A Night at Flying J

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Last evening was a Flying J night.  There’s a core group of half a dozen or so people from our congregation who go over to Flying J truck stop twice a month to make sure people can get showers, get their laundry done, and get a meal.  We work with individuals and families who live in the parking lot, who are homeless, struggle with poverty, live in motels, and more.  Many work and are doing what they can to get from one day to the next.

Last night there was a total of 22 people.  That’s the total between people from the church and our guests who come each Thursday we are there.

We know each of these people by name.  Often, we know a portion of their stories too.  In many instances we have been working with them for a few months now – trying to assist them in ways that they want help and how we can actually help.  We aren’t the savior of these people though.  We’re not there to fix them or solve all their problems.  We can’t.

We go to Flying J for a reason.  We go because these are people we are called on to reach out to, get to know, spend time with, and offer what we can.  This is what ministry is really about.  It’s not fixing others.  It’s about being with people.  It’s about reminding people of their humanity.  We do that when we listen to people, when we hear their stories.  When we eat with people.  When we talk.  When treat people with respect.  When we can offer dignity.

In many places, the church is re-learning that ministry can be hands on.  In some places, the church has been doing this for a long time.  In some places, the church is learning this for the first time.  Regardless, ministry is messy.  Anything involving people tends to be that way.

But there are times to rejoice too.  We rejoice when we experience joy with a family whose life together changes for the better.  We rejoice when a family went from living in their vehicle months ago to securing employment and moving into an apartment.  That is a joy not just for them, but for us too.  We rejoice when we hear another one of our friends finds a job so that his family can start to look for a place to live.

Flying J has become more than a truck stop for me.  It has become a place where I see friends and catch up on their lives.  It’s a place where ministry happens.  It’s a place where joy is shared.  It’s a place Jesus shows up for both our guests and ourselves.  And we get to encounter Jesus.

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers…

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James 1:22 states:

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.

I’m keeping it short today.  No need for a lengthy post here.

How are doing in relation to James 1:22?  Are you a doer of the word, or merely a hearer only?

According to James if you are only a hearer, then you are deceiving yourself.

Time to get honest.

Faith or politics informs our decisions?

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Beliefs and ideas about politics are often really no more than theological statements dressed up in secular terms.

Maybe you disagree with that statement.  But consider this, often politics offers something that theology has been about for a long time – a vision of salvation.  In theology we have terms for this – soteriology and eschatology.

Bad theology is often deadly and destructive.  It focuses on wrath, compliance, anger, and makes people suffer as a result.  Bad theology allows for abuse and violence.  Often these bad theologies find willing partners in political ideologies – a partnership of convenience.

When we hear politicians and others talk about salvation and a savior, it’s politics using theology.  Now, you may not think that politicians talk in theological terms but let me point out a couple of recent examples.  Remember when Obama was described as being like a savior?  Or how about people saying that Trump was put here by God.  How about every president invoking God’s blessing on the nation.  Or that we are a special nation ordained by God.  Those are theological terms that are hijacked for political purposes.  When we hear about being a great nation (or great again), it’s no different from what the crowds were expecting from Jesus when he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  People were thinking politics, but were really doing theology.  They had an expectation of what a savior was.  But Jesus had a different definition.

Don’t tell me to have theology stop at the border of politics especially when politics tramples all over theology all the time and has for centuries.  As if theology shouldn’t have any effect on the public sphere.  It does, which is why politics is often trying to use it for its own advantages.

Which is the foundation of the other?  Is politics and ideology the foundation of life or is theology the thing that guides our decisions in both public and private life? Does politics and ideology inform our theology or does our theology inform our politics?

I would argue that most people place politics as the foundation of their lives.  We seem to invest a great deal of time on politics, ideology, party loyalties, and politicians.  Do we invest the same time, energy, emotion, and resources in to our theology?  How many times do we hear about a political leader being like a savior who is going to save the nation or make it great again?  Democrats and Republicans are both guilty of this.

How much time do we devote to opening the sacred scriptures of politics (news sites), listen to the religious authorities of politics (spin doctors on TV who tell us what to believe), give our tithes and offerins to the religion of politics (campaign contributions), listen sermons of politicians (speeches, tweets, etc)., and partake in apologetics of the faith of politics (defending the ideology from all attacks on social media, in person, or anywhere)?  Do we give that kind of investment of ourselves into our faith?  When is the last time you opened Scripture outside of church to read God’s word?  Want me to go on?

