Setting a Higher Standard

Another home run ruin for law enforcement in central New York.

Earlier today, I posted an article on Facebook about an off-duty state trooper who was caught breaking into a house in Utica.  Miraculously, this individual was not arrested, although caught red-handed on the scene by Utica Police.

Read WKTV’s report on the incident here.

Tonight, I came across another sparkling gem, courtesy of the Utica Phoenix:

Read the Phoenix article here.

I’m not even including the many incidents that took place while I was working as a counselor at the Addiction Crisis Center and a Community Chaplain in the neighborhood where this second incident took place.  Some of these events I witnessed personally, others were reported to me by my clients.

I respect the difficult job that law enforcement officers have.  However, our bravest and finest have a responsibility to conduct themselves with a degree of integrity and professionalism appropriate to the power with which they have been invested.

To my neighbors in the Utica Police Department:

You can do better than this.  You must.

Internet Heretic Superstar Makes Headlines Again

I’m in the news again (and not in the Most Wanted section).  I had a lovely conversation with Cassaundra Baber from the Utica Observer-Dispatch the other day.  We talked about Christmas and secularization.  The article comes out today.  The only problem is that she told everybody my first name.  Only my mother gets to call me that…

Here’s the link:

Seriously, please watch this video.

“I’ve been looking for a Savior in these dirty streets…”

This lyric from Tori Amos has been the tagline for this blog since I started it last year.  It describes what I’m trying to do in my off-beat approach to ministry.  I want to go out there in the world and discover Jesus alive in the people around me.

Today, I caught a sighting of him.

Jesus shows up several times in this video footage from ABC News.  See if you can spot him:

Matthew 25:31-40:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Taking to the Streets

…or the halls of the US Senate, as it were.

We at St. James Mission have been in a time of tremendous transition as we figure out what it means to be an autonomous outreach ministry in our own right.  It’s been amazing to see other people stepping into positions of leadership and being empowered by the Spirit in finding their own voices.

We don’t totally know (yet) what this new phase of ministry will look like, but we keep getting these hints.  Recently, Annie Wadsworth Grove (our Director of Music) was invited to speak before a group of senators in Washington on the topic of Social Security.  She was there to offer a small business owner’s perspective.  She and her husband, Matt, run the Bagel Grove (home to Utica’s finest semitic pastries).

Unfortunately, CNN didn’t decide to broadcast her portion of the presentation, but you can see Annie quite clearly on the left hand side of the screen as Harry Reid and Al Franken talk.

Click here to see the video

Pride Fest 2010 and its aftermath

Claire Buffie, Miss New York 2010, speaking at the interfaith spiritual celebration where I led worship. Image by Nicole Cvetnic of the Utica OD.

Another Pride Fest has come and gone in our community.  Turnout was lower this year, but I think this is due to the fact that the Utica Music & Arts Festival was also going on, along with the final bout of Roller Derby season.

There was an article about our interfaith worship service in yesterday’s Observer-Dispatch.  You can read it by clicking here or on the picture.

The Comments on the article are also worth reading.  For those who have neither the time nor the desire to read the whole thing, here is my contribution to the discussion, which I think sums up some of my better thinking on the subject:

Greetings all!

I am the pastor who sang and played guitar at the celebration on Sunday afternoon. I am an evangelical, Bible-believing Christian who tries his best (but often fails) in following Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.

When I was a seminary student, I really felt the Holy Spirit challenging me through the text of Scripture and my relationships with LGBT friends to re-evaluate my beliefs about homosexuality. It was a long and difficult process that involved a lot of serious thinking and praying. I don’t claim to have the one and only true interpretation of the Bible, but I can tell you where my convictions landed me:

I believe we are all embraced by the big, big arms of a big, big God who loves us, even though we are all sinners and fall far short of the glory intended for us. I know that Jesus proclaimed that love in his words and his deeds on this earth. I think the Holy Spirit calls us to do the same through our words and deeds.

