying the bucket.

The only redeeming quality is that my beloved was with me.  She was able to share some of the burden with me, and she was also a wonderful companion to keep me company, to talk with, and to keep me from doing anything rash like filling the whole church basement with concrete and pretending that it never existed.

This was a problem which could happen to anyone, anywhere. It is not anyone’s fault, and there was really no better solution than just to try to keep it as dry as possible for as long as possible until we could call a plumber.

“It’s just that nothing is dependable,” she told me.  She didn’t have to say anything more, I knew to what she was referring.  Our church struggles financially, so there is no real sense of security there.  Our building is old with a lot of deferred maintenance, and so each day one never knows what surprises the building might be hiding and preparing to reveal.  Our community has a lot of challenges, and I never know what I will face when I get up any given morning.

I have found that I cannot depend on anything except to expect the unexpected.

Perhaps this is true of more things than just our church, though.

Perhaps this is a good lesson for me, someone who is always seeking to find security, dependability, and consistency.  Perhaps this is all one big object lesson to teach that seeking security and dependability in all of this is superfluous; after all, the only true dependability can be found in God.

After our discussion, I went back to the kitchen, turned on the utility vacuum, and continued sucking up water.

This old building is a mess, I thought.  Yes, it is a mess.  But so am I, and so are all of us, when it really comes down to it. Perhaps this is what I am reacting to so strongly and not simply the water.  Perhaps it is that in the fact that the building is filled with problems, and it serves as a mirror where I can see all of my own problems more clearly, without anything to cover them up or gloss over them.

Marginalia of a Past Life

Formerly, I had a habit of making notes in the books that I was reading. This was a way for me to reflect on what I had read and would allow me the opportunity, in a way, to engage in a conversation with the author. It was also a time at which I was young and arrogant enough to believe that I had something to say which was valuable enough to place next to the words of the author.

It is a practice which I abandoned when I came to a realization of my own mortality.

I noticed that my marginalia tracked my intellectual development, and I realized that one day I was going to die. My library would be split up and it would go to a variety of places, hopefully to someone who could use my books. I imagined that, in the course of reading one of my books, someone would come across a rather dull margin note, wonder who would write something so uninspired, turn to the front endpaper and see my name. Thus would be my legacy. So, I stopped making margin notes.

A couple of years ago, I even went through what I refer to as “the great purge,” when I went through many of my books and erased any margin notes that existed (as I only write in pencil). Some books, however, survived the great purge, some by oversight, others because I ran out of time. I was flipping through one of these books recently, and I came across a margin note that was, in its entirety, intact.

It was in Richard Lischer’s book Open Secrets. I read this book while in seminary at a time when I was quite confident I was never going to serve a local church. At the end of the book, the author left his church after nearly three years, this was my note (complete with all of the poor sentence structure):

Sometimes the most affirmation and gratitude comes at the end of a stay. God doesn’t always make everything pleasant, but God does work [in it]. We don’t always see the effects right away — but we have to trust that God works through us to change the lives of people. Even when we don’t see it at the time.

It was quite strange to read these words, written in my hand a few years ago, although the impact of the time has been great. I was a different person then. It was more than just a voice from the past, it was a voice from a past life.

I could almost picture myself, sitting in Holland, Michigan at my favorite coffee shop grasping a bright yellow mug which contrasted well with the black of the coffee that it contained. I typically looked out the window to a white church over a century old and built in gorgeous Greek revival architectural style. Wondering what my life would look like in a few short years, I wrote this note in a moment of seeming clarity and inspiration, hoping to hold onto this insight for the future.

I began to wonder what my past self would think of my present self. What would my hopeful past self think of my despairing present self? What would my faith-filled and idealist past self think of the cold-calculating rationality of my present self? What would the tender-heartedness of my past self think of the cynicism of my present self?

I wonder if my past self would be disappointed in the person that I am now, in the fact that although I am an urban pastor, I spend more time doing budgetary calculations and financial projections than I do telling people about Jesus, in the fact that I traded in my radical hope in the providence of God for planning the future solely based upon what I can see and “realistically expect,” or the fact that I have transformed from believing that communities could be transformed into this-worldly places of hope and peace to simply resigning to the idea that things which are will likely be until the parousia.

