Sunday, December 14, 2014

"With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility": Our Demand for the Superhero Fantasy

Yes, this post is my Spider-Man post.   I am Menno.  I am Nerd.  Hear me roar.

I have often wondered about the popularity of superheroes.   I understand that they are the new versions of mythology, gods come to effect the earth.  But there are fundamental differences between the ancient myths and modern comic book stories.  First, the ancient myths were about the foundations of everyday life, whether talking about the creation of the world or the development of music, or government structures.   Superhero stories are about people working within the structure of a world we already have.  As time goes on, comic books became more about people who are fundamentally humans with unique gifts. 

Second, superheroes relate to humanity on an everyday, normal basis, many holding down jobs and “secret identities” so they don’t become separate from humanity.  The gods purposed to be separate, only mixing it up when  they had particular lusts, jealousies or angers to take out on their lesser  creations.  Superheroes are human first (even when alien) and super second.

The ancient world had one hero who was most like a superhero and that’s Heracles.  He had a wife and children and interacted with kings, with his home being earth not Olympus.  But he was also a raging maniac, killing his wife and children and fundamentally uncaring about other people, at least less so than his own emotional state.  If Heracles appeared in modern comic books, he’d be a super villain, if perhaps a sympathetic one.

So if the ancient myths and superheroes fulfill different purposes, then why do we have them?  Why are they the most popular form of pulp fiction today?  

I think it has to do with a loss of innocence on our part.  The rise of the superhero can be tracked along with the rise of the police procedural.  All throughout history there are stories about corrupt authority, beginning with the myths and Gilgamesh and the Bible all the way to current myths like V for Vendetta and 1984. Authority has always been seen as this mix between noble duty and selfish interest for those who wield power.  

World War I showed us just how corrupt and destructive authority could be.  In the years between the world wars, there is an ideal of authority presented—how they are working for peace, and those who follow the law are those who have nothing to fear from the law.  World War II in popular culture showed that authority’s primary aim is to save us from evil forces that want to destroy our way of live and our families.   Every superhero created between the wars, got behind the war effort in WWII and some, like Captain America, were created specifically to battle the Nazis, in the guise of super villains like the Red Skull.

In the 60s, the place and motivation of authority was widely questioned, so it was time for heroes like Spider-Man and the X-men.  Those who had power and authority and used it for the good of humanity, despite the fact that authorities distrusted them and tried to capture them.   It was time for the Silver Surfer, who rebelled against his authority/god, using his lesser powers to assist humanity.  It was time for the Hulk, whose power was, at best, a two-edged sword, which could cause equal amounts of benefit and destruction and was simply a ticking time bomb.

Superheroes are ultimately stories about the use of power and authority.  They represent the ideal of what we want our authorities to do.  Superheroes are incorruptible, they have principles of justice which cannot be assailed.   Superheroes act for the benefit of all people, all the time, having the greatest powers of violence, but only use them for peace.  Superheroes have the principle that they will not kill, even the evil, believing that justice is best served by procedure and not by quick judgments.

Superhero comic book stories are our fantasy of how power and authority should be used.  We want our police forces and military forces and politicians to have a moment of awareness, like the Iron Giant, who chooses to be Superman instead of a gun.  To choose to use one’s power to save humanity and not to destroy.

Today,  we are re-examining our authority structures and realizing that they are not all their propaganda say they are.  Well, we already knew that, but we used to be able to live with it, looking at the long term progress and ignoring the short term injustices. 

But we are beginning to see, as a nation, that we no longer accept simply guns in our neighborhood, making violent decisions for a self-righteous few.  We want Superman.

We want authorities with power who will use that power for the benefit of all, not just a few.  We are tired of corrupt politicians.  We are tired of a military that works for the benefit of corporations.  We are tired of police forces that attack the vulnerable, simply because they can.  We are living in an existence in which our Superman is under the thumb of Lex Luther.  We want Superman to live according to principles of peace and justice and love. 

The only way to have authorities live out our superhero fantasies is to make them subject to principles of justice and love, and that requires real accountability.   If a politician is corrupt and self-serving, not living according the principles of public  benefit, they should be immediately dismissed.  If a military force kills the innocent, they should be held accountable and dismissed if they fail to see that human life is the basis for human morality.  If a police officer abuses their authority, harming or killing the vulnerable when they had other options, they should no longer be allowed to be an authority.  Because ultimately, we all understand the principle of “With great power comes great responsibility.”

If we are driving a car, we have greater responsibilities and accountability than if we are walking down a street.  We are all human, we all make mistakes.  But if our freedom to drive a two ton vehicle causes the death of another because of our human carelessness, then it is called manslaughter and we are punished for that.  If it is found that we are excessively careless with pushing a car’s weight around, like driving while intoxicated, then our right to drive is taken away.

Even so, those who have authority in our culture have greater weight, greater power than the normal citizen has, and so must be held to a higher accountability.  If a person wants to carry a gun, they should go through training and safety precautions like we do with a car. If, in use of one’s right to carry a gun, a person kills, they should be held accountable for that.  If a person has political authority and uses it to destroy a community, they should be taken out of office immediately.  If a person has the authorized use of force to provide security and they use that force to harm those not processed by justice, then they should be immediately dismissed. 

Don’t tell me that people deserved death when there is no evidence.  Rather, those who have the greater power have the greater responsibility or they must lose their power.  Uncle Ben was right.  As usual. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Driven by Fear

There are certain fears that we should respect.  Fear of cliffs.  Fear of snapping dogs.  Fear of a person who is threatening to kill us.   But when we fear whole groups of people—Blacks, Muslims, the homeless—then we no longer have a proper fear, but rather anxiety.  We are fearful of that which we do not know will harm us. 

