Among the Homeless a Community of Grace

Homeless w-BibleA community of grace appears, Brigadoon-like, at Zion’s church each evening.

Since April 4 we have opened our Fellowship Hall every night to provide a safe, warm, dry place to sleep for the men and women who found themselves on the street again after the Alliance Hall Shelter (6CWS) abruptly closed on April 3.

As you might imagine, I’ve had a conversation with the fire marshal and another with the director of the health bureau. Of course we are following their recommendations, but our Fellowship Hall was not made for this kind of sheltering. Grace begins with an understanding that it is okay for us to provide this stopgap, but only until April 30, the date originally promised to the homeless.

The response from the Christian community has been heartening and heartwarming as volunteers shared whatever talents they had with our guests: an MD who gave several hours of her time to consult with anyone who had health concerns; a professional singer who sang an operatic happy birthday to a woman who celebrated her 79th birthday in our shelter, and the local educator who brought her a cake, flowers and a Happy Birthday balloon; the homeless advocate who spent hours and hours on the phone, finally getting a man admitted to the hospital for mental health concerns; a member of Zion’s staff who knows someone who knows someone who offered a landscaping job to one of the men here, and who then found a pair of size 11 work boots to replace the man’s tattered sneakers. Grace abounds, often in small ways.

Our guests also help one another: wisdom, such as it is, about how to live on the street is passed along; a blanket is given by one who has two to another who has none because we ran out. Several people brought canned goods that they had received elsewhere during the day, giving them to kitchen volunteers in a stone-soup-like ritual. There are shared cigarettes, shared tips about who may be hiring, plenty of shared humor. Grace upon grace.

Many of our guests surprise me with their desire to help in whatever way they can, with their polite demeanor and frequent thank yous. One night, when one of the men didn’t think enough people had appropriately expressed their gratitude to the church for its hospitality, he shouted for attention. Everyone got quiet and he reminded them to be sure to render thanks to the pastor. So I collect gratitude like pennies in an offering plate, so many “mites” that I pass along to the people who made this stopgap ministry possible.

Yes, there have been a few problems, and the APD responds quickly and resolves those issues effectively. One man who we had to ask to leave (complicated story) apologized to the APD officers for the trouble, and then asked me for a prayer and a blessing before he left.

Yes, there are a few people who are taking advantage of the kindness offered here. But perhaps they didn’t find such kindness in many other places in their lives, so they suck it up wherever they find it. Even so, they are the exception, and as long as they follow the rules, we forbear them because we know we don’t always have the wisdom to separate the wheat and weeds (Matthew 13:29).

And even now as I am typing this, 5:15 p.m. on Wednesday evening, our door buzzer sounds. It is a 45 year-old woman discharged today from a detox facility, formerly living in Allentown but now with nowhere to go. She says they told her to come to Zion’s church, that we have a shelter where she can spend the night. I ask, who sent you here? A social worker at The Horsham Clinic, some fifty miles away.

We have been a stopgap shelter for less than three weeks, and we’re getting referrals! As the days have passed, more and more people with nowhere to go found their way to our doors. I have received phone calls from other shelters as well as from pastors and ministries in the Allentown area, and sadly we are at capacity; we have to turn them all away.

But the woman from the clinic still sits in our Fellowship Hall, warming herself after a trek to the church from the bus station in windy, 54 degree weather. It’s supposed to drop to 36 degrees in Allentown tonight. She contents herself with a warm place to sit and only a promise that she will be on a wait-list in case one of our regulars found somewhere else to go. Then she can take that one’s place for the night.

A community of grace appears, Brigadoon-like, at Zion’s church each evening. What will become of them on May 1?



Ashes to go? Oh no! Stop. Think. Pray.

Sackcloth and ashesIt was inevitable that the ‘Ashes to Go’ movement would develop in this digital age. At best, its proponents say, ‘ashes to go’ provides an opportunity for Christians to participate in this symbolic ritual who otherwise couldn’t or wouldn’t attend a service of worship. Further, taking ashes into the streets gives those in the liturgical tradition an opportunity to use a familiar symbolic ritual to do something not quite as familiar to us: to witness and evangelize. Their web site helpfully suggests giving people a takeaway after administering ashes, perhaps a pamphlet with prayers for later reflection, or an invitation to a worshiping community. I understand that’s what ‘ashes to go’ can be at its best.

But at worst, it encourages a kind of “drive-by” spirituality, reinforcing a heresy that is rampant in the U.S. People are busy, busier, busiest. The hallmark of the information age is the increasing speed of the digital world, which keeps increasing the pace, and the stress, of daily life. So it’s no wonder that there are people who are delighted that they can receive their dose of ashes in just a few seconds as they drive through or walk by an ‘ash station.’

According to a story in USAToday  this trend began “in St. Louis in 2007 when the Rev. Teresa K.M. Danieley decided that if people can grab breakfast on the go, why shouldn’t they be able to get their ashes in a flash?”

The problem with McWorship is that fast-spirituality is probably as deficient of the sacred as fast-food is deficient in nutritional value.