I wonder what happened to the “me” who could see through struggles to see that God was at work, who could see through difficult situations and see that God is in the process of transforming, who could see suffering and understand that it was just a trip through the wilderness, and that the wilderness does not last forever. I feel as though I do not even know that individual that wrote those words in the margin of that book.

Perhaps I can learn something from the margin-notes of a past life, perhaps I can reclaim that past self who felt so strongly called to ministry, who wept when he would reflect on the church as the body of Christ. Perhaps I can find something of that past self that could see the spark of God within each person and tempered the doctrine of total depravity with the fact that the Holy Spirit is continually sanctifying us. Perhaps I can reclaim something of that past self that wanted nothing more than to serve the church even though he didn’t know where exactly that would take him.

Perhaps this was a gift, that a few books unintentionally survived the great purge. Perhaps my present self can learn something from my past self and shed this jaded cynicism and return to a faithful hope than in God anything and everything is possible, and that God is always forming and transforming things for the better.

Is This What it is Like?

Journey Through Time Scenic Byway 30

By Timothy Bishop on Flickr (cc)

I spent about two and a half hours yesterday over a sausage and pepperoni pizza and a steaming cup of black coffee. I was with another pastor. I, just finishing my first year as a pastor and he, coming into his last year as a pastor. I was able to express some of my pains and some of my uncertainties to this wise and seasoned pastor, and to my surprise, this wise and seasoned pastor also expressed some of his own uncertainties as well.

When I was finishing seminary, I was daunted by the fact that following seminary, I was supposed to be able to pastor a church. When I arrived here to my first charge, I immediately became overwhelmed with the enormity of the task at hand. I felt grossly unprepared for what I was entering into, and the challenges that I have faced and continue to face confirm this. It has been my hope that after I would make a some mistakes and stumble around a bit, I would have the ministry thing down so that I could be effective for the future.

It has become increasing evident, however, that ministry is a journey and not a goal.

This is, of course, where I am supposed to reflect on why the journey is so wonderful, and greatly overshadows the destination. Too bad I’m not very good at doing what I’m supposed to do.

I don’t particularly like journeys, I like destinations. I don’t like taking road trips, I like being other places; I don’t like learning new things, I like knowing new things; I don’t like preparing for things, I like doing things. When I was a child, I remember going to the last couple of pages of the Bible because I wanted to know how it ended. When I was in school I was notorious for skipping several chapters in a book so that I could just get to the ending. When I interview with churches they are interested in how accomplished I am, how effective I am, in what I am able to do. Churches are not as interested in my journey of being a pastor, they are interested in what I can do as a pastor.

This is one of the visible disconnects between how things are, and how things ought to be. We ought to be valued because we are children of God, instead we are valued insofar as we can create something of value. We ought to be able to give focus to the journey, to the process of becoming and how God is shaping us, instead many of us (myself included) spend most of our time planning for our future several years down the road. I ought to be interested in development and the process, instead I simply want to do.

And then seasoned pastors say things to me that begin with, “I can’t give you an answer, but…” or “It is difficult…” or “I also struggle with…”

I pulled off a piece of sausage off of my pizza as I thought about all of what we were discussing. I became frustrated as I came to the realization of what my future would actually look like.

“Is this what ministry is all about?” I asked.

Things are never going to get better, I thought to myself, and I felt an immense weight on my spirit.

The two of us sat quiet for a few moments and I looked at the oils at the surface of my coffee. I took a drink and I realized that coffee is a bit bitter — and that slight bitterness is one of the things that I appreciate so much about it. I do not add sugar or cream to coffee, I prefer it unsweetened. Perhaps there is something to learn from this. Perhaps ministry will remain bitter, but perhaps in that bitterness, there is something which can be appreciated and life-giving.

…God First Loved Us

Baptismal Font

By brandsvig on Flickr

I had the privilege of administering my first baptism yesterday.  It was an infant who was recently born of one of the families in our congregation.

It was a wonderful celebration of the sacrament of baptism.  The liturgy is beautiful, the child was adorable and dressed in this lovely white dress.  She fussed a little bit but it was not like the weeping and gnashing of teeth that sometimes occurs.  As a fellow pastor friend of mine once told me, “If the baby doesn’t cry you’re not doing it right.”  Which refers, of course, to the fact that in baptism we symbolically die with Christ, and as such, there should be at least a little bit of fussing.