If you believe that theology and faith are only a personal matter and they have no impact on the social or community, the polity, then I have some questions for you?

How do you square that belief with the Great Commission of Jesus?  Matthew 28:18-20 states:

And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

Jesus says “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”  As in all.  Not a separation between personal and the political.  “Make disciples of all nations.”  Do you think that might have an impact on policies that are implemented?

How do you square the belief of theology and politics being in separate realms, not impacting each other, with the whole idea of the kingdom/reign of God?  How do you square it away with the image of Revelation 21.  How do you square it away with the prophets of old telling kings what God’s words were?  How do you square it away with the time before kings in Israel where God was the head and they had no need of a king?

How do you square it with Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey at one end of the city in contrast to Pilot entering at the other end on his horse with his soldiers?  How do you square it away with the titles given to Jesus that had been reserved for Caesar, the Roman emperor – King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Savior of the World, Prince of Peace?

How do you hold onto the belief that theology and faith have no impact on politics and living in community when the bible shows that the idea is false through out it?

If our theology and faith don’t guide our whole life, including our politics, then what good is it?

How is that faith and theology going to bring about the kingdom of God?  And do we really want the kingdom of God to come at all?  The kingdom of God is all-encompassing, not just affecting your personal life.  Throughout the Hebrew Bible we hear about God restoring the entire world, not just individuals.  We hear about the salvation of Israel, not just individuals.  In the Gospel of John, we hear that God so loved the cosmos, that he gave his Son.  Not God so loved individuals – no, the entire cosmos, all of creation.

Which god do we lay our lives out in front of to determine how we will live – both personally and communally?  Which god invites us to participate in the unfolding of a kingdom?  God or some earthly kingdom and ideology and politician?

The book of Daniel is full of examples of politics stepping all over theology and faith. And there are consequences of this because God doesn’t care about these human made imaginary boundaries that we construct.  They are human inventions.

Jonah is sent by God with a message for the a secular city and it’s rulers to change.  Elijah flees for his life from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel because theology and faith are foundational for personal and public life and the politicians don’t like being put in their place as servants of God rather than gods over people.

The Apostle Paul, over and over again, suffers at the hand of politics and politicians, eventually being killed by politicians.  John the Baptist is jailed and beheaded by politicians because he dares to speak faith and theology into the life of politics.  Jesus suffers at the hand of politics, eventually being crucified by politicians because he is offering an alternative kingdom in contrast to the empire.

Ephesians 4:25-5:2 states:

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Hebrews 13:1-5 states:

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honour by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’

When we read Ephesians 4:25-5:2 and Hebrews 13:1-5, do we only see these as personal suggestions on how to live life?  Do we put up walls to prevent them from being carried out publicly?  Or at least have higher expectations for our elected leaders?  Why?  What is it about these passages that is so dangerous to our political system that we make excuses for behaviors, rhetoric, and policies that are in opposition to what is in Scripture?

Before you level the charge that I am suggesting or advocating a theocracy, I am not.  Theocracies often end up being abusive, dangerous, full of violence, focused on compliance of action and thought.  Theocracies are all about using absolute power over people.  That’s not what the kingdom of God is about at all.

The questions I am raising are this – What does it mean to claim to be a follower of Jesus?  Does it only affect our personal life?  Is it acceptable to put Jesus on the side when it comes to our politics?  Why is that acceptable?  Why doesn’t our theology inform our politics, our policies, and our rhetoric?  That doesn’t mean we need a theocracy.  Far from it.  It means we need to live out what we claim to believe in into all aspect of our life, whatever our political structure is.

Ephesians and our politicians

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Ephesians 4:25-5:2 (NRSV) states:

25So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27and do not make room for the devil. 28Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. 5:1Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

This is a pretty good recipe for how to live if we claim to be followers of Christ – regardless of our calling and vocation.  Would you agree with that statement?  It’s easy to agree with that statement in a general sense isn’t it?

How do we measure up on this?  How about those in leadership positions – both in the church in the secular world?

One argument I hear lately is that we didn’t elect this or that politician to be a saint, but rather to get a job done.   The implication being that following Jesus’ way is a recipe for failure in the world.  Instead, we apparently need people who are opposite of Jesus and his way to run things.  We apparently prefer Caesar’s way to Jesus way of running the world.  Who doesn’t love a guy on a horse brandishing a sword dripping with blood after all?