As a follower of Christ, I believe that my life will be judged based on how well I conform to that impossible standard of perfect love. I know that I will fail miserably in that task and will have no choice but to ask my Judge/Savior for mercy. I do not think that my Jesus will condemn me to hell for placing too much faith in his love.

That’s why I’m going out on a limb and questioning some of the assumptions that some of my fellow Christians have made about our Bible and our God. I am inclined to disagree with my dear friend Dennis Dewey when he preached that some parts of the Bible are ‘out-dated’. I believe that all Scripture is divinely inspired and given to us as a lamp unto our feet and a light for our path. However, our interpretations of Scripture are always flawed and finite. I think it is quite possible that God’s word to us on this subject may not be what we think it is.

As we search for these tough answers together, let us always remember that, wherever else our convictions and interpretations may lead us, our first calling is to love others as Christ loves us.

I leave you with these lyrics from the Presbyterian Hymnal (#298):

‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, Like the wideness of the sea; There’s a kindness in God’s justice, Which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows Are more felt than up in heaven; There is no place where earth’s failings Have such kindly judgment given.
For the love of God is broader Than the measures of the mind; And the heart of the Eternal Is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful, We would gladly trust God’s Word; And our lives reflect thanksgiving For the goodness of our Lord.’

Utica Mosque Gets National Attention

It’s not often that Utica gets such positive press on a national scale.  I am blown away that our city can serve as a moral example to the rest of the country at this moment.  This doesn’t happen often, so I’m cherishing the opportunity while it’s here!

Read the article in the NY Times:

See also my earlier post with a link to a similar article in our local paper:

Learning How To See

This sermon was preached this morning at First Presbyterian Church in Rome, NY.  The text is Luke 12:49-56.

For those who would rather listen than read, you can hear a recording of the sermon by clicking here.

Earlier this week, I received a life-lesson in waiting for the voice of the Holy Spirit.  The time came for me to submit this week’s bulletin materials to Kari, your church secretary, and I decided to go ahead and give my sermon a title (even though it had not yet been written).  I thought I might focus on Jesus’ statement about bringing “fire to the earth” and explore the ways that Jesus might be “kindling a fire” in our hearts.  But on the day after I submitted the bulletin, my point of view on this week’s gospel text was drastically altered during our Thursday evening Bible study at St. James Mission in Utica.

My paradigm shift came from comments offered by a new visitor to our group.  He is a young father in his early thirties who is currently going blind.  He claims that, as his eyesight has diminished over the last year, he has developed an ability to intuitively sense when he is in an unsafe part of town.  While there may be no way for us to scientifically test whether he actually has this sixth sense, let’s take him at his word, for the sake of argument.  What this means is that this gentleman has been learning how to see in a new way.

Our visitor told this story in response to the last part of today’s reading, where Jesus asks, “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”  Our friend commented that the people in this story were like he once was: blind to the reality of the world around him.  Ironically, it is as he loses his sight that he gains insight.

Jesus’ question to the people comes in the context of a larger discussion that happens in Luke 12.  This discussion is prompted by someone who comes to Jesus, asking him to resolve a dispute between family members over an inheritance.  Jesus declines to get involved in the conflict and engages instead on a lengthy teaching about the spiritual dangers of greed and anxiety.  He invites people to live by a different set of beliefs and values than those embraced by society-at-large.  In the portion of the discussion we are reading today, Jesus warns his followers that living by this different set of beliefs and values will inevitably put them at odds with the world around them.

Jesus further challenges the crowd to take a closer look at their lives.  All the fuss about money and property rights; does it really lead to better quality of life?  Is it really worthwhile to get caught up in playing society’s games?  As for the man who was fighting with his brother over their inheritance, Jesus encouraged him to go and try to reconcile with his brother outside of court.  After all, what’s more important: the inheritance money or their family relationship?

