Recognizing the Time of Visitation

Easter began with an explosion of beautiful, spring weather in central New York.  I can understand how someone might want to come back from the dead for this.  Needless to say, these meteorological phenomena have me itching to spend more time with my friends on the street.

As always, our ministry at St. James Mission is bizarre enough to evade all attempts at codification and programming.  The streets have become my school of the Spirit as I try to listen for what God is doing in the marginal spaces of our community.

As always, God is doing some strange and funny new things.

As I was going to bed on Palm Sunday, I had one of those moments where the Holy Spirit walks up and smacks you in the face with a sack full of reality.  The gospel text from the Daily Lectionary was Luke 19:41-48.  Jesus stood weeping over the city of Jerusalem, prophesying that they would be crushed by enemies “because [they] did not recognize the time of [their] visitation from God.”

Even though this sounds pretty harsh (and it is), it got me thinking about the “unrecognized” ways that God might be “visiting” me.  I prayed that my eyes would be opened so that I might “recognize on this day the things that make for shalom“, as Jesus said.

Immediately, I thought of this one guy who has been annoying me for months.  Somehow, he obtained my home phone number and would call several times a day to talk my ear off about nothing-in-particular for as long as I would let him.  It had reached the point that I would groan anytime his number came up on Caller ID.  Sometimes, I wouldn’t even pick up the phone.  How hypocritical of me to prattle on like I do about solidarity with the poor and relational ministry while simultaneously refusing to engage with the one guy from the street who wants nothing more than to establish a relationship!

Even though this guy has no interest in coming to church (he says it cuts into his “prime beer-drinking time”), he goes out of his way to introduce me to his friends who could use a pastor.  Even though he doesn’t like to talk about God or spirituality, he listens intently whenever his schizophrenic roommate corners me with this week’s pressing questions regarding theological minutiae.  Even though he doesn’t approve of the fact that I hang around with “scumbags”, he took me to a crack house to meet his friend who needed help getting a cat neutered.

When his dog Teddy underwent a serious medical procedure last month, he asked me to lay hands on the dog and pray for healing.

I was invited to a barbeque at his house on Good Friday.  I got to meet his neo-Nazi friend, who has swastika tattoos on his arms.  We shared pictures of our kids, who are about the same age.

This guy is one of those relational magnets who turns his home into a house of hospitality for the very “scumbags” he claims to despise.  He claims no interest in God, yet asks his friend the priest to stop by as much as I can during the week.  When I do, he feeds me chicken wings and cheeseburgers.

It’s amazing just how much my perspective on this relationship has changed during Holy Week.  The Holy Spirit has opened my eyes to see this same relationship in a new light.  As I continue to build relationships on the street this year, I have a sense that this guy will be one of those nexus points where God chooses to gather people.  It makes me think of Levi the tax collector.  His house was full of friends when Jesus showed up to party.  This guy’s house is the same.

Whenever I’m on the street now, I make sure to stop by his house.  When the phone rings and I see that it’s his number, I’m glad to pick up.  In fact, he just called as I was writing this post…

“Recognize on this day the things that make for shalom.”

“Recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

You Always Have the Poor With You

Since I have been on vacation this week, I was not present at our Thursday night Bible study as usual.  Because of this, my musings on this week’s gospel text are my own, and not enriched by the insights of our community at St. James Mission.

Our text this week is taken from John 12:1-8.

First of all, you should know that I love my job as Community Chaplain.  Even though the position does not (yet) come with a paycheck, it has its own dividends that cannot be quantified.  However, even in the best of jobs, there comes a time when one could use a vacation.

For the past few weeks, I’ve noticed that my capacity for Rogerian “unconditional positive regard” has been stretched to its limit.  At times, I have abandoned my usual non-directive stance in favor of speaking my mind.  One case that stands out concerns a friend who expressed a desire to enter rehab and then refused to go after I made the referral and followed up with him every day for a week.  Instead of letting it go, I gave him the cursory lecture on how alcoholism at his stage is fatal if left untreated.  Maybe it was tough love, maybe it was me giving voice to my own frustration.  Either way, I think I heard Carl Rogers spinning in his grave just then.