Ironically, the traditional saying on Ash Wednesday is “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The Ash Wednesday liturgy invites reflection about mortality and the meaning of your life. Yet by giving in to the cultural demand for fast, faster, fastest, ‘ashes to go’ helps people avoid reflection about life and death; after a brief pause they just continue on with the hustle and bustle of their life.

“There is more to life than increasing its speed.” Surely Ash Wednesday is one day when we can ask Christians to. Stop. Think. Pray.

Why not sackcloth as well as ashes on Ash Wednesday?

Ash_Wednesday edtSackcloth was a coarsely woven fabric, usually made of goat’s hair, with a texture similar to common burlap today. People wore sackcloth as a sign of mourning, as when David mourned the death of Abner (2 Samuel 3:31).

Ashes were a symbol of destruction and desolation, so in many biblical texts sackcloth is paired with ashes as signs that you are in mourning for your sin and repent its destructive power in your life. The practice of wearing sackcloth and ashes sometimes also included a call to fast (as in Jonah 3:5–7).

Christians adopted the symbol of ashes to begin Lent, which is a season of mourning about the sacrifice and death of Jesus; a season of repenting of your sin; a season of self-discipline and commitment to follow the way of Christ.

Since we use ashes, why not bring back the symbol of sackcloth?

This year on Ash Wednesday at our 12:10 p.m. service at Zion’s church, we will distribute ‘sackcloth’ to those who receive ashes. (Ashes also will be available to be administered on the first Sunday in Lent at our 10.30 a.m. service.)

Those who participate will be instructed to use the sackcloth to wipe the ashes from  their forehead at the end of the day. Then make that their prayer cloth during the 40 days of Lent, a special memento for those who fast, a reminder to  all to offer sacrificial prayers.

Then bring it to worship at Zion’s church on Easter, to wash it in the waters of the baptismal font in gratitude for the gift of God’s grace and love.

What if you preached heresy on Easter Sunday ….

Jonah and Sea Beast-Whale icon detail… and nobody noticed? Here’s how I did it: first, I “discovered” a new parable of Jesus. Based on five verses in which Jesus sets up an analogy between Jonah and the Son of Man (Matthew 12:38-42), and based on a broad definition of the subject, I declared these words of Jesus to be a parable. Second, I rejected the literalist interpretation of the biblical story of Jonah and the whale. (Jonah is one of the minor prophetic books in the Old Testament/Hebrew scriptures.) And third, interpreting the words of Jesus, I encouraged the seekers among us to consider that the resurrection itself may be a parable from God.

Okay, this doesn’t quite rank up there with ancient heresies like Arianism or Docetism. But it wasn’t exactly a standard, orthodox, Substitutionary Atonement Easter sermon either.
Nobody threw a hymnal at me. Nobody questioned me while shaking hands at the door. And as far as I know, no one is organizing a committee to call me up on charges! Not in the United Church of Christ, where we do not have “tests” of faith, and where we say every Sunday: whoever you are, wherever you are in life’s journey, you are welcome here!

The fact that no one was shocked at what I said also is due to the spiritual maturity of our members. I’ve been teaching for years that St. Peter does not administer a test on doctrine before passing you through the pearly gates!

I also should say that in the Easter Sunday service there certainly were plenty of joyful expressions that “Christ the Lord is risen today!” So when I stepped up to deliver my message, I wasn’t aiming at shock and awe.

I was aiming my sermon, No Sign Will Be Given: A Parable to Provoke , at the minds and hearts of those oh-so-many Christians who are believers in God and followers of Jesus, but find a bodily resurrection difficult to understand and accept.

Of course this is nothing new. The Apostle Paul spent a long time trying to explain the bodily resurrection to Christians in Corinth (1 Corinthians 15). And I have spoken about that in the past.

But I was aiming at people like a business owner in Allentown who excitedly told me about hearing a radio interview with Dr. Bart Ehrman. His most recent book, “How Jesus Became God,” posed questions and suggested answers that excited her. She is fascinated by the notion that there are ways to think about the bible other than literally!

One visitor on Sunday morning commented after the service that he is both “scoffer and seeker” (a reference to my Easter sermon), and he was interested to hear more.

That’s what a preacher hopes for, especially when skating the edges of heresy!

The Top Ten Things to Give Up for Lent … and what does that mean?

Ash_Wednesday edtThe top ten things to give up for Lent, according to a survey of Twitter posts last year, were: (1) Twitter, (2) chocolate, (3) swearing, (4) alcohol, (5) soda, (6) Facebook, (7) fast food, (8) sex, (9) sweets, and (10) meat. Of course last year there also were plenty of claims for most ironic “give ups,” like “I’m giving up self-discipline for Lent.”

The idea of giving something up for Lent is based on the ancient practice of fasting as a spiritual discipline. The long, 40-day season of Lent meant the fast had to be “partial,” requiring abstinence only from a selected food item, or by extension, a favorite indulgence (thus Twitter and Facebook make the list). And since some churches required Christians to give up a certain food, that led to the pre-Lenten over-indulgence of Mardi Gras, Pancake Tuesday, and Fasnacht Day. Any excuse for a party!