Considering that Jesus’ way got him killed, there is a valid argument for that.  However, I don’t think Jesus really cared about the same things that our secular leaders do.  Jesus wasn’t interested in accumulating power or wealth.  He didn’t seem interested in making people fear him.  He didn’t care about patriotism or raising an army and crushing the enemy with military might.  He didn’t believe that the strong survive.  He certainly didn’t believe in the ends justifying the means.  He spent time with the lowest levels of society and the outcasts.

I suppose Jesus would never make a good president in America in modern times.  But then again, his agenda isn’t about what is best for the nation, but rather the unfolding of the kingdom of God.

Often when I hear arguments defending politicians for their actions or words, some questions come to mind that I like to ask.  Given what was said by a politician, would you defend the same words by a politician in the other party?  Given the actions of a politician, would you defend those same actions if someone in the other party did them?  If someone in the other political party got the same results, said the same things, acted the same way, treated people the same way, would you be defending this person the same way that you are for your favored politician currently?  Be honest.  Would you do that, or are your excuses really about loyalty to your political party and ideology over anything else.

I ask these questions because I think they relate to the Ephesians text.  This passage from Ephesians is in direct contrast to how our world operates and has operated for centuries.  This passage of Scripture, though, is radical in nature.  It showcases Jesus way against and in opposition to Caesar’s way, the empire’s way.   It comes down to this – where does our salvation lie?  In Jesus and his way, or in some politician, political party, and their ways focused on strength and the ends justifying the means?  Politicians and political parties come and go.  But Jesus is eternal.  I’ll take my chances with Jesus, thank you very much.

Ordinary vs. extra ordinary

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If you had to describe the Gospel, or church, or faith, how would you describe it?

Would it be described as something nice, or routine, or a given?  How about church – is it something you go to or belong to?  Is faith something you’ve learned?  Is the Gospel  just a book, or Jesus message?

These many be technically true, but they seem…lacking or ordinary.  Maybe mediocre even.

Is that what Jesus is about – ordinary, lacking, mediocre?  When you read or hear passages of Scripture, do you think of ordinary, lacking, and mediocre?  Are you actually reading Scripture?  When is the last time you cracked open the Bible on your own to read it?  I’m not talking about what you hear at church either.

If you aren’t reading scripture, why not?  Maybe Jesus, church, and faith just don’t have much impact on your life.  Maybe they are nice, but that’s where it stops.  Maybe you are afraid?  Maybe you’re afraid that it will actually deliver on what is promised – a changed life. If your life changes, then you might not be in control.  Here’s a promise – you won’t be in control.

The Gospel isn’t ordinary.  It is extra ordinary.  Anything that is life changing would be.  Do you believe that the Gospel is life changing?  Do you believe that it not only impacts your life, but changes it?  Do you want that?  Or are you too comfortable?  Maybe you’re fooling yourself into believing that everything is going well.  But I’m willing to bet a million dollars that something in your life is broken and not working.  Something in your life is mediocre at best.

This doesn’t mean that the Gospel promises carnivals and blue birds on your shoulder.  The Gospel doesn’t promise that your life will look and feel like a made for TV movie.  Not even close.

Here’s what I know – Jesus wasn’t into mediocre and average.  Jesus wasn’t into just surviving either.

He’s all about thriving.  That’s what the Gospel is – thriving life, new life, death and resurrected life.  That’s life that has changed.  Life that is no longer in our own control.

If faith is only ordinary or routine, then it’s time to dump it.  Only a faith that is extra ordinary will carry you through the difficult times that are coming for each one of us.

Lisa and Phoenix

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I met Lisa a few months ago.  She, her husband Wes, their son Phoenix, and their dog bear were passing through the area and stopped at the church to seek some assistance for one night – a place to sleep.

They told me the story of how they were from Maine and had traveled to West Virginia so that Wes could start a job there.  They packed up all their stuff into their van and headed down.  They had a place to stay waiting for them.  Turns out the job fell through when they got there.  So they turned around and started to head home, stopping in Carlisle for the night.  They happened to find out church and sought out some help.  We put them up for the night in one of the local hotels and offered one of our handmade blankets to the family.  They were grateful and had expressed a good deal of their faith during my time with them telling me at one point that God provides for them always.

Fast forward to last week – I received an e-mail from Lisa telling me that she and Phoenix would be traveling through the area again.  Turns out that Wes had to finish out a parole sentence in a distant state from years ago and so it was just her and their son.  They were heading back to West Virginia to be with family who could help them out.  They would get housing in exchange for doing child care.