Our most natural responses to fear is to either fight or run.  But they are not the only responses possible for human beings.  We might also discuss or argue, threaten or remain passive, we might listen and understand, we might control or establish peace.  When we are authorities, we have even more options than others to that which we fear.  We can order, we can encourage, we can bring in others to help us, we can meet needs. 

I can’t tell people what to fear or not fear.  I can’t tell people what they should be anxious about or not.  But I do know from my own experience that I can control my fear and choose to be rational.  

When I was a child I was attacked by a dog in front of my house.  Since then, barking dogs set an immediate fear response in me.  I can’t control the shot of fear that goes through my brain, but I can recognize in the second moment whether the dog is really a threat or not, and whether someone is handling their dog appropriately.   One time I was out on a trail and an unleased dog was barking at me.  I was wildly afraid of that dog, and the owners telling me that the dog was nice did nothing to ease my mind because the dog clearly did not like me.  I had options.  I could have kicked the dog.  I could have yelled at the owners for their irresponsibility.  I could have decided never to go out on that trail again.  What I chose to do is to firmly ask the owners to keep their dog away from me, and to remind them that the dog should be on a leash.

If a dog is on my property and getting out of control, I have more options.  I could say that no dogs are allowed on the property; I could just ignore the dogs and let them do what they want; or I can get with dog owners and establish a policy that works for everyone.  Because that last was the peaceful solution, allowing ministry to be done for everyone, that’s what we did.  We want to choose options that are best for everyone, despite our fears or anxieties.

As followers of Jesus, we should not allow our fears or anxieties control us.  Rather, by the direction and power of the Holy Spirit, we should set aside our fears in order to live with everyone in love and peace.  If we are directed by our fears, it will spell disaster for everyone.

Yesterday, I was in a crowded parking lot.  An older lady was having trouble making a left turn and ended up having to back up and start again.  Another lady was waiting for her to move, and when she saw the first lady back up, she became nervous and backed her car up as well, even though the first lady wasn’t going to get close to her vehicle.  That’s no problem, of course, being overly cautious and taking care to avoid an accident that wasn’t going to happen, right?  Well, it would have been fine, except that there was a group of three children walking behind the second vehicle, and the second lady was fearful enough of what was happening in front of her, that she didn’t notice the children that she was running into.

When we have power, like a car, we might think of ourselves as a weak, frail human being, but every movement we make affects others.  If we are careless, or respond out of our own deep need or fears, we can harm the weak and the innocent.   When we have power, every move we make is powerful.  And if we use our power in response to fear, rather than a drive to act in peace for everyone around us, then we will be destroyers of peace, and destroyers of lives.

When we use power, we must seek the benefit of all, not just a few.  And if we use power primarily for our own survival, or lifestyle or in response to our fears, then we can cause destruction to many.  It doesn’t matter if that power is money or weapons or authority.  We have a responsibility to everyone around us, especially those weaker than us, to use our power for peace, not our personal protection.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

How Do We End Prejudice in our Society?

Every prejudice in human existence—racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, hobophobia and any other phobia or –ism you wish to name—will not end when we see all people the same as us.  To see all people the same is to grant power to those who already have power, to maintain the current prejudices.  To claim racism and classism doesn’t exist is to say that the status quo of killings and people sleeping in the snow and rape and war is an acceptable cost for our society and culture.  But our society is deeply broken. 

So how do we change?  I'll talk about a couple of ways. There are many more, but these are two that seem anti-intuitive in our society.

First, we must stop seeing people as just as good as us.  We must not look at the African American and say that he is as good as a white man.  Rather, we need to see the black man with all of his cultural differences and irritating habits and recognize that he is better for being black.  In many ways, he is better than a white man, and we need to admire those qualities and thank God that he isn’t the same as a white man and so give him unique opportunities that whites couldn’t get because he’s better than that.  We need to look at a woman and give her opportunities that men couldn’t get because she’s better than he is.  We need to look at the homeless and the Latino and the transgender and the mentally ill and rather than forcing them to fit in as “normal” we need to see their uniqueness and recognize that they deserve an equal place because they are of unique cultures and see things and respond to things differently than we.   We need to stop demanding that these “minority” cultures act “normal” in order to get a seat at the decision-making table.  In a multi-cultural society we need to hear from all cultures to make the society work.  This does not mean fitting each cultural group into a set role—our society tried that and it didn’t work.  Rather, an international corporation needs to hire a black CEO because he is  black.  A church needs to ordain a woman because she is a woman.  A city council needs to invite a homeless advocate to vote because she is homeless.  We allow our children to marry people of other races. Not because they have learned to be “white enough” or “male enough” or “middle-class enough” to be heard.

Second, to end the prejudice of our society, each minority culture and community need to make their own decisions about their communities.  A majority culture leader, or group of leaders, should not be deciding issues for a minority community.  A mayor in the pocket of the business community should not be making decisions for the homeless community.  Yes, the business community’s concerns should be heard and worked with, but they cannot be the deciding factor in a city’s actions to the homeless.  Rather, the leaders of the homeless community should be the loudest voice as to what happens to the homeless community.  The reason for this is because any “solution” handed to a community will never be successful unless they have  bought into it themselves.  And they will never buy into it unless they have the loudest voice in creating it.  Changes in community must come from the community, not from a culture that does not understand the community.  The Hispanic community should be allowed to make their own choices for their community.  Whites shouldn’t be making decisions for them, or for the Black community, as if they “know what’s best for them.”   They don’t.  The rich don’t know what’s best for the poor.  Men can’t decide what’s best for women, nor the other way around.  Groups should be allowed to speak for themselves and to determine their community’s destiny.

We live in a society where all these cultures should be equal.  This means equal opportunities, equal rights, and equal power.  Unfortunately, it is human nature to not give power or opportunity if it means that one’s own person or culture loses opportunity or power.  This is where Christ’s call to humility comes in.  Humility isn’t thinking less of oneself, according to Jesus.  Rather, it is taking a lower station than one deserves.  It is time for those of us who naturally can take a powerful place, whose voices are naturally heard, and give our place to others.  Once we have gained the status and power of this world, it is time for us to step down and surrender it, so that others can have it.  No, they will not use power in the way we thing is best.  In our opinion, they might screw everything up.  But it will be their opportunity, their choices and our society, in the end, will be better for it.

Let us who have control learn to lower ourselves to give others the opportunities we had.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Song of the Ostrich

Don’t speak of injustice, my life is tough enough.
Don’t give me sad stories, I've experienced worse.
Don’t expect me to sympathize.
Don’t request for me to empathize.
Please don’t ask me to change.

I like my life just the way it is, thanks.
I don’t want to change my words or my thoughts.
I won’t give up my comforts
I won’t surrender securities
Please don’t ask me to change.

I live with my fears, please don't take them away
I'll just stay away from those I'd rather not meet
Newer ideas are suicide
I'd rather commit genocide
Just please don't ask me to change.

Don’t use trigger words like “racism,” “poverty”
Or “systemic,” I don’t believe that they exist
We have liberty in the land of the free
Meaning, I want to freely be left alone.
Please don’t ask me to change.

And whatever you do, don’t tell me I’m part of the problem.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Being a Real Church

It is so wonderful how many churches provide a Thanksgiving meal somewhere, and will go to a central location to help the poor. Did you know, though, that in the early church, if a congregation didn't have an active ministry to the poor in their community, they couldn't be called a "church". They could be a meeting, or a prayer group, but they couldn't be a church unless they had a regular work in their church for the poor.
Is your church involved with the poor? Perhaps you are wondering what ways a church can get involved? It really is about looking at your church's resources and making them available.
Here are some ways that I've helped our church and other churches-- whether alone or in network-- reach out to the needy in our communities:
-Offer showers to the homeless
-Community meals inside a church
-Cook a meal to deliver to a soup kitchen
-Cook and serve a meal at a soup kitchen or senior center
-Free clothing closet
-Art studio for the poor
-Transportation for the homeless to services
-Making canned food and produce available for families
-Opening our kitchen for the homeless to cook the food they get from food stamps
-Providing day shelters so the homeless can get out of the weather and the community eye for a few hours a week.
-Offering space in our church facilities for community gardens
-Having a warehouse for items to be given to the poor and homeless
-Overnight shelters on the coldest nights of the year
-Provide haircuts at a soup kitchen
-Provide bike repair at a soup kitchen
-Allow some people who sleep in vehicles to stay in the church parking lot for a period of time.
-Arranging an agreement for one or two responsible homeless folks to stay on church property.
-Gather blankets, socks, sleeping bags, breakfast bars, fruit, individual containers of food, hygiene items, hand warmers and hand them out to the homeless
-Have a trained volunteer church worker who will recommend services to those who call in need.
I haven't done this myself, but I know churches that do:
-Provide bus tickets for the poor
-Offer motel vouchers for the homeless
-Organize lunch and hygiene items and socks in sacks to hand out to the homeless at their camps
-Provide rent or utility assistance to prevent people from becoming homeless
-Provide a social worker to obtain birth certificates and ID for those who have lost theirs
Each of these things require a bit of organization, but they are basic and often provide a huge need for the community. In Gresham, almost all services are provided by churches, doing just what was described above.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Why Is There Such Anger about the Grand Jury's Decision in Ferguson?

I have heard many of my (white) friends question the anger over a single decision.  "Why is there such anger over this decision in Ferguson? And why are there lootings and riots? Why can't they just trust that there wasn't enough evidence to indict?" Here's my answer, as much as I can understand:
The issue has less to do with the particular police officer and whether he acted rightly.  Rather, it has to do with how African Americans have been treated in Ferguson for years.  As my friend Nathan Strong put it:

Ferguson population: just shy of 16,000. (15865)
Race distribution: 63% black, 33.65% white

- Out of 5384 stops, 86% were black, 12.7% white
- Out of 611 searches, 91.9% were black, 7.6% white
- Out of 521 arrests, 92.7% were black, 6.9% white

They have been living with oppression for years at the hands of the police.  They have not exactly trusted that the official systems of Ferguson would offer justice, but they were giving the systems a chance.  An indictment was their last opportunity for justice through "proper channels" and that opportunity was thrown back in their face. 
The oppressed of Ferguson were waiting for some justice. They were peacefully protesting and honestly requesting justice. And they were hoping, if not expecting, that if they insisted, peacefully, to the powers of law and justice that they would receive some justice. Justice, in this case, would primarily mean that the police force would use fairness between the races in their use of the law. That people would not have to be shot if they were unarmed. If the police had said that they would change their policies, or re-train their force, that would have been okay. But in the months since the protests began, there was only defensiveness, not a single move toward change.
 If there is not systemic change from within the police, or from the governors, then they would have been satisfied with a certain level of retribution against one officer who has wronged the African American community. In this case, not only was there not retributive justice, but there was not even the opportunity for a fair trail. Court justice was shut down before it began.
There are also a lot of questions about looting and burning, which makes sense, because it seems self-destructive. First of all, it must be said that the majority of protesters were not violent. And almost all the protests in previous months had no violence in it. There is a minority of people (in every community, not just the African American community) who feel, like a child, that if you can't get attention from acting positively, then you can get attention by acting negatively. Looting and burning is a scream, "If you won't help me, I'll destroy what you think is most important!" No, it isn't productive, and it is self destructive, just like a child's tantrum.
When my first born was a toddler, he would throw long, violent tantrums. After a bit of his self-harm, I would hold him and keep him from lashing out until he had worn himself out. After months of occasionally dealing with this, my wife and I discovered that he was lashing out like this because he wasn't getting enough food. We made sure that he ate enough and then the tantrums stopped, never to return.
If communities want to stop lootings, then they need to give all communities the opportunity to live without oppression and hated. They need to stop assuming that because someone is black and male that they are dangerous. They need to stop beating and shooting those they have hope in. And if there is evidence of a systematic prejudice, the communities need to hear an apology and see real change.
So many of my white friends seem to be under the misapprehension that the issue is whether Darren Wilson used proper force or not. That is not what the protests are about, and that is not what I am upset about. The anger this day is the lost opportunity for the oppressed people of Ferguson to be heard by the systems that oppress them. Until yesterday, there was a chance, however slim, that the systems might have to change to bring justice to the victims of those systems. There is anger because now that chance is lost.
I am personally angry because if the strongly supported oppressed communities of Ferguson can't get justice, then how will my communities of the homeless of Portland and Gresham get justice? They have almost no support asking for justice for them, and they have little energy left to stand up for themselves. If there isn't justice for the African Americans of Ferguson, how can there possibly be justice for the oppressed of my community?
Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Letter to a Partner Church about the Homeless

Anawim Christian Community is a community church among the homeless and mentally ill.  Our partner church is an immigrant church that shares the managerial duties of our facility. 

It has been an interesting four years, hasn’t it?  We have been sharing this church facility, and despite the cultural differences, and ministry differences, it has pretty much worked.  It hasn’t been perfect, God knows that we both understand that.  There has been miscommunication, occasional false accusation, and sharing the facility between us hasn’t always been easy. 

So when you said to our denomination that our ministries, our congregations were incompatible, I understood that and I knew that it was coming.  There has been an increased dissatisfaction on your part that the homeless are around the church property at all.  And when one homeless couple were caught by you having sex on our porch and another homeless man threatened me on the property, that just increased your fear and disgust.   Finding a knife in the sanctuary didn’t help, either.  These are not issues that you expected to have to deal with in the United States with your children around.  But here they are, and you’d rather not have to deal with them anymore.  I understand that.  I would rather not as well.

But a couple things we need to remember: that not all the homeless are having sex or being violent on the property, only a very few.  And we are inviting those who cause problems to change or to not come on the property.   The homeless are not the problem, but only a few people are.  Admittedly, most of the homeless carry knives, because it’s useful to have, just like a knife in the kitchen. 
When you folks came from central Africa, most of you left a desperate situation full of war and violence.  You came to this country and started your church to be at peace, to provide security so that you could pray and see God change your people and your nations.  But instead, you find yourselves in the midst of another war, another area of violence and pain.  I’m not sure you know this, but this very neighborhood our shared church facility is in is the poorest, most violent neighborhood in Oregon.  And it is becoming poorer every year.  I am afraid that you have moved from your desperate situations in Africa to a desperate neighborhood in America.

Yes, there have been some homeless staying on our property occasionally, but we made sure that they weren't dangerous.  And there are people who walk through our property at night, but we have little control over that.  There used to be drug deals and difficulties on our property, but we put a stop to that.  Occasionally, you have found that our janitor has allowed some folks in the church building to get warm or to use the bathroom, and you found that unacceptable.  We are trying to work together in all of these issues, but we don't find them to be irreconcilable. 

The problem is not the homeless.  Rather, our homeless are a symptom of a bigger problem.  It has been discovered that most homeless people, when they are seen by the average American, they are seen as disgusting, lazy people, who brought their own poverty on their heads.  And many people, if not most, are afraid to speak to or approach homeless folks.  I have heard from neighbors that they want us to ask the homeless not to walk down their public streets, or to hang out in their public parks.   Some neighbors have gone around to harass and threaten people of my congregation.  They have called the police and the city, complaining about our people, when our folks have done nothing to harm them, and they come and live in peace.

Who are the homeless?  They aren’t those without jobs, because many of them have jobs.  They aren’t all, or even mostly, addicts.  They aren’t all mentally ill, although a few are.  The one thing all the homeless have in common is that they have no network of family or friends to support them when they faced a personal crisis.  Some of them lost their jobs, some of them lost their marriages, some of them lost themselves, and there was no one to support them.  Some of these folks have family that not only don’t support them, but they actively pull the rug out from under them.  I have seen a father drive his sober 16-year-old daughter to our overnight shelter instead of taking her home.  I know of at least two families that take the check of their disabled family members, use it for their own expenses and keep them out of their house, with none of the money that is rightfully theirs.  I know of people who have been falsely accused and persecuted by their friends, so they have no one to turn to.  I also know of some folks who have brought their homelessness on their own heads, and their families will have nothing to do with them because they don’t want to be hurt.  But none of them have anyone to turn to.

Once you have been turned away from your own people and place, then you are targeted by society.  If you sleep in a sleeping bag in public, or in your car, then your neighbors assume you are a criminal.  If you look like a homeless person, then strangers will assume you are a criminal.  And they will call the police on you, because you are in their area, which they consider safe… or they used to consider safe until the homeless person showed up, loitering.  And the police will ask the homeless person to move on, or perhaps they will give the homeless person a ticket, or, if the homeless person refuses to cooperate, then they might arrest them.  There are a few police officers who believe that all homeless people to be criminals, and they will abuse and attack them with their dogs and their taser guns.  They might give the homeless person a command to leave the city, or the county, and to not come back.  This is despite a person having grown up in this community.

In our city this year the homeless have been particularly harassed.  It used to be that the police would be told to move the homeless folks a few times every year.  This year, it has been continuous since June.  There is no park, no private space, no woods, no empty house where the homeless can remain for more than a few days or a few hours before they are woken by the police and told that they have thirty minutes to move on or be ticketed or arrested.  No place, except one.

That’s right.  Our facility.

The city police have called our property a “bubble” where the homeless are safe.  They won’t bother street folks if they are on our property, day or night. The police have even driven people to our facility in our off hours because they knew the homeless would be welcome here for a few hours to rest safely.  Most of the police have no joy in arresting the homeless.  They just want to do their job.  And they see our property as partnering with them to keep peace in the neighborhood.

It is unfortunate that the city doesn’t see it that way.  The city has sent inspectors, encouraged by some of the neighbors, to clear everyone out, even our security people.  We acquiesced, because we cannot afford seven hundred dollars a day.  I guess the city hasn’t let the police know, because they are still bringing the homeless here.  And they get upset when we tell them that we can’t allow anyone to stay on the property.

Meanwhile, our church of the homeless is growing and becoming more fruitful.  I wish you could have seen our emergency overnight shelters last week.   We had groups of people cleaning the church facility all night, others cooking for the community, and others keeping people calm and others caring for the sick among us.  I wish you would come on any Tuesday and see about a dozen homeless folks care for this property, almost all of them without pay, simply because they care for the community that has been built here.  Because they are grateful for an opportunity to stay for as long as they do.  I wish you had come early this Sunday morning seeing the ten or so people who slept under the awning of the Red Barn, cleaning up and raking and expressing their gratitude that they had one more night of safe sleep. 

As far as that person who threatened me?  He realized that he couldn’t do that here and has been on the property actively controlling himself and keeping the peace.  He’s changing, but slowly.  Because that’s the pace at which change happens.  The couple who had sex on the front porch?  They realized that wasn’t acceptable and apologized. 

When I see our homeless community, I consider what Jesus sees when he looks at them.  I believe that he doesn’t see them as disgusting or criminals.  He has compassion on them as “sheep without a shepherd”, and he walks among them, healing their wounds, both inner and outer, giving them an opportunity to follow Him.  Not all make that choice, but many do.  But Jesus allows the crowd to remain, because, over time, a new context will create change and establish the Kingdom of God in the midst of our poor, violent neighborhood.

But these folks aren’t really without a shepherd.  Jesus has called me and my companions to be their shepherds.  Some of us shepherds are even homeless, destitute, overworked, oppressed.  We are doing the best we can with what Jesus has given us.  We are here to bring peace in the midst of the war we find ourselves in.  We are here to love those whom the world despises.  We are here to eat with the sinners and tax collectors.

And in the midst of our work, we want to be a blessing to you as well.  We want to provide a facility that you can bless and be at peace and build up your own corner of the Kingdom of God.  We want you to thrive and be joyful.  We want you to live as a community of peace.

But we cannot participate in your peace if you insist that the cost of that is to oppress our people.  If you want to bless your oppressed people by taking away the blessings of our oppressed people, we cannot participate in that.  We will not call our people “unholy” because they smoke or carry knives, because that is not how Jesus sees them.  We will not tell our people that they are not welcome here (unless they do violence or steal).  We will not give our people less hope than they already have.  We will not take away their healing.

We are not asking you to do the ministry God has called us to.  Rather, we only ask that you give us, and our partners, the opportunity to fulfill the command of the Lord: “When I was hungry, you fed me.  When I was thirsty, you gave me drink. When I was a stranger, you gave me shelter. When I was sick, you visited me. When I was in prison, you came to me.”  We affirm that to not do these actions to our homeless who come to us is denying our Lord and Savior.  This we cannot do.

Thank you for listening.

Pastor Steve

Monday, November 3, 2014

Transformative Peacemaking

At our church, we allowed Rachel to sleep on our front porch, because she was homeless and working two jobs and just needed a hand up for a while.  I was walking around the property, and I heard a hoarse scream.  I walked over to the front porch and saw a man bending over Rachel, choking her in her sleep. 

It was Mark, her ex-boyfriend who has an abusive streak.  I yelled at him to get away from her, and he backed away.  Rachel began crying, but she wasn't seriously hurt.  I called 911, and Mark approached me.  "You don't know what she's done to me!  You are allowing her to prostitute herself and sell drugs on your property!"  He approached me, threateningly.  "What are you going to do, huh?  Call the police?"

"Mark, just leave."

"Why, are you afraid of me? You can't do anything to me."  He bumped my chest and started to push me, trying to knock me down so he can hit me.

Just then, a fellow pastor came around the corner, but he stood, stunned, not knowing what to do.  
"Yes, Mark, I'm calling the police.  You are not allowed to abuse."  Mark pushes me again.

Then my janitor, also staying on the property, came out with a baseball bat, ready to use it.  I said to him, "Trevor, put that down.  We don't need a baseball bat."

At the sight of Trevor, twice his size and ready to defend me, Mark backs away, gets on his bike and begins to leave.  I follow him so I can see where he's going.

He stops and yells back, "You never accept me the way you do other people.  You aren't fair to me."

I say, "Mark, I won't accept violence or abuse or threats here.  If you come to abuse, then you will not be welcome.  But if you come in peace, we will give you peace. But for now, you have to go."

He rides away, saying, "You think I need you?  I don't need you."

In the next month, my fellow pastor declared to our denomination that our ministries were "incompatible" because they were trying to provide a place of security and that incident proved to him that our church just wasn't safe. "If they would threaten Steve like that, then what would they do to me?" We are considering dissolving our partnership, not because he is afraid of Mark, but because the incident with Mark put in his heart fear of all of my homeless congregation.

But last week I saw Mark, sleeping on our couch.  I gave him a roll of toilet paper,  He thanked me.  He was at peace, and he wasn't interested in threatening anyone.

Peace is not only about safety for the good people in our lives, but also creating peace in the people who are violent or abusive.  Jesus doesn't call us just to be at peace, but to make peace.  Making peace involves serious risk.  It means stepping in the lives of those who are violent, of those who are haters, of those who want to abuse us and finding inroads of transformation.  If we meet violence with violence, then we will be haters.  But if we meet hatred with acts of kindness and mercy, then we will be peacemakers, transformers toward community.

Here are some ways to take the angry and violent and to begin the process of transformation:

1. Listen to them
Give them a chance to speak their perspective.  Don't interrupt or disagree with them, no matter how wrong headed they are.  They need a chance to speak their perspective.