If we were to take an honest look at today’s world, I think it would be fair to say that ours is no less driven by the powers of greed and anxiety.  The teachings of Jesus present us with a way of living that still puts us at odds with society’s beliefs and values.  We, no less than Jesus’ original followers, face the daily temptation to buy into society’s illusions about what will bring us true security and happiness.  And, like those first followers, Jesus is continually inviting us to take a closer look at the world around us, so that we might become more faithful followers of the way of Christ.

One way that we can take a closer look at our world (or “interpret the present time”, as Jesus put it in today’s reading) is by looking at the world through the eyes of another person.  This is a large part of our ministry at St. James Mission.  Allow me to give you an example:  There are relatively few homeless shelters in the state of New York between the cities of Albany and Syracuse.  One day, as I was sitting outside a coffee shop here in Rome, I asked a passing police officer about homelessness in central New York.  He told me that we are “blessed to not have that problem here.”  At first glance, it would be easy to agree with this officer’s assessment.  After all, I am rarely approached by panhandlers in Rome and Utica.  I don’t often see people sleeping on park benches or huddled inside cardboard boxes (a common sight in other cities).  Could it be that we are immune to the effects of this perennial urban problem?

The answer came for me as I have walked with multiple people as they transition from one place to another.  St. James Mission started our Community Chaplaincy program a year and a half ago in the neighborhood surrounding the Olbiston Apartments on Genesee Street.  Those who know Utica are probably familiar with this large red-stone building at the corner of Genesee and Clinton.  Most of our ministry contacts were located in that immediate neighborhood.  As relationships have developed, every single one of the people I met there has moved elsewhere.  I have helped individuals find new housing and fill out applications for assistance.  What I have discovered is that many of these people have been moving house every three to six months for years on end.  Sometimes they travel into and out of inpatient treatment programs.  Sometimes they stack up eviction after eviction, each time stepping down the ladder toward more dilapidated housing.  Some people go “couch-surfing” or staying informally with a series of friends for extended periods of time.  While these urban nomads always manage to have some kind of roof over their heads, they are still ultimately homeless.

Homelessness is a very real problem here in the Mohawk Valley, but it remains a hidden problem as long as the general public is unaware of the particular form it takes in our area.  I am learning the truth of this reality from those brave men and women who are willing to share their lives with me as their pastor.  To me, they are God’s messengers who help me “interpret the present time” and pay attention to the world around me.  Never again can I buy into the illusion that the Mohawk Valley has no homeless people.

Ministries such as Emmaus House, Hope House, JCTOD, and the Rescue Missions are working tirelessly to address this problem.  Through our Community Chaplaincy, we at St. James Mission are joining the effort by offering free services of referral, advocacy, and spiritual care to people on the street in Utica.  Any of these ministries would be worthy of your support.  Consider giving, not only with your prayers and wallets, but with your volunteer time and presence as well.  Get involved and look at the world through the eyes of someone who is different from you.  This is part of what it means to “interpret the present time”.

There are many other ways in which God is teaching us how to see.  Earlier in this passage, Jesus talks about reading the signs set forth by the clouds and the wind.  I couldn’t help but think of this as I was driving home from our Bible study on Thursday.  There was a most magnificent sunset on the horizon.  With me in the car was another one of our regular participants who lives in Rome.  We drove west on Route 49 describing the shapes we saw in the brilliant orange and purple clouds.  At one point, he said to me, “I think of clouds as art.”  I think he was absolutely right.  When we look at our world, do we see a random collection of atoms and chemical reactions?  Or is there something deeper that lends meaning to this universe?  To be fair, Jesus wasn’t exactly speaking about the revelation of God in nature when he spoke about the clouds and the wind in this passage, but there are certainly other passages in the Bible that do point in that direction.  One of my personal favorites is Psalm 19:

“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.  Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.  There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”

As we drove along toward home, praying grateful prayers for those natural fireworks, I believe I could hear the voice of the heavens telling the glory of God.