She still had Bear, their small dog who was friendly as ever.  I met up with them when they arrived and got them taken care of for the night.

I learned a few things from my encounters with Lisa.  First, no matter the situation, Lisa was always joy-filled.  She always has a smile on her face.  She doesn’t have much, but what she has she is grateful for.  Second, Lisa has great trust in God.  God always provides is what I heard Wes say.  And here was God providing for this family again – this time through the church.

I couldn’t help but think of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus traveling when I encountered Lisa, Wes, and Phoenix.  This time it felt more like Mary going to visit Elizabeth.  Different circumstances of course, but the idea was there.

God shows us in mysterious ways.  God invites us to participate in the unfolding of the kingdom too.  God had invited me to participate in the unfolding through Lisa and Phoenix and Bear.

We have no idea how many people there are who are in similar situations.  It’s easy to turn a blind eye to things like this.  But that’s not what we are called to.  Instead, we are called to answer the e-mail that is sent to us, to answer the door when the bell is run, to answer the phone when there is a call, to answer.

My prayers remain with Lisa, Phoenix, and Bear – as well as with Wes.  I pray that they are reunited sooner rather than later and are able to get back on their feet.

Sometimes I wonder if we have this preconceived idea of what participating in the unfolding of the kingdom of God is like – what it looks like.  I wonder if we think it’s all nice and neat and organized.  But then I get an invitation to participate in the unfolding of God’s kingdom.  And it comes at the door right when I’m getting ready to leave for the day.  Or in a text.  Or at the Flying J truck stop.  Or at Dinner with Friends community meal.  Or in the elevator of the hospital.  Or in the parking lot as I’m getting into my car.  The invitation comes at random times – usually when I least expect it.  And that’s probably a good thing.  When it happens, I have moments to either accept the invitation or reject it.  It seems that in the spur of the moment, I’m more likely to accept the invitation.  God has different plans than what I’ve come up with.

And sometimes those plans come in multiple parts, with the knock on a door and an e-mail follow-up separated by several months.

Be ready.  You don’t know when God will send your invitation.

The Psalm of John

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The doorbell of the church rang while I was on the phone with a colleague.  I was told that a man came in and needed prayers.  When I finished the call, I went out to the man.  His name is John.  John proceeded to tell me that his mother was dying and is at the local hospital.  He was trying to get there.  He had traveled down from Scranton, a couple of hours away.  His car broke down in Harrisburg and so he started walking his way towards the hospital.

Along the way, he stopped and asked directions, had enough money to get something to drink, and rest his feet for a few minutes.

When he came to New Kingstown, something nudged him to stop at the church for prayers.  And he listened to that nudge.

We were able to get him some food and I spent time with him, listening to his story, and praying with him.  He wanted directions to the hospital.  He said that the prayer was all he really wanted.

I know that the hospital is a good 20 minutes drive, which includes highway.  There was no way that I was letting him walk.  So I offered him a ride, which he gladly accepted and reassured me that he wasn’t looking for a handout.

As we drove along, I heard more of John’s story.  I heard about the loss of many family members over the last 10 years.  I heard about challenges in the family with health issues.  I heard about his own blessings with health.

I asked John how long he had walked.  He thought for a moment and then told me that his car broke down in Harrisburg, he got a tow truck, gave the mechanic $1400 to fix his car – all his money – and then he started walking.  It was 5 am when he started.  He had been walking five hours by the time he had gotten to us at the church. I’ve run marathons, a couple of which have taken five hours before.  I know what being on your feet for five hours is like.  It’s not fun.  It’s painful.  But John said that he just kept going.  He didn’t know if his mother would survive the day and he had to go see her.

He didn’t know where he was going to stay that night.  He would have more money in 24-48 hours, so he was hoping that some motel or hotel would be compassionate enough to work with him.

On the way to the hospital we stopped at a hotel, about a mile from the hospital.  I went in with him.  The hotel requires payment upfront.  So the church helped him out with a room for a couple of days until his car was repaired.

John was about ready to break down, I could see it in his face.  He told me that he wanted to repay the church for the rooms and the gas.  I told him that all he needed to do was to say thank you and that he needed his money more than we did.  I told him that if he really wanted to repay us, then to do something good for someone else.

He didn’t know what to say.  I told him – this is what grace is.  I can’t preach grace if I don’t live it.