2. Agree with them
Find something that you can agree with, even if most of what they say you can't.  Let them hear that you've really listened to them and can see how they are right about some of what they are saying.

3. Meet their needs
Everyone has needs, and if you are able to meet that need, then you are seen to be on their side, creating a bond.  The violent need connection, to feel that someone actually cares about them. If they are cared for, then they are less likely to lash out.

4. Explain the broader perspective
Let them see how their behavior is hurting others. Try to explain what it would be like if they were receiving the treatment that they are giving, and how they would naturally react. Explain to them how important it is to have a place of peace for all involved.

5. Give them respect
Don't yell or lash out against them.  Speak gently, but firmly.  Be as friendly as possible. 

6. Don't compromise on the safety of all
If a person refuses to give peace, then they must leave.  We don't have to punish them, or hurt them, but we cannot have them around if they are going to be violent or threatening.  A group of people forcing them to separate from their target works to do that. 

7. Pray for them
God is the main transformative agent, so we need to get him involved.  Pray for the violent, asking God to give them new hearts, and to protect the vulnerable. 

If you are abused or threatened, don't try to handle your abuser yourself.  The abuser is not objective about you.  Sometimes we need to realize that as much as we want an abuser to be transformed, there are times that we cannot be involved in the process.  Separate from the abuser until he or she is willing to get help stopping their abuse.  

As churches, we should all get training to learn how to deal with the violent.  We should be places that create peace in the midst of violence.  We will need some training to do that.  I highly recommend the training provided by Lombard Peace Center.

All the names in the story have been changed.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Five Timeless Heresies of the Church

For Reformation Day, when Martin Luther's 95 theses against the church mis-doctrine of indulgences are celebrated, I want to remind us of a few ways the church continues to misguide us all. 

1.       The church has the right to oppress heresies or immoralities
Heresies and immoralities come and go.  There will always be a sin that people call righteous and there will always be an evil doctrine that people call godly.  But the response of the true church to these is not to fight them or attack them.  The true church, in humility, realizes that neither our doctrine nor practice is perfect.  The true church will discuss, and point toward Jesus.  The true church realizes that Jesus alone is the true teacher and that Jesus is the only judge.  Thus, we do not judge for ourselves, nor teach our own doctrine or practice, but just point to Jesus.   And, like Jesus, we harm no one, nor let a hateful word pass our lips.

2.       The church is a place of safety from the world
We see our properties and buildings as holy places, a place of purity and quiet to worship the Lord.  To do that, we lock ourselves off from the chaos of the world, we separate ourselves from sinners and we create peace for those who live according to the tenants of our community.  But Jesus lived among the demon-possessed, the lepers and the chronically ill, in order to bring healing.  Jesus ate and fellowshipped with sinners, making them family.  Jesus offered peace to those who have no peace in themselves.  The church is not to create safety for itself, but safety for those who truly need it—the vulnerable of the world.

3.       Church leadership is a means of gain
Many become pastors because it is a decent profession and they want to help people.  Many become pastors because they want to discuss theology and the Bible and make a living at it.  Some become church leaders because they see it as a means of avoiding poverty and even a means of power for them and their family.  But Jesus said that church leadership is not a means of power or gain, but rather a means of slavery.  True leadership in the church is lowliness, poverty and the acceptance of persecution.  Jesus’ true leaders are those who give and give and give until there is nothing left to give, who drain themselves in love.

4.       Money and influence is power for the church
Churches and church leaders often complain that there is not enough money to run their programs, that they need more volunteers, that they need to wield more influence on the world.  They want to change the world and build community and they see wealth and people and politics as the means to create true change.  But according to Jesus, true change happens through resurrection, and resurrection only happens through the cross.  True change occurs when we completely trust the Power that enacts change.  The greatest power in the world for change is trust in God, and we enact that trust by living according the merciful will of God.

5.       Oppression of the church is to be avoided

We pray for our persecuted brothers throughout the world, and we might seek political change to ease their suffering.  We are willing to fight and even bomb those who threaten the lives of our fellow Christians.  We will enact cultural war so we need not change our traditions and practices for any outside influence.  But Jesus said that we are not to fight persecution, but rejoice in it.  We are not to fear tribulation, but to recognize that it is the key to open the door to the kingdom of heaven.  It is a means of opening up the heavens so that blessings would come down upon us.  For when we have the comforts and support of this world, we will not obtain the greater blessings of God.  The oppressed church is the normative church.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Way: Meditations on Frailty

Rejoice in the full moon!
For her light is not her own
But merely reflects what she is given.

Rejoice in the half moon!
For she is in the midst of change,
Embracing what light she is given.

Rejoice in the new moon!
For in her weakness she has the capacity
To become full of light
And her emptiness is her potential.

Do not fear your darkness
It is simply emptiness that must be filled
By light.
Demand not light
But simply embrace it when it comes.
As you walk on the way
Collect what light you find,
And so reduce your emptiness.

So many look at their emptiness
And call it light!
They cannot bear to have darkness,
Thus they call their darkness maturity.
Real light reflects Light above:
Full grace
Full mercy
Full purity
Full compassion.
Let not the light in you
Be found to be darkness.

The sun neglects no one
But warmly, gently embraces all.
Some feel burdened by this embrace,
Shaking their fist at the sky,
But even they could not live without the radiance.
Others regret that they do not
Receive more warmth, more grace,
But we only appreciate abundant mercy
After experiencing emptiness.

Once we have defined Truth
And understand it from high to low
Only then can we be certain
That we have never understood Truth at all
Truth is not an entity to be contained,
But a person, containing deep mystery.
Truth adjusts to context, as a person evolves.
To connect to Truth we must first
Embrace our ignorance.
Instead of imprisoning Truth
We must allow Truth in our souls
As He wills.