“You always have the poor with you”.  These words of Christ have stuck in my mind all week.  I hate how often they are used by Christians who want to excuse themselves from working for social justice.  Nevertheless, I felt the power of these words in a new way as I slammed up against the walls and limitations of my own finite love.

My friends Adria and Bob like to remind me that ministry in the margins cannot be based on the never-ending chasm of need that opens up before me.  If my success depends on someone else’s ability to change, I’m going to be a very unhappy person.  One day at a time, I am learning how to measure my success by my faithfulness to the one who has called me to love and serve the “least of these” in his name.  Contrary to the opinion of some Christians, this awareness does not excuse me from engaging with the poor.  Instead, it puts the fight against poverty and injustice into perspective.  We are not called to care for the poor in order to make a perfect society.  Neither are we called to admire them for their nobility.  We are called to love the poor because they are Christ.

As I head back into my regular routine this week, I pray for the eyes of my heart to be opened, that I might see my Savior in these dirty streets.  I pray that, like Mary of Bethany, my offering would reach beyond the social problems that surround me and touch the sacred heart of Christ.  To be clear, I fully intend to stay engaged with those who dwell in the margins of our society.  Indeed, I can do no other, since the one who said, “You always have the poor with you,” has also said, “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.”  But what I want is for my engagement in the margins to be a means through which I see Jesus more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly, day by day.

The Other Side of the Counter

Yesterday, I had an interesting encounter at the County Office Building.  A friend was in danger of losing his public assistance check and needed to speak with someone in the welfare office.  I offered to keep him company.

Even though I’ve been in and out of the building for years, this was my first time accompanying someone as they walked through the process.  After obtaining paperwork from the Social Security Office in the morning, he went to the County Building at noon.  After taking a number, he was asked to sit until he was called up.  So he sat there for the next two hours.  I brought coffee and bagels to pass the time.  We joked and chatted for a while.

The room was packed wall to wall with people needing help.  Conversations were periodically interrupted by an unnervingly calm recording saying, “Ticket number 247, please proceed to window 3.”

When my friend was finally called up to the counter, he spoke with the attendant for about two minutes and was sent back to sit down.  We waited for another hour.  It was now three o’clock.

“Maybe they won’t get to me today,” he said.

“What happens then,” I asked, “will they give you an appointment for tomorrow?”

“No,” he said, “I just come back and do it all over again.”

I wish there was something I could have done to expedite the process, but all I could do was sit and keep company.  Being poor is a full-time job for most folks.

People around the room kept shooting me sideways glances as we waited.  I think it must have been disconcerting for them to see a member of the clergy in the holding pen waiting room.  I suppose people don’t think of the County Building as a place where clergy (or God) are keen to hang out.  If anything, most of them would think of God as working behind the counter.  From their perspective, God is the one who holds all the resources and has the power to dole them out.  If you’re willing to jump through the hoops, God will help you out.  But if you don’t play by the rules, you’re screwed.

I couldn’t stop thinking that God is nothing like the county office.  But people in the waiting room don’t know that.  They think that God is like that stoic employee who finally saw us for five minutes after waiting all day.  They think God is too busy to make conversation or ask how the kids are doing.  They think God just wants to look at the facts, to see if they meet the criteria, and then decide whether or not they deserve to be helped.

I believe that if God worked in the County Building, people would be welcome to hop over the guard rails and kick back in the office for as long as they needed to stay out of the cold.  God would want to hear the lame excuses, the sob-stories, and the never-ending drama.  God would bend the rules and grease the wheels for those who hurt the most.

Peter Maurin said he wanted to make a society in which it was easier for people to be good.  I would settle for a society in which it was easier for people to see God on the other side of the counter.

Showing Up

Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”

As I move into my third year of ordained ministry on the outskirts of reality, I’m beginning to believe him.  That being said, there’s still this part of me that wants to walk into every crisis with brilliant theological answers and practical solutions that will make life easier.