The woman behind the counter heard this exchange and said “God is so good, isn’t he?”  Yes God is.

After getting the room taken care of, I drove John down the road the hospital.  We said our goodbyes and I gave him well wishes for him and his mother.  And off he went into the hospital to be with his mother for what is probably the last time.

I don’t know why God nudged him to our door.  But I’m glad John came to us.  And I’m glad we were able to give him just a little help.  More importantly, we were able to share Good News with him and with others.  Good News isn’t all about words.  Good News is how we live.  Our entire lives are an expression of Good News – or they should be for those of us to claim to follow Jesus.

Hang in there John.  You are not alone.

As I think about this encounter, I’m drawn to Psalm 23.  In one sense because the Psalm is used for so many funerals, and here was an instance in which death was right on the horizon.  But this was a bit different.  It’s not about the person who was dying.  It’s about the person who is seeing death of another.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
   He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
   he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.


Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.


You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.

When I think about this passage of Scripture, I see John.  He’s walking through the darkest valley.  And God is the one who provides for him.  God makes sure John is not in want.  God restores his soul and leads him along right paths.  It is God who is with John in the darkest valley and comforts him.  It is God who prepares a table and blesses John.  It is God who gives a future.

Psalm 23 is the Psalm for John – and all Johns out there.

My encounter with April

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April reached out to me by e-mail.  I was recommended to her as someone she should reach out to as someone who could help her out.  She wasn’t looking for help with paying the fee to live in the hotel, but help to get out.  She told me that she had to leave – that she needed to set free of the bondage of the place she was living in.  She was being reunited with her ex-husband who was living in Colorado.

I came and visited with her in her room just a couple of days ago.  I didn’t know what to expect.  She spent the first hour telling me her story, but with a twist.  It was a story of God’s timing and God’s plans and how they are different from ours.  She has been separated from her husband for 14 months, but that separation allowed healing to happen.  That separation gave room for April to see how God is Lord, and not anything or anyone else.

We talked and shared our faith stories, moments in our lives when we have experienced God nudging us and tapping us on the shoulder, and sometimes shouting directly at us to get our attention.

She shared with me what it has been like living in the motel – like a trap.  Things deteriorate, service is terrible, there is no kitchen or way to make food, except for a microwave, and things generally don’t work consistently.  But there aren’t a whole lot of options for people in her situation.  She described it as being in bondage – a term that is not used lightly.  And a term that seems very fitting.  It’s not just physical bondage, but bondage of the spirit, of the human will to live.  Every week, the bill comes due to cover the shelter of the room – an expense that is way beyond normal.  An expense that often times takes advantage of the poor who are sheltered there.  But then again, where else are these folks going to go?

In this country, there is a creed that we live by – individualism.  It’s the belief that we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, that everyone is able to get themselves out of trouble, and that only the lazy suffer the consequences.

And in this country, we like to claim that we are a Christian nation.  Many churches proclaim the creeds of the church that were established centuries ago in far off lands.  And we claim to follow Jesus who favored the poor and proclaimed Good News to the poor.

How do these two creeds and belief systems compliment each other though?  Christianity isn’t so much about our personal salvation devoid of public implications, but as something far more greater.  Revelation 21 paints a picture of the entirety of creation being renewed and restored.  Jesus doesn’t proclaim that only the strong will survive and only those with material wealth are the ones who are blessed by God.

When I keep encountering more and more people who are struggling with the basic necessities of life, I have to compare our national operating creeds and beliefs with those of Jesus.  And frankly, I find our nation’s operating beliefs to be lacking – failing in the promise of an American Dream.  But Jesus has yet to fail to come through on his promises.  If we are a great nation, then why do so many struggle to survive?  If you think there is an easy answer for this, then you are dismissing the struggles that exist because you think they don’t affect you.  And you are wrong.

Homelessness does affect you.  When a homeless person without insurance gets sick, they go the hospital to receive treatment.  Going to a hospital for routine care is expensive.  Someone has to pay for that.  It ends up showing up in your insurance premiums and taxes.  When the poor don’t have enough food because they are being gorged with weekly payments, they become sicker and have health problems.  Guess who pays for that?  When the homeless sneak over to an abandoned hotel to find shelter and every day the local police department are sent over to kick people out – someone has to pay for the police to do this, as opposed to doing something else.  Guess who pays?  That’s right, everyone does, including the people who think that homelessness has no impact on their lives.  Apparently, we like to lie to ourselves and think that we are like islands.  Yet Christ calls us into community, to proclamation, and to service of others.

