The Lower Susquehanna Synod has posted an article I wrote regarding the ministry that the disciples of St. Stephen have begun over at Flying J.
Luke 14:13 – [Jesus said:] “But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,“
Last night was the normally scheduled evening for a faithful handful of disciples of St. Stephen Lutheran Church to head over to Flying J truck stop for a couple of hours to provide showers, do laundry with people, and eat with people at Denny’s. We go over to the truck stop because we know there are people who are living in the parking lot in their vehicles and there are transient people passing through. And we start with a belief that everyone deserves to feel human, to be clean, to have food in their stomach, and most importantly, to be community where people aren’t looking at you and judging you.
Last night was our normal time to do this, but it was anything but normal. When we started this ministry, I knew there were people living in the parking lot, but I didn’t know how many. I knew there were people who needed some basic necessities. I knew there were people who needed to be reminded of their humanity. I knew there were people who were doing what they could with that they had and it wasn’t enough. I knew.
And I shared this with others who took it to heart and followed my lead – as crazy as it sounded. And we went over to the truck stop. The first night I wasn’t even there – I was sick, but our people went anyway. And they encountered a man, did laundry with him, and got him food. One person. That’s what it started with. One person. We continued, trying different times and days, just to see when we could encounter more people. There was a time when no one showed up. It was disheartening to say the least. Then we had two who came regularly, but they weren’t living in the parking lot, but they came.
Then the last time we came, we started to encounter a couple of other people. I’m not sure who was blessed more by the encounter – the couple we spent time with, or us. Most likely, both. The blessings just take place in different ways for different people.
And then there was last night. It was our normal time to be there. But it wasn’t normal at all. 15 people came. Not volunteers from the church. People who needed help. People seeking supplies. But really people seeing much more than these simple things.
People seeking humanity. People seeking normalcy. People seeking community, conversation, interaction with others. People seeking out those who care that they exist at all. Isn’t that what we all seek – regardless of our economic status, the possessions we have, and the work we do? Aren’t we truly seeking to be acknowledged as existing – to know that someone cares that we are here?
We met all sorts of people last night. The first thing we try to do is learn a person’s name. A person’s name is vital. It is a recognition of the humanity of a person. This isn’t just someone who needs something. This is Owen. This is Adam. This is Rob. This is Jennifer. They are people, just like you and I.
They come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, genders, skin color, and challenges. Some of them have full-time jobs, but they don’t pay enough to allow these folks to find decent housing. They are not slackers, lazy, or dumb.
Last night we showed up with our shapes, sizes, genders, skin color, and challenges of our own. And we got to know new people in our lives. We go to share what we had with people. And they shared what they had with us – their time, their laughter, their stories, their insights, their wisdom, and even some chocolate.
The part of the evening that has the most impact on me is when we go to Denny’s. Because there were so many people, we were actually divided into two separate groups, sitting next to each other at a bunch of tables shoved together.
This was a feast in many ways. There was laughter, joking, sharing of stories, lots of food, and more. There was humanity on display. There was joy. And Jesus was there too. Sitting in our midst. Reclining at the table with us, blessing this meal, sharing the love of God with all present.
While this was our normal evening to go to Flying J, it was anything but normal. It was a blessing. A blessing upon blessing. For both the people being served and those who were serving. The question is this though – what happens where there is blurry line between the served and the serving. Which is which? Yes, we provide some material things, but it’s so much more than that. It’s koinonia at its core. It is proclaiming boldly the Good News of God’s loving and saving presence in the world – only this time at the Denny’s in a truck stop. We don’t always know where or what the blessing will be, but we know that when Jesus shows up and encounters us, lives are changed – both those served and those serving. In this sense, there is no difference between serving and being served. We are all serving and being served at the same time – serving Christ and being served by him.
Blessing upon blessing. That’s the new normal. That’s the miracle that is happening on the Miracle Mile.
There will always be someone else who needs help. We have the potential to spend all day trying to fix others, to solve problems, to deal with emergencies, etc.
And in the process, you won’t be any further along than when you started. You’ll often be more tired, but feel good about your deeds.
The challenge is this – do we do the short-term fix or do we work with people for long-term change? Short term feels good. It requires minimal investment of time and energy. It requires minimal investment of relationship too. We can throw money at the “problem” and move on. But has a person’s life really changed? Have they been transformed?
Churches receive many requests for “help.” Some are legitimate and other request are a bit more questionable. Often requests are in emergency stages – only a day or two away from drastic action being taken. Things like eviction. Which always raises questions in my mind – why did this person wait until the last-minute? What caused them to wait until the situation was desperate?
One of the things I look for is the attitude of a person. I’m not talking about whether they treat others with respect or show gratitude – those are good things though. I’m talking about how a person seeks out help. Does the person really want help, or do they just want the pressure of the situation to be reduced? The difference is in who is in charge. If a person really wants help, they are open to seeing that their way is not working. They are open to change and adaptation in order to improve their situation.
Others just want relief from the situation. They want you to respond on their terms, on their time frame, with what they want, when they want it, with limited questions. These folks are interested in improving their lives, just getting rid of the situation. There is no desire for relationship or community. There is no openness to change or learning.
The question becomes, do we have an obligation to only provide relief? Or to just focus on help? If someone is seeking out resources from a church or anyone else for that matter, are they admitting that their way isn’t working? Some are not willing to acknowledge this. Is it tough love to withhold relief from someone who has no desire to change? Is it cruel to withhold relief to someone who repeatedly finds themself in emergencies?
Awhile back, we had an individual who called the church seeking relief. They had a couple of days to come up with $500 for back rent or else they would be evicted. It became an emergency for them. But there is a difference between urgency and important and who’s problem it is. We found out from the land lord that this person has been at their location for 44 months and had been late 17 times – That’s almost 40% of the time this person resided at this location. Providing relief in this instance would do very little to help this person – at least in a meaningful and lasting way. The person wasn’t interested in building a relationship or being a part of a community – only seeking out resources to provide relief from the pressure of the emergency.
So, do churches have an obligation to provide relief always? Or is there a different way? I think there is a different way. I think we need to ask a few questions. We need to ask if a person really wants help, or if they only want relief. And each church needs to decide – are they interested in working with people provide relief, or do they feel called to more and to something deeper. Help is longer term. It involves a commitment from the person and from the church. It involves an intertwining of lives. It involves getting to know people’s stories and finding the value they bring. It’s about community. But this is costly and often frustrating. It’s much cheaper and easier to throw money at a problem – relief.
Having said this, relief has its role – there’s no denying it. But the church also has an opportunity and a calling to be more than just a relief agency. We are called to showcase how encounters with Jesus change lives. We are called to build community and relationships. We are called for the long-term, not the easy fix. We are called to respond with grace and mercy and forgiveness and show repentance. To live the Gospel.
Actually, sports have been around for a long time. There are many elements of sports that are similar to religion. In some sense, I guess there are some who could claim that a sporting event is a religious experience.
There are people who make pilgrimages to their favorite teams home stadium. There’s something about gathering a large group of people together – most cheering for the same team. In many respects, sports can be a positive thing to bring people together.
The same is true for kids sports too. This isn’t a post bashing sports. Two of our kids participate in youth sports and I coach on of their teams. Kids learn some valuable lessons that can only found in sports – teamwork, loyalty, hard work, sportsmanship, how to win, how to lose, how to improve.
But there’s also a negative side too – when sports takes the primary position in life. I see this with families who become absent from church because of sports tournaments, games, and practices during different seasons. Again, my point here isn’t to sit around and whine about this, but rather just to point it out.
Jesus doesn’t offer scholarships. And lately, some coaches seem to have more pull than pastors.
The reality is that if churches are going to attract young families, then we need to rethink the relationship they have with church. We need to rethink time, what worship might look like, how to engage youth and more.
Having said this, I’m also not a big fan of completely changing everything to accommodate everyone else’s schedule. If something is important, then people will rearrange their schedule and provide the resources necessary to support it. This is true for religion as well as sports.
The point is that there is an opportunity for church with these families. The opportunities might not look like more activities – they already have a jam-packed schedule. Instead, maybe there is an opportunity to do something else – tap into what people are already doing. An example of this might be dinner church. Everyone has to eat – why not do a dinner church with a team before a practice, or after practice. Maybe work with a team on offering a special blessing for the team. There are opportunities. We just need to open our minds to the possibilities.
Last week, which seems like a lifetime ago, the US responded with a missile attack on Syria for the controlling regime’s apparent chemical weapons strike on their own people.
This is not an easy topic. Like most international geopolitical situations, there isn’t a nice easy black and white answer to an extremely difficult and complex situations that have been going on longer than anyone can remember.
Allegedly the regime in charge of Syria used chemical weapons against their own people. The American president stated that a line had been crossed and would be responding with or without the support of the international community. And he followed through on that.
It’s easy to get caught up in the arguments that exist regarding this. Unfortunately, our nation is so polarized with blinders on our eyes that people who support the president were willing to support anything he said or did while those who oppose him would oppose anything he did. I imagine that had he not done a missile strike then his supporters would have supported that and those opposed would offered their reasons for why they opposed the inaction. It’s not the actions that people are upset about anymore – but rather who makes them.
Which gets me to Jesus. And why I titled this post the way I did.
When the culture is polarized as it is, then certain things happen. We shift how we make decisions. We shift our center point – the foundation of our lives to things that aren’t God.
For Christians, this means that there is a shift from Jesus. Jesus preached “Blessed are the peacemakers,” (Matthew 5:9) in the section of the Sermon on the Mount called the Beatitudes. But is that what we really believe? Is this what we practice – regardless of who is calling the shots?
In the arguments around the chemical attack and missile strike response, I haven’t heard people argue from a standpoint of following their faith – just political talking points. The military action was short and quick. And the responses were just as quick and destructive – showing our shallow allegiances.