Truth can only be revealed by Truth
If someone says they have found Truth
And point at themselves,
Their ideas, their ambitions,
They do not know Truth at all.
The sincere speaker of Truth
Always points away from himself.
For Truth is complete only in itself.
The greatest Truth-teller is the empty one.

This is a mystery:
The Truth-seeker is the maiden
Gorgeous in her emptiness
She seeks what she knows not
When she is filled with love
Then she is transformed
Into the beauty of motherhood
Which is the beginning of her journey.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Eleven Radical Anawim Principles

Anawim is a Hebrew word which means, in context, “the poor who seek the Lord for deliverance.”  It is used frequently in the Psalms and book of Proverbs, including Psalm 37:11, “the anawim shall inherit the earth”, which is quoted by Jesus in Matthew 5:5.  The anawim are the focus of God’s acts of salvation, and the inheritors of God’s kingdom.

Anawim is also a community church in Portland, Oregon.  It is a church whose members are from a variety of denominations, most of whom are homeless, almost all of whom are desperately poor.  Within the United States, one of the most prosperous countries on the earth, is a huge population living in what some may deem third world conditions.  Without electricity, without easy access to toilet facilities, without showers, even if they have a job, this population struggles to survive.  And this same population is targeted by local governments to be assumed to be criminals and ne’er do wells, simply because they are forced to live their poverty out in public.   This is the population of Anawim: the homeless, the mentally ill, the desperately poor, the rejected, the outcast due to economic disadvantage.

As a community, we have a number of principles by which we live, which makes us a unique church, unlike most any others.  Here are some of the principles:

1.       We not only speak of our love of God and neighbor, we show it. 
It is not enough to talk a good talk if we do not live it out.  Theology and doctrine isn’t the primary indication of being a follower of Jesus, or a member of God’s kingdom.  Living it out is. “Faith, if it has no works, is dead”
Below each of the following principles, we will describe some of the ways in which we live these principles out.

2.       Our resources are for the poor
We are not building a “Christian” community, but a community of the poor and vulnerable.  Our buildings, our finances, our worship, our housing, our food are all primarily for those who lack these very things.  We seek those who need the most in our community. “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.”
Our facility is used to shelter those who need a secure place to be, both day and night.  Our kitchen is used primarily by the homeless who have no facility to cook in.  Our shower is used by those who have no shower.  Our bathrooms are open to those who have no place to use the bathroom. Our community house offers rest to those who do not have a place to live.

3.       We are multi-cultural
One of the gravest problems in any society is monoculturalism, the myopic viewing of the world through only one point of view.  We seek to build relationships with people of different languages, different social groups and different ethnicities so that we might learn to get out of our own narrow-mindedness, and understand the breadth of God’s variety.  “Before the throne and before the Lamb are those of every tribe and all nations, peoples and tongues.”
Our church facility is used by four different congregations: One African, one Hmong, one Hispanic and one homeless.  We invite middle class people to both serve and participate in our meals, especially to relate to our homeless and needy.

4.       We live by faith
We don’t know where tomorrow’s meal will come from.  We don’t know whether we will have tomorrow the shelter that we depended on today.  We seek God to provide for us, knowing that God often provides in the very last minute.  “Give us this day our daily bread”
Our prayer is our means of survival on a minute-by-minute basis.  As an organization, we only occasionally ask for funds, allowing the Spirit to move people to give as He sees fit.

5.       We share all that we have
We cannot live without each other, because none of us have enough to live well on our own.  When one person has an excess, then he or she shares with others, so that we may all live in plenty.  When one is lacking in basic needs, they can go to others in the community to try to meet their needs, whether food, shelter or clothing.  “There was not a needy person among them because… they would lay good at the apostle’s feet who would distribute to all who had need.”
Our facilities are set up to be places of giving and receiving, where churches and individuals can drop off their excess so that we can give it to the needy throughout Portland.

6.       We sell nothing we are given
If we receive a donation as a gift, we do not sell it to receive the money from it.  Rather, we find those who could use the donation and give it to them freely.  “Freely you have received, freely give.”
All the clothing, furniture, food and other items that Anawim receives is distributed freely to the poor in the Portland area.

7.       We disobey any law that is in disobedience to mercy
If we come against an ordinance or law that commands us not to love or show mercy to those in need, we will try to go around the law, but ultimately we must openly disobey if that is our only option.  We will always obey the higher command to love.  “We must obey God rather than men.”
We will allow people to sleep on our property in emergency situation, even when that is in opposition to local camping or housing ordinances.

8.       We make peace
We go to where there is violence and create a community of peace.  We use peacemaking principles in order to subdue violent ways and create a community that not only is at peace with itself but will create peace in the community at large.  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God.”
We hold biblical peacemaking trainings for the homeless and for other churches.  We constantly affirm the principles of peacemaking throughout our shelters, offering a constant training of the mind of peace.  We prevent and mediate conflict among those who come to our facility.

9.       We seek to convert the violent and immoral
We are not content to have a community of peace, but rather continue to seek the criminal and the mentally ill and the violent in order to give them an opportunity of a new life of peace in Jesus.  “Eating with the sinners and tax collectors.”
We invite anyone to eat of our food, to take showers and to get clothes, only asking that they refrain from violence on the property.  Those who attempt to bring drugs to the property or who attempt to do violence we offer alternatives.

10.   We accept suffering as our lot
We recognize that our calling is not an easy calling, and we face violence and difficulty daily.  This long term ministry (which we have been participating in for twenty years) wears on us, and we struggle to persevere.  Our neighbors, the local governments and even some of those we serve attack us and make our burden that much harder.  But we seek the Lord to give us strength and endurance.  “Without many tribulations, no one can enter the kingdom of God.”
When we are yelled at, we do not yell back.  When we are threatened, we do not threaten back. When we are hit, we do not hit back. Rather, we seek God’s mercy for all.