1 Peter 2:9-10 states:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.
Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.

This isn’t only about individuals.  It’s much bigger than the American ideal of catering to each individual.  In the side commentary of the Lutheran Study Bible related to this passage of Scripture, it states:

What is the priesthood of all believers?  This is a key concept for Martin Luther, who insists that all Christians are priests or God’s messengers.  Proclaiming God’s mighty acts is not a job reserved for only a few people.  God calls all believers – no matter what their vocation or standing – to share the Gospel and serve their neighbors to that others come to know Christ.

(Source – Lutheran Study Bible, pg. 2002)

Did you catch the end of that – All believers are to share the Gospel and serve their neighbor.  Not make excuses.  Not judge.  Not put blinders on and ignore those around us.  The Gospel is Good News to the Poor.

At the end of my conversation with April, I got her set up with transportation.  And we spent time in prayer.

April was having a true Jesus moment that had nothing to do with me.  Her old life, the life she was living here – a life in bondage – was dying.  Today her old life will die as she gets on the bus.  Following Jesus is about dying.  It’s about trusting what Jesus tells us – that following him will lead to death – death daily, death to self, death of life, death of bondage.

But it doesn’t end there.  Death doesn’t get the final say.  Jesus does.  In order to experience resurrection, we have to go through death.  When April steps on the bus, she will also begin to experience resurrection, new life.  A life of hope.  A life where bondage has ended and there is a future. A transformed life.  This is what Jesus promises.  And it’s not just for some time in the distant future.  It’s here and now.

Sometimes we have to hit rock bottom before we are stop fighting with God and allow God to take over.  Sometimes we have to get to a point of complete loss of hope in order to let go of the chains that bind us, that hold us bound.

April is a reminder that death and resurrection are real and are what Jesus calls us to – right here and now.  April left the bondage of a motel room with a life that was hopeless and she is getting on a bus filled with hope, looking forward to the embrace of love and family, and experiencing Jesus’ mercy and grace.  This is the Good News of Jesus in our midst.

The Sheltered Homeless

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I met Lynn by accident.  She is a housekeeper at a motel just off the interstate about 20 minutes from the church I serve.  I was there to assist a homeless person get emergency housing for a couple of days for herself and her dogs as she made plans to move in with her sister in Maryland.  She told me her sister couldn’t come to get her for a couple of days and she had no money and nowhere to stay.  Lynn overheard this and as I was leaving, she approached me to seek assistance for herself.

Lynn shared with me that she lives in the motel.  She is paid just enough to cover the weekly cost of living there, with a little left over for her other expenses.  Not a great life for her and her two children.  But it’s what she had to do after her husband walked out on her.  She was trying to save up some money to move out to an apartment, but just couldn’t get any savings going.  And she isn’t alone.  Somewhere between 50-75% of the rooms of this particular motel are occupied by people who live there and pay their bill weekly.

Jeff lives in a motel just a few miles from the church I serve, along the Miracle Mile, just outside of Carlisle, PA.  Jeff’s been there for several months, along with his two cats, which keeps him company.  During his time, he’s racked up a debt and owes the motel owner enough that eviction proceedings have gone forward.  Jeff will be evicted by the eighth of the month – becoming homeless in the more traditional sense of the word.

But really, Lynn and Jeff are homeless.  They are what I call sheltered homeless – living in a motel, but not secure in their housing.  They have shelter, but it’s hardly home.

In recent months I have spoken with several motel managers and front desk employees about people who live in these motels and pay weekly.  Depending on the motel, anywhere from 25%-75% of the occupants of these motels are weekly residents, meaning that they pay an ongoing weekly rate to stay in a motel room.  And that doesn’t count the more traditional homeless who will “splurge” for a night or two by getting a room at one of these motels in order to get out from the heat or cold, get a shower, and a free continental breakfast.

Along the Miracle Mile there are well over a dozen hotels and motels.  At least half a dozen of these have weekly paying residents.  Add this up and it’s easy to estimate that there are hundreds who live like this in just this area alone.  At one motel, of the 64 rooms available, 16 had weekly residents.  Other motels had higher percentages of weekly residents.