If I were to give this sermon a new title, it would be Learning How To See, because Jesus is in the business of teaching us how to see.  He teaches us to take an honest look at our world and the empty illusions it holds.  He challenges us to look past the surface of our lives and face reality, so that we might learn what makes for true peace and prosperity.

I’ll close with these words from a song by Bruce Cockburn:

“Little round planet in a big universe:

Sometimes it looks blessed, sometimes it looks cursed.

Depends on what you look at, obviously.

But, even more, it depends on the way that you see.”

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, we confess that we, in our spiritual blindness, are unable to see our lives and our world clearly; we need your Holy Spirit to kindle a fire in our hearts, so that we might see you and serve you in every person we meet and every situation we encounter; we ask this for the glory of your most holy name.  Amen.

Pitching Tent

I’ve been reading Blue Collar Resistance by Tex Sample and I really click with his notion of “pitching tent” among the people with whom one does ministry.  Theologically, the idea stems from John 1:14, which reads as follows: “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (NRSV).  The Greek word translated here as “lived” is skenoo, which literally means “to pitch one’s tent”.  I like Eugene Peterson’s rendering in The Message: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”

Whether one is pitching a tent or moving into the neighborhood, the connotation is the same: Jesus shows up where people “do life”.  Christ meets his disciples in the midst of their daily work: mending fishnets and gathering water.  His parables of God’s kingdom were inspired by the most mundane activities: planting seeds and baking bread.  None of these events are thought of as explicitly “spiritual” activities, yet they seem to be Jesus’ preferred settings for encountering people.

I must admit that I sometimes struggle with my sense of call as a pastor on the street.  I sometimes feel like an amateur social worker.  Yesterday morning, I helped one guy make flyers and post them around town.  In the afternoon, I sat at a cafe with someone and helped him fill out applications for new housing.  Neither of these activities seems very “pastoral” at first glance.

We don’t always talk about the Bible or Christianity.  Does that mean our time together is spiritually empty?  I can’t bring myself to believe that it does.  When I look at these growing relationships, I can see God’s hand at work in our ministry.  Making flyers and filling out applications are part of “doing life” with people in the margins of society.  Following in Jesus’ footsteps, I am trying to pitch my tent with people who have no other pastoral connection.  As an act of spiritual solidarity, I have to believe that counts for something.


Sidewalk Chalk Flood 2009, another Rob Bliss Urban Experiment in downtown Grand Rapids

I walked by the Agape Center on Genesee Street today, where the kids have decorated every square inch of sidewalk on the block with chalk.  The way the colors are jumbled together makes the sidewalk look like a chaotic rainbow.

As one might expect, there are various images depicting a combination of real-life scenes and abstract symbols.  One can see crosses, houses, flowers, even a shark!  Some have messages written on them (“Room 8 Rocks!”) while others let the images speak for themselves.  The collective effect is that one stretch of concrete along Genesee Street outside the old St. Francis de Sales School is now radiant with the glory of creative outburst.

The scene reminds me of the story of the Transfiguration, where Christ ascends Mt. Tabor with his disciples and temporarily radiates the brilliance that resides within him.  For just a moment, ordinary flesh and clothing were, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “charged with the grandeur of God”.

But this brilliant dust is sure to be washed away by some combination of footsteps and rain and we, like the disciples who had to walk back down the mountain to the harsh reality of their ministry, must find a way to draw strength from the gift of this moment.

As I was admiring our freshly transfigured sidewalk, I was approached by a woman who had been one of my clients at the Addiction Crisis Center.  Since finishing that program, she has continued in her recovery and now works for another service organization, helping others who now sit where she sat only a few years ago.  Brighter than the dust beneath our feet, which is soon to disappear, her sober life shines on as an ongoing transfiguration, reflecting the eternal glory that surrounds us always, even if we can only see it for a moment.