Jesus’ preaching in the Sermon on the Mount is uncomfortable and inconvenient. Read Matthew 5-7 for yourself if you haven’t done so lately. You come away pretty clear where Jesus stands. Yet, for those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus, we have to ask this question – was Jesus full of it? Do we really believe the person we claim to follow? Or do we make excuses because Jesus wouldn’t understand the context?
Do we claim the label of Christ-follower, but really believe that Jesus doesn’t know what he’s talking about?
The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10) are as especially large challenge to our way of life and thinking here in the US. We are a nation that values being the strongest, the biggest, the most fierce, the most independent, the most special, the victors, etc. Yet, Jesus doesn’t say blessed are the strongest. He doesn’t say blessed is the one with the best military. He doesn’t say blessed are those who pick themselves up by their bootstraps. He speaks of the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are merciful, and the peacemakers, among other attributes.
Did Jesus really know what he was talking about? Or are these sayings just a nice set of sentiments that we can put off to the side when life gets complicated and uncomfortable? Do we take Jesus seriously? Or is Jesus just full of it?
There are many who like to claim that America is a Christian nation. What that means though is up for debate. What does a nation have to do/say/believe/etc in order to qualify as a “Christian” nation? There isn’t an official list anywhere.
I’m going to take a stab at this. I welcome your thoughts on this too because I certainly don’t have the answers.
Are we a Christian nation because we elect people who campaigned and let everyone know they were a Christian? Is that all it takes? If so, then we’ve got that one down. Does making the claim about being a Christian make it so?
Are we a Christian nation because we follow Jesus command in the Great Commission? Well, we don’t endorse any religion in this country, so I’m not sure how we would meet this requirement.
Are we a Christian nation because we have political leaders who say “God bless the USA?” We’ve got that covered pretty well.
Are we a Christian nation because we follow Jesus example in the Sermon on the Mount as laid out in Matthew 5-7? I’d say we are pretty far off on that one.
Are we a Christian nation because of some ambiguous set of laws or policies that supposedly carry out Christianity – but only certain varieties of Christianity? If Christianity is just another weapon in the ongoing left-right political war in our nation, then we have that covered pretty well.
Are we a Christian nation because Christmas is a national holiday even though it’s more about Santa and consumerism and nostalgia rather than the Birth of Christ? Check, covered.
Are we a Christian nation because there are televangelists hawking really bad theology like the prosperity gospel and the Rapture? Definitely got that covered.
What is a Christian nation? Probably one that doesn’t get wrapped up in worrying about being labeled as a Christian nation for one thing. The focus wouldn’t be on national identity, but rather caring for the least and the lost. It would be a nation that would do what it could to get women and youth out of sexual slavery in our own nation. It would be a nation that would promote good stewardship of creation. It would be a nation that welcomed refugees fleeing war. It would be a nation that did what it could for the homeless and the poor. It would be a nation that valued human life from the very beginning to the very end. It would be a nation that focused more on seeing change in people, rather than locking them up. It would be a nation that actually faced its own sin of racism. It would be a nation that practiced the Sermon on the Mount as the highest virtue of the land.
Do we live in a Christian nation? Depends on how you define it. If you are looking at a superficial definition, then you don’t need to look very far or deep. But if you start to dig, you are going to be disappointed. Or maybe not. If we dropped the lie that we are a Christian nation, then maybe we could actually start living out what it means to be Christians.
I keep getting the same reminder when I log into Facebook – that I only have x number of days to register in a political party to vote in Pennsylvania’s primary election.
I’ve gotten this “ad” in my news feed for several days.
And each day I look it and think – thanks for the reminder. I also smile because it’s a reminder to me that while Facebook might have my data and information, it really doesn’t know me at all.
If it really knew me, the message would be far different. It might still be a reminder that there is a deadline for registering in a partisan party. But also offer a way to register a complaint to the commonwealth that non-partisan registered votes have to pay for these primary elections.
If you are registered in a political party – great. Good for you! Leave me alone. You want to have a primary to figure out who is going to represent your party in the fall – go for it. And pay for it yourself while you are at it. I probably won’t like whoever you select anyway. And I don’t buy the rhetoric of either party – they set themselves up as the savior of the nation, with mini-messiahs to share the “good news” of the party. How many converts and financial supporters can each party get? What will a party have to switch positions on in order to fit the ideological beliefs of the person in charge? War is peace. We have always been at war with Eastasia. (Some handy references to the book 1984 by George Orwell for those not familiar with those quotes.)
If Facebook really knew me, then maybe the reminder would be completely different. Maybe it would say something like this – “Only a few more days until worship commences of the Risen Christ, Savior of the World! Be sure to tell your friends!” Or maybe it would say something like this – “Only a week until the next ministry time over at Flying J where you and a small group of people actually try to carry out Jesus’ command to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, etc.”
You want my information Facebook – you can have it on one condition. That you take what I preach and you help me spread the message of the Good News to others. This is what I actually care about. It’s what I post about more often than not. Yet, somehow it doesn’t register with your fancy programs. Maybe because the Good News of Jesus counters the false gospels that we are inundated with. Facebook, you don’t know me – you don’t know me at all.
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