Homelessness is a growing challenge in the US, especially in the region of the country I live in – South Central PA.  Our congregation comes in contact with the homeless regularly: doing ministry twice a month at the local Flying J truck stop where we make sure the homeless who live in their vehicles in the parking lot there are able to get their laundry done, can take showers, and get a meal.  We also come in contact with the homeless and poor through our monthly Dinner with Friends community meal held in our fellowship hall and we do what we can to help these folks with emergency food and connecting them to other agencies that can help them.  Sometimes the homeless will call or stop by the church during the week, seeking food, shelter, or references to agencies that can help.

Homelessness is on the radar for many people.  But it’s also something that remains an abstract issue for many, especially if a person doesn’t know a homeless person by name or know their story.  If you don’t know someone personally who is homeless, you probably never think about homelessness at the end of the day when you go to your own comfortable home that is warm in the winter or cool in the summer.  It’s just another issue that can be debated by politicians, or it’s something that we can be against generally, as long as it doesn’t directly impact us, make us uncomfortable or inconvenienced.  But when you know the homeless by name and know their stories, going home at the end of the day becomes another day in which you see how broken our world is.

People like Lynn and Jeff are a different variation of homeless – the sheltered homeless.  Or rather, the trapped.  They are caught in a vicious cycle that keeps them on the edge.  While they are paying anywhere from $250-$300 a week for their small motel room, they are often going without other necessities like food, upkeep for vehicles, medication, and more – things they need to survive.

Often times, these sheltered homeless are working, but are not being paid enough to meet their living expenses.  These are not lazy people.  And they aren’t blowing money on frivolous things, unlike the false stereotypes that persist around homeless people.  Those exist because someone, somewhere, worked the system and so the popular thought is that this must be true of all poor or homeless people.  Except it isn’t.

They are spending anywhere from $1000 a month for their housing up to $1200 a month.  That’s almost a mortgage payment for most Americans.  All for a motel room.  Not a house or an apartment.

The challenge arises because many of these people don’t have enough savings to pay for a security deposit and first month’s rent for an apartment that would in the long run make more financial sense, costing almost half as much as they are paying for a motel room.  But they make enough money to pay for the weekly expense of a motel room.  They end up getting trapped in this cycle – not enough for a long-term solution, but enough to stay off the streets or their vehicles.  And the government assistance offices don’t help pay for motel and hotel rooms, considering these as not a long-term housing solution.  Considering how much a motel room costs over the course of the month, I agree.

And then the trap really takes hold – an unexpected expense comes.  Maybe it’s their vehicle that needs a repair.  Maybe it’s a medication.  Maybe it’s a death in the family.  Maybe it’s all of those things.  A bill comes due for several hundred dollars.  Where does the money come from? And that’s how people get behind so easily.  When there is no room for error or accident, errors or accidents are bound to happen and suck a person down.

Often a challenge in talking about homelessness is getting an understanding of a different sense of time.  For many middle-class people, their focus is on the future.  They have a bright future ahead of them.  Middle class people are concerned about things in the future too – saving for a vacation, education for their children, retirement, etc.  But they are always looking ahead.

But someone who is in poverty, either poor or homeless, doesn’t have that luxury.  The only time that really exists for them is the present.  There are immediate needs that need to be met and met now.  And when someone is poor or homeless, there isn’t a lot of hope for the future.  The future becomes daunting and unbearable.  When you don’t really have a future to look forward to, why would you plan for it?  No wonder Jesus kept saying that he was bringing Good News to the poor.  He was bringing hope for a future for people who lacked any sense of future.

Crossing this bridge of understanding difference in time is important.  It’s what allows us to connect with the poor and homeless.  It’s what allows us to be where they are and also hopefully assist them in getting out of their situation if they so desire.  Often that starts with a simple question – what are your goals?  Not our goals – your goals.  This isn’t a silver bullet, it’s only a start – a baby step.

When I asked Jeff what it was like to live in a motel, he said that there are benefits – you get everything you need: a bed and TV and Linen and towels.  You don’t have to worry about utilities.  Most places give coffee and juice and bread in the morning (his breakfast).  And the most striking statement of all – You can move fast to a cheaper place if needed.  People who live in what they consider home don’t try to move fast to a cheaper place.

Jeff, Lynn, and many others are the sheltered homeless among us.  When we think that homelessness is just about making sure someone has a roof over their head, we are missing several things.  Homelessness goes beyond just material needs.  It involves people, relationships, and being trapped in an endless cycle that feels like a black hole.  Just when you think you get a step away from it, it sucks you back in and keeps you down.