11.   We seek to convert the church
The church is lost, focusing on doctrine, focusing on myopic communities, focusing on the wealthy, focusing on middle class values, focusing on comforts.  We seek to remind the church of the radical message of Jesus, calling us to radical lives not just scandalous words.  Ultimately, we seek to transform the church from an entity compromised with the values of the world to step out and be truly unique in the image of Jesus.  “Be not conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

We encourage and teach radical discipleship in our denomination, and on the internet.  We partner with local churches to join us in radical giving to the poor.

To see more about Anawim, please visit our website, Nowhere To Lay His Head

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Big Picture-- What is the purpose of humanity?

In the beginning, God created the ecosystem.

He made all things to fit together so that not a single aspect of creation loses out.  It’s described in Psalm 104:

He established the earth upon its foundations, So that it will not totter forever and ever….
He sends forth springs in the valleys; They flow between the mountains;
They give drink to every beast of the field; The wild donkeys quench their thirst.
Beside them the birds of the heavens dwell; They lift up their voices among the branches.
He waters the mountains from His upper chambers; The earth is satisfied with the fruit of His works.
He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, And vegetation for the labor of man, So that he may bring forth food from the earth,
And wine which makes man's heart glad, So that he may make his face glisten with oil, And food which sustains man's heart.
The trees of the LORD drink their fill, The cedars of Lebanon which He planted,
Where the birds build their nests, And the stork, whose home is the fir trees.
The high mountains are for the wild goats; The cliffs are a refuge for the wild goats.
He made the moon for the seasons; The sun knows the place of its setting.
You appoint darkness and it becomes night, In which all the beasts of the forest prowl about.
The young lions roar after their prey And seek their food from God.
When the sun rises they withdraw And lie down in their dens.
Man goes forth to his work And to his labor until evening.
O LORD, how many are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all!
 (Psalm 104:5, 10-24)

The earth is one large community, working together to meet each other’s needs.  And human beings play an essential role. Human beings are supposed to be the fail-safe, the fix-it-guys, and they were supposed to improve on creation, filling it with creations of their own.  Mind you, humans couldn’t do it on their own.  They needed God’s guidance and power to make it happen.  But it was a good plan.

A community which is self-sustaining and meets the needs of all parts within it, both survival needs and social and security needs is a community of peace, it is Shalom.  God’s initial plan was for the world to have perpetual Shalom, and human beings were essential for that plan.

Of course, we know that this plan wasn’t fulfilled.

Mind you, humanity didn’t mess everything up, just enough for the whole planet to become ill, and every creature within it, including humanity, to be in a perpetual state of crisis.  Because we don’t really know what peace is, or how to achieve it.  We need God’s wisdom and power.

Okay, let’s do a huge fast forward.  To the end. If creation is the initial act of God, let’s see what the final peacemaking act of God is, how he completes his creation and what that says about humanity.  

At the very end, there is judgment.

No, that’s not fun to talk about.  Sorry.  No matter how anyone thinks it pans out, it involves separating humanity one from another, some will be a part of the ongoing process of maintaining creation and others will… not.  Or maybe they’ll get fixed, that’s not my place to say right now.

What I’m more interested is how humanity will be divided from each other.  How does God choose the good group from the bad?  The answer in the Bible is strangely uniform.  With all the differences in Scripture and the different wording and the different ideas, how humanity is judged is determined by one phrase used quite frequently:

Psalm 28:4—Requite them according to their deeds

Proverbs 12:14—The deeds of a man hands will return to him.

Isaiah 59:18—According to their deeds, the Lord will repay.

Jeremiah 17:10—I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, Even to give to each man according to his ways, According to the results of his deeds. 

Jeremiah 32:18-19—The Lord of Hosts… gives everyone according to their ways; every man according to the fruit of his deeds.

Ezekiel 18:26-27—When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, commits iniquity and dies because of it, for his iniquity which he has committed he will die.  Again, when a wicked man turns away from his wickedness which he has committed and practices justice and righteousness, he will save his life.

Hosea 12:2—He will repay them according to their deeds.

Jonah 3:10—When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. 

Matthew 16:27—The Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will then repay each according to his deeds.

John 5:28-29— An hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.

II Corinthians 5:10—We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. 

Revelation 20:12-13—And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds.  And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds.

In the end, it isn’t how much a person believes, or how well they did on their doctrine, or what a great relationship they had with God… when the final test comes up, it all has to do with what we do.  The kind of actions matter as well.  For Jesus and the rest of the New Testament, it’s clear that if we are going to pass this final test, we have to do acts of kindness, helping the needy, supporting those who are in the greatest need.

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.  Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned. Give, and it will be given to you.  Luke 6:36-38

So I said all that to tell you this.

I know what the purpose of humanity is.  And it is revealed in God’s first and last acts in the human story.  First of all, we are to create peace on earth.  We aren’t to wait for God to do it for us, we have to do it ourselves.  And secondly, we are to create peace by means of doing great acts of support for those in need.  It could be we are helping birds in need or puppies or children or homeless people or sick people… but we are to be the kind of people that can’t say “no” to a fellow creature in need.  Peace through compassion.  That’s what God wants of us.

Yes, God wants us to love Him.  No question.  Because without God we don’t have the wisdom or the strength to obtain peace or to keep loving.  Without God, we get confused about what love really means, mixing it up with our own self-interest. 

God is interested in us in propping up the system of peace He originally created and doing this through acts of great love.  And He wants to help us do it, which means we need to connect to Him.  That’s it.  If we can remember this, it will all work out.

Sure, we’ll argue about what peace really looks like and about how to get there.  But if we remember the basics—peace means that everyone’s needs are met, whatever those needs are.  And the method to peace is through compassion and mercy.  If we remember those things, we’ll be okay.  We just need to stick to the basics.

And dream really big.