The moment was a wonderful celebration of God’s grace, and God’s love for us even when we cannot yet love.  There is a portion of the liturgy when the minister speaks directly to the person to be baptized immediately preceding the administration of baptism with the Trinitarian formula.  In the case of an infant, it reads like this:

[Name],
For you Jesus came into the world;
For you he died and for you he conquered death;
all this he did for you, little one,
though you know nothing of it as yet.
We love because God first loved us.

We love because God first loved us.  That is, of course, quote from 1 John 4:19.  This is also where the theology behind infant baptism all comes together.  I cannot find a better defense of infant baptism than this.  After these words were spoken, and I dipped my hand into the water, I felt as though we were all in the very presence of God.  I wish that we could have stayed in that holy moment forever.

However, that moment did not last.  Shortly after the service, the sinfulness that pollutes the world reared its ugly head.  Divisions, anger, self-centeredness and greed invaded the aftermath of this holy moment. It had been a very difficult couple days leading up to that day, and I felt as though I was delivered from the inferno to the very presence of God and then immediately dragged back to the inferno.  I quipped to my wife after we returned home that this experience is what Dante saw in his vision when writing the Inferno.

We love because God first loved us.

Perhaps, however, this was somehow a gift, it is an example of life in this world.  Our world is grossly imperfect, polluted by sin and evil.  Much of life is filled with trials and sufferings, but these are always punctuated by moments of heaven.

We baptize infants not because they are perfect, not because they are faithful Christians, not even because they are good.  We baptize infants because God first loved us, and therefore we are able to love God because God loves us first, and we are able to love others because God loves us first.

We love because God first loved us.

Perhaps it is fitting to experience both the heights of the experience of God’s grace and the depths of depravity.  This is, after all, what we experience in this life.  We have experiences when love is easy, when we feel loved.  We also have experiences in which love is difficult, and we have to love in spite of the fact that all we may receive is hate, anger, and bitterness.  We do not love because the other is nice, or because they are even deserving of our love.  We love because God loved us first — God loved us despite of our anger and bitterness and hate, and God requires that we treat others in the same way.

I wonder what that child thought of all that was going on.  I do know that she rubbed her forehead onto my shirt to dry it during the prayer after the baptism.  I’m sure she had no idea what was happening, and I am certain that she has no idea what the future holds for her.  I do know, however, that God’s grace is not ultimately dependent on what we can understand with our minds, but God’s grace is stronger than all of our weaknesses.  My ability to love people is often times weak, and I continue to hope and pray that God’s grace will not only transform the life of that child as she grows, but also transform my life as I am still in the process of becoming a Christian and learning how to truly love.

We love because God first loved us.

Earnestly Praying for Peace

Dove of peace

By Mafleen on Flickr

“Pray for peace.”  This is a common thing to say.  I pray for peace.  Mostly, however, I’ve prayed for the idea of peace, I’ve never had to actually earnestly pray for peace before.  The Milwaukee area is still on edge from the massacre at the Sikh temple in one of the south suburbs.  We have not yet begun to recover from this, and just this week, we had seven shootings in 24 hours in the City of Milwaukee.  One of these shootings was three blocks from the church — the same place where a shooting occurred less than a month ago.

Where is God in the midst of all this violence?

There are multitudes of people pointing out what is wrong with our neighborhood.  There are plenty of people who are too afraid to come to our neighborhood.  People in our community are nervous about spending time out and about.  Whenever people have the means to move out of the neighborhood, they usually do.

We need peace.

We don’t just need for the violence to end, we actually need peace.  Peace is not just the absence of violence, it is the presence of wholeness.  It is the presence of love, it is the presence of community.  It is the ability to live with other humans in the way that God intended.

We need more than just safety.  We need a wholeness in our community, we need for people to care about one another, we need true peacemakers.  Come, Lord Jesus.

Grant us peace, O God. Make our community whole, and transform us so that we can live into the way that you desire us to be. Amen.

That Which Gives Us Value

1 005

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.