If we are ever going to eradicate homelessness in our midst, then we need to acknowledge the extent to which it exists in its many forms.  From there, we learn people’s stories, we walk alongside them as best we can, and we celebrate with them when they finally do get a step away from the black hole that grips them.  Overcoming homelessness, whether sheltered or not, is about relationships and community.  It’s about value and worth of each person.

When we minister to and with a homeless person or family, we make a great deal of effort to ensure that they are reminded of their humanity, we hear their stories and get to know them, we invest ourselves and our time into their lives, we remind them that they are loved and that someone cares about them and their wellbeing.  We empower them and tap into their value.  We tell them that they are not alone – and we try to live that out.  We proclaim Good News to them.  We pray with them.  We do what we can with them.  We be with them.

And a big part of this ministry is about not being satisfied – not being satisfied that people have shelter even though it is keeping them poor and trapped.  There is a different way – a much better way.  We can do better.  We are called to be better.  Let’s eradicate homelessness here.

Does it affect you?

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Information is powerful.  It can give you great insight and guide you in where to go.

Recently I used a program that provides demographic information, along with trends, and insights into the area our church resides in and serves.

It was quite enlightening.  I found out that the area is aging, getting wealthier, and has a growing number of people with higher educational degrees.  There is also a growing middle age segment of the population.  The overall trends regarding religion are that people are less influenced by religion and are engaged with religion less and less.  As for interests, it seems that people in this region are most interested in their own health, their finances, and their futures.

When I read this, I see the connection of these things – an aging wealthier and smarter group of individuals who earned their success and are trying to figure out how to keep it.  This isn’t a judgement – it’s a summary of who the people around the church are.

And there is also a segment of the population that doesn’t really show up in the demographics – the poor and homeless, the prostitutes, victims of human trafficking.  That population is smaller than the main population, but it’s there.  I know – I encounter them often.  The overall trends regarding religion are that they don’t feel they are worthy of being a part of church, but they love the message of Jesus.  They interact with the church typically in non-worship functions that the church offers – social ministry and hands on ministry.  As for interests, they are concerned with where they are going to get their next meal, do they have enough for somewhere to stay, and how to pay this or that unexpected bill.  The focus is on the present tense.

Apparently then, there are two populations that don’t intersect very often.  If they do, it is usually pretty negative in society.  An example that I witnessed was in Harrisburg.  I was walking down the street to a meeting and a woman was in front of me.  We crossed the street and there was a man waiting on the corner.  He looked as though he were going to ask for some help.  She must have been hit up by him previous because she shouted at the top of her lungs at him to stop begging for money – to stop taking people’s money.  She swore at him, all while she was walking along.  He mumbled something, but didn’t respond directly to her.  I reached my car and the women went on.  The man came over to approach me and did ask for money.  I often don’t have any cash on me, so I told him I didn’t have any.  He looked disappointed.  He said he was just trying to get on the bus to go to work.  I went on my way to my next meeting.  Could I have done something different? Sure.  I could have taken him to work – or at least asked him where work was.  But I didn’t.  Too busy I guess.  I have no idea if this guy was telling the truth.  But really it didn’t matter.  I tell you this story in order to make a bigger point.

Homelessness, human trafficking, poverty, prostitution, and more affect you.  You may not experience people caught in these things directly, or maybe you do.  But they affect you.  They affect you because when one person is caught in these, it impacts the whole of society.  I saw an estimate once that claimed that one homeless person uses $250,000 a year worth of medical services.  How so?  Well, a homeless person probably doesn’t have health insurance.  They have limited money and therefore buy the cheapest food they can find to fill their stomachs.  They typically have health challenges – many are diabetic.  When there is a health problem, they don’t go to their doctor because they don’t have one – they go to the hospital.  Guess who pays that bill?  If there is trouble with the law, guess where they go – jail.  Guess who pays that bill?  It’s paid through our taxes.

Imagine a different way of handling these situations.  Imaging offering housing first in order to get someone off the streets.  To recognize their humanity.  Taking that burden off of someone makes a big difference for a person.  It is one stress they have taken care off.  And it allows a person to start tackling other challenges.  In the long run, it cost far less, and is more caring and compassionate to pay for housing for someone who is homeless than it is to do nothing and end up paying for all the services they use.  The cost isn’t just in terms of money, but there is also a human cost.

The point is, if all we ever care about is ourselves, then we blind.  And it will cost us a great deal more than if we pay attention to the greater needs of society.