Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Gospel of the Comfortable: A Scriptural Guide

Woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. Luke 6:23-24

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver have rusted; and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure! …You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.  James 5:1-3,5

Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man's table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham's bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.' But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. Luke 16:19-25

He who increases his wealth by interest and usury gathers it for him who is gracious to the poor.
He who gives to the poor will never want, but he who shuts his eyes will have many curses. Proverbs 28:8, 27

O king, may my advice be pleasing to you: break away now from your sins by doing righteousness and from your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor, in case there may be a prolonging of your prosperity. Daniel 4:27

I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it fails, they will receive you into the eternal dwellings. He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous wealth, who will entrust the true riches to you? And if you have not been faithful in the use of that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. Luke 16:9-13

When Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, behold, three men were standing opposite him; and when he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth, and said, "My lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, please do not pass your servant by. Please let a little water be brought and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree; and I will bring a piece of bread, that you may refresh yourselves; after that you may go on, since you have visited your servant." And they said, "So do, as you have said." So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah, and said, "Quickly, prepare three measures of fine flour, knead it and make bread cakes." Abraham also ran to the herd, and took a tender and choice calf and gave it to the servant, and he hurried to prepare it. He took curds and milk and the calf which he had prepared, and placed it before them; and he was standing by them under the tree as they ate. Genesis 18:2-8

If I have despised the claim of my male or female slaves When they filed a complaint against me, What then could I do when God arises? And when He calls me to account, what will I answer Him? Did not He who made me in the womb make him, And the same one fashion us in the womb? If I have kept the poor from their desire, Or have caused the eyes of the widow to fail, Or have eaten my morsel alone, And the orphan has not shared it (But from my youth he grew up with me as with a father, And from infancy I guided her), If I have seen anyone perish for lack of clothing, Or that the needy had no covering, If his loins have not thanked me, And if he has not been warmed with the fleece of my sheep, If I have lifted up my hand against the orphan, Because I saw I had support in the gate, Let my shoulder fall from the socket, And my arm be broken off at the elbow. For calamity from God is a terror to me, And because of His majesty I can do nothing. Job 31:13-23

But godliness actually is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment. For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content. But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But flee from these things, you man of God, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness. I Timothy 6:6-11

Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves money belts which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Luke 12:32-34

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Black Jesus and Rabbi Jesus

The latest version of Jesus is pleasant, jovial, friendly and weed-smoking.  And there’s a number of good Christians that are up in arms about it.

Senior pastor Kerry Buckly says, "It was horrible, disgusting and completely offensive. Down to a person, everyone in the youth group was offended. It just shows where we are a nation. … We have no respect for God.”  And that’s just after watching the trailer.

Certainly the first episode had a number of questionable activities.  Jesus is living a party life, living in a van, partaking in weed and he hosts parties where he’s not welcome.  He’s a moocher, he participates in illegal activity, and is arrested.  The first episode also diminishes Jesus’ death by having a character say, “Yeah, that was 2014 years ago, that's old.”

But if this portrayal of Jesus is problematic with the modern church, then I suspect that they wouldn’t much care for the original Jesus.

Because that Jesus travelled from town to town, going to one party after another.  He described the kingdom of heaven a number of times as a “feast” (which is just another name for party).  In Luke 14, Jesus uses a party as an illustration of the kingdom of God at least three times.  And he says this while at a party.
The original Jesus was homeless, of course, having “nowhere to lay his head.”  He was poor, and a mooch, because he held his parties in other people’s homes.  One example is Zacchaeus in Luke 19, where Jesus just tells him that he’s having a party at his home.  Often Jesus held parties in places where he wasn’t welcome, such as Simon the Pharisee, where Jesus insulted his host because he wasn’t fawning enough (Luke 9).

What about weed?  Jesus certainly didn’t smoke weed, did he? Some more religious cannabis users want to show Jesus smoking janga, but since weed didn’t grow in the Middle East in the ancient world, that didn’t happen.  However, Jesus was about drinking wine.  A lot of it.  The good stuff, which is the more fermented kind.  He was known as a “drunkard”.  My more conservative friends say that Jesus never got drunk, but there certainly isn’t any evidence for that.  He certainly hung around with people who were drunk.  And really, what is the difference between alcohol and weed except that alcohol is more likely to make you violent?