So what does that have to do with Lent? Well, to begin with, the observance of Lent is not just a “Catholic” thing; traditional Protestant churches also mark the season as part of the church calendar (although many non-denominational do not celebrate Lent at all). Today most Christians regard Lent as a time to focus on faith formation. If fasting helps you to do that, all the better! What is most important is that you be intentional: you cannot grow in faith if you don’t intentionally nurture your faith.

At Zion’s church, each Sunday of Lent our members will focus on the parables of Jesus. This is our way to be sure we “listen to him” (Matthew 17:5), following the text from Transfiguration Sunday. There also is a 6:00 p.m. Thursday evening Bible study beginning March 12 based on the book, Discipleship Essentials by Greg Ogden. (Copies are available at the church.)

As for the history of Lenten customs, the imposition of ashes dates back to 300 A.D. and became a common ritual by the seventh century. Sinners confessed their sins privately before being presented to the bishop. After the laying-on of hands and the imposition of ashes, they were expelled from the church in imitation of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. In repentance for their sins, penitents were required to abstain from meat, alcohol, bathing, haircuts, shaving, marriage relations, and business transactions.

The ashes used in Ash Wednesday services are made by burning the palms from the previous Palm Sunday. This reflects the idea that the same people who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem with palms became those who cried out to crucify him by the end of the week. The palms are a welcoming symbol, the ashes remind us that were are human and represent our mortality. With the imposition of the ashes the phrase often used is, “Your are dust and to dust you shall return,” which is part of the creation story in Genesis.

Ash Wednesday services are being observed at Zion’s church at noon and 7 p.m.

Keeping Calendar with Christ: Now Celebrating Epiphany

Adoration of the Magi - Epiphany - HeQi_030One way to maintain your identity as a Christian in our ever-more-secular culture is to keep “calendar” with Christ. Think of it as living in God’s time. Our secular culture shut down Christmas on December 26 and then immediately began advertising Valentine’s Day!

How American of us to try pack all the celebrating into one day; then we are hurried on to the next big event in the consumerist calendar of conspicuous consumption.

 In Christian culture, the season of “Christmastide” continued into the new year, then ended on January 6 with the celebration of Epiphany. The name originated from the magi, because they were non-Jews, travelers from the East; and so the feast day of Epiphany is a celebration of the “manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles”  (from the original Greek “epiphanos” meaning “manifestation”).

How ironic that many Christians skip Epiphany, a word that even in secular culture means “a moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way.”  (Merriam Webster)

So if you are keeping calendar with Christ, I hope you enjoyed a full Christmastide. Now pause at this change of season from Christmas to Epiphany. In secular culture, it is a time to make your resolutions; in Christian culture, you make time for reflections about your faith. May you see your life and your Lord “in a new or clearer way!”

[Listen to my message New Year’s Resolutions: A Spiritual Premise and a Biblical Promise]

[artwork: Adoration of the Magi – 2001 – Dr. He Qi is a professor at the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary – licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial ShareAlike 3.0 License]

Still Celebrating Christmas

DSCN2873 Xmas tree w-stained glass edt

Why have people stopped singing Christmas carols, taken down their decorations, and thrown away their Christmas trees? Don’t they know it’s still Christmas?

The problem is that our consumerist culture holds the high ground on our calendars. Christmas decorations are displayed as early as September. Pre-black-Friday Christmas promotions now are common. And this year Thanksgiving family traditions gave way to shopping the malls. And of course Christmas music of every genre and version is played on radio, TV and in the stores six weeks before Christmas. Then the day after Christmas, the playlists change and all the decorations disappear so the Valentine’s day promotions can begin.

Okay. That’s what our culture does. That’s what the world “out there,” does. But as Jesus reminds us, we are “in” the world but should not be “of” the world. It’s helpful to remember that in the Christian calendar, Christmas is not merely one day. Christmas is a season that lasts twelve days as we celebrate the birth of Christ, until Epiphany on January 6.

That date commemorates the arrival of the magi, the wise men, with gifts for the Christ child (which is the reason our sisters and brothers in the Orthodox Christian traditions celebrate gift-giving on Epiphany).

So you may be feeling relieved this week. Go ahead, rejoice and be glad: rejoicing that you are finished with all the clutter our culture imposes on Christmas; glad not to be hearing “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” or the recordings of dogs woofing the melody of Jingle Bells. Let the culture go its way. There will be plenty of time to catch up before Valentine’s Day. Rejoice and be glad that you are free to continue the real celebration of Christ’s birth!

At Zion’s church that means singing some of the best-loved songs of our faith. There are nearly 30 Christmas songs in our hymnal – we sang only seven on Christmas eve! So at our hymn sing last Sunday we enjoyed singing a dozen favorites, with more to come this Sunday!

And in my family, it means spreading the family gatherings and gift-giving occasions over a longer period of time. You don’t need to be feel bad about celebrating Christmas on the days following December 25. Blended families with multiple sets of grandparents often necessitate multiple gatherings anyway, so go ahead and enjoy to the fullest these 12 days of joy to the world!