Henri Nouwen described this inner urge as the temptation to be relevant. Spiritual caregivers sometimes get to feeling insecure about their sense of call, so they try to make themselves look useful by becoming pop psychologists and amateur social workers.  This is dangerous, according to Nouwen, because it takes us away from the task of being fully present with someone.  We can’t authentically connect with others in a meaningful way if we’re too busy covering for our own insecurities.

This task is both easier and harder for me, given the particular milieu in which I am called to minister.  It’s harder because the experimental nature of the ministry I do and the visible neediness of people on the street make me want to justify my presence in some way.  On the other hand, it’s easier because all my fancy theological footwork is utterly lost on someone who quotes Bible verses that don’t exist and reads poetry off a blank piece of paper.  As for my brilliant practical solutions, more often than not they’re like plugging up a leaky dam with your finger.  It won’t matter one bit when the entire structure eventually gives way.

In the end, it’s one’s physical and spiritual presence that counts.  I may offer a ride or some kind of assistance.  Our conversation may turn toward the Bible or spirituality.  But the real ministry is accomplished by showing up.  Being present in the darkest corners of the community sends a message that God has not in fact forsaken us.  God is right here in our midst.  God is listening to our drunken rambling.  God is receiving our gift of books found in a dumpster.  God is chatting about last night’s football game by the fireplace.  God is learning how to play craps on the kitchen counter.

These friends have been the sacramental presence of Christ to me; now I get to return the favor.  In the end, that is my only real raison d’être on the street.  The only real fruit of this ministry is that which grows naturally off the vine of these relationships.

After hanging around the neighborhood for a year, someone told me today, “Even though I left God, I can see now that God never left me.”

I guess I’ll keep showing up.

Paper Armor

One of the most impressive things about our society is the efficiency with which we armor ourselves from one another.  Yesterday, I had a run-in with an SUV at an intersection in Utica.  Thankfully, no one was injured.  What’s even more remarkable is that when we got out to inspect our vehicles, neither of us could find any damage on our cars.  On this occasion, efficient armor was most welcome.

Later in the day, I encountered another kind of armor for which I was not so glad.  A disabled veteran informed me that his social security check had not arrived since December.  His shoes had worn through so that his feet were getting soaked as he limped through the snow, but there was no money in his account for new shoes.  After some bureaucratic wrestling, it was determined that the checks were being sent to his previous address.  His previous caseworker had quit and paperwork had been lost in the shuffle.  The error has been corrected, but he still won’t be able to get money for shoes until Tuesday.  I hope the weather warms up this weekend.

Later still, an elderly woman showed me a letter she received from an insurance company.  She was in the hospital last month and the company just now decided that her visit would not be covered.  The letter was so full of jargon that neither of us could understand it.  We had to call someone in North Carolina to serve as interpreter.

Our healthcare and social service systems seem to be designed to isolate the rest of humanity from the suffering of the weak.  Whether the system is privatized or government-run, red tape will still protect the person holding the checkbook from the person who needs help.  Their paper armor is thin but impenetrable.

I could pontificate about bureaucracy all day, but if I’m truly honest with myself, then I have to admit that I share the desire to run and hide from the suffering of others.  I sat with someone today whose perspective on reality is all but lost in a fog of alcohol and insanity.  I try to listen attentively, but it’s getting harder and harder to understand.  The better part of me wants to believe that I can still be an effective pastor.  The rest of me wants to dump him in rehab and come back when he’s sober.

Sometimes, I think it would be so much easier to recite a biblical passage and then be on my way.  Who knows?  I still might do it.  There’s something to be said for the pastoral rites of the church, but they’re not meant to be used as cop-outs.  What I want to resist in myself is the desire to put on my own paper armor: whether it’s a bureaucratic form, a liturgical service, or a biblical passage.  I want to stay engaged with the real suffering of those who live in the darkest corners of this community.

What I need is for the love of the Suffering Servant, who “has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases”, to flow through me in fresh ways.   His love gave him the strength to stand in solidarity with outcasts, to touch lepers, and to do all that without hiding behind the paper armor of bureaucratic systems.

Maranatha.