Sure, Jesus is a moocher in the episode, but he gives as much as he takes, sometimes more.  He is seen as a joyful, generous, miracle-working man, trying to encourage everyone to be kind, compassionate and at peace with each other.  The statement about his death is called into question by the end of the episode because in the end Jesus helps everyone

So what really is the problem with Black Jesus?  It’s the same problem religious leaders had with the original Jesus—he is on the wrong cultural side of the tracks.  Religious folks are naturally conservative, always trying to reach back to a better time in which people were more polite, less irresponsible, more moral and generally safer.  It doesn’t matter that this time never existed.  But in general, religious folks like order.  They want to squelch any attempt at chaos or irresponsibility.

But Jesus was irresponsible.  He quit his job, left his family (even though he was responsible for his widowed mother), travelled from home to home with a number of disreputable men and women(!).  Jesus had no regular income and encouraged his disciples to live off other people’s charity.

And Jesus was chaotic. Sure, he talked about God’s will, but he was always tearing at the institutions of his day, whether the priesthood, the temple or even the law.  He challenged the political and economic institutions of his day and encouraged a sort of anarchy.

Let’s face it, the original Jesus, just like Black Jesus is an affront to middle class, reputable morality.  Religious people just can’t handle that.  So they will talk about how “blasphemous” Black Jesus is.  When really what they find blasphemous is the original Jesus, just like the religious institutions did 2000 years ago.

As for me (and the people in my congregation), I’d much rather hang out with Black Jesus than the Jesus that they have in their churches.  Constantly dying, rule-making, stern and institutional.  Mind you, I would find Black Jesus to be a bit more like the original Jesus if he’d talk about sacrifice and humility as well as joy and love.  But I’m willing to give the show a chance.  It’s a pretty good start. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

In Praise of Segregationism

All church is culture.  Church isn’t primarily spiritual.  There are spiritual elements to be sure, but all of those elements are dipped, covered and sometimes overwhelmed by a culture of our choice.

And this is how it should be.  Even as Jesus became a human being he also became a cultural being and every word he spoke reflected the culture that he was drenched in from before the time he was born.  He spoke Aramaic, probably knew Hebrew and Greek, quoted the Hebrew Scriptures. He also was Galilean, which had a different perspective on Judaism than the temple/priesthood-oriented Judaism of the Jerusalemites.  He had a different view on Gentiles than the southern Jews.  His was not just a Jewish viewpoint, but a sectarian Jewish viewpoint.  That was the culture he chose in his incarnation.  And he was changed by that culture, he spoke both in and through that culture.  And he challenged the mainstream cultures of his day through the viewpoint of the culture he was raised in, as well as his unique perspective.

What mystifies me is the demand for cultural unity in the church.  Yes, I agree that we need to have a limited amount of doctrinal and ethical unity.  Jesus is Lord and love is the law.  But cultural unity? As if we should all be in the same worship service, worshiping the same way.  As if unity can only be accomplished if we are all in the same worship service, singing the same songs.

My first problem with that is that the Jesus who walked on earth wouldn’t be comfortable with any of our worship.  First of all, he didn’t speak the same language.  Also, his manner singing would be more like a chant than our modern melodic songs.  Some of the ideas might be familiar, but our theological language would be foreign to him. 

But in an ideal of a universal worship service, which culture will we be communicating in?  Some say that we will be communicating in all cultures.  But there’s too many cultures for a single worship time.  Thousands of languages, tens of thousands of people groups, each with their own style of communication, and a variety of rhythms and rhyme schemes.  Not practical.

Certainly we could have a service with a variety of worship styles but that’s just another worship style.  Multi-culturalism works for some, but not for others.

My real issue is cultural colonialism. Because when cultural unity is discussed, it is the minority cultures that get the back seat, that have to be relegated to a cultural ghetto.  African music is “special” music, not the normal mode of worship as it would be in an African service.  Whether Mennonite or Presbyterian, youth or seniors, Aboriginal or Indian, each of these groups have a mainstream form of worship, a cultural norm in which they can connect to God.  And they deserve to have their opportunity, not just to be relegated to a single song or reading.  For some cultures, worship needs to be three hours just to get going.  Others have lost the sweet spot after an hour.  And each should have their time with God, with others who appreciate that culture.

I am concerned about cultural colonialism when I hear a white person say, “Why do we have so few black folks in our congregation?  We are a segregated church.”  The reason you have so few black folks is because you have a white-culture worship.  And that’s fine.  Enjoy it.  But don’t think that having more “ethnic” folks in your congregation makes you more spiritual.  If an African American appreciates your culture of worship, great.  But don’t expect them to.  Don’t think there’s something wrong with your worship because it is mono-cultural.  Here’s a secret: all worship is.  Because all worship is embedded in culture, because we all are.  And different people are a part of different cultures.  And being multi-cultural is just one more representation of culture.

I have a church which is homeless culture.  I don’t expect you to be comfortable there.  People use foul language without thinking and take a break in the middle of worship for a smoke break.  We eat around tables in the middle of service. They interrupt the preaching, and the sermons often go on rabbit trails off the text, being more of a discussion than a monologue.  Sometimes a fight breaks out and we have to interrupt church to break up the fight. That’s our culture.  That’s how we connect with Jesus and show love for each other.  It’s not for everybody.  But it works for those of us who are a part of this particular homeless community. 

If you’d really like to experience multi-cultural worship, we’d be happy to have you come and join us.  But don’t think that we are participating in a more “spiritual” worship if you have us join you in your service.  Sure, your singing is nice, and your people are friendly, but you see, our culture is different.  We can appreciate your style of worship, but we have a hard time connecting with God there.  Frankly, some of you are too stuffy.  And some of you are uncomfortably loud.  And some of you think you should wear really uncomfortable clothing.  And that’s great, for you.  I’m not judging you.  The most important thing is that you connect with God, and give him what you’ve got.  We want to give Him what we've got.  In a way we understand and is emotionally resonate to us. 

But please don’t think that we’d be better off if we worshiped in your church, in your style. We’d be less distracted in your church, that’s true, but we can’t hear God above all the things that’s “wrong” with your church.  Of course, there’s probably nothing wrong.  But it’s different.  And we just want to get back home, in our own culture, where God speaks to us in our own language.  Maybe we’ll visit another time.  If you thought that if you made a couple changes for us so we could be more "comfortable", we really wouldn't.  We would just feel trapped in your culture.  Peddled in.

We will be unified.  We will serve together, we will support each other, we will stand up for our brothers and sisters who are outcast, no matter what culture, no matter what viewpoint.  We will mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice.  And we will also meet God with those who understand our way of meeting God.  That doesn't mean we don't love you, just because we aren't in your church.  It means you respect us enough to give us the opportunity to be ourselves. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Simplicity: Lessons From the Homeless

Montana Dave (no, that's not his real eye)
The other day I was talking to my friend Dave.  He’s known as Montana Dave because, I guess, he came from Montana originally, but there are a few of the guys who I know were raised in Montana, but they don’t get the nickname “Montana.”  On the other hand, there’s a number of Daves or Davids around, so I suppose he needed some kind of nickname and Montana suits him just fine.

I think of him as “Mountain Man” myself because he’s a rugged guy and prefers to live on his own, out in the wilderness.  He makes regular trips into town to get food and other supplies if he needs it, and, I think, to just talk to people for a while because it gets lonely to just talk to yourself and you always say the same things back.  But he doesn’t stay in town for long.

So Dave and I were talking and I asked him, “How do you stay out there?  Why do you stay out there?  Do you really want to live apart from everyone? It can’t be easy.”

Dave took his hat off for a moment and looked me in the eye and asked, “Do you really want to know?”

I got the sense that he was going to tell me an earful, so I steeled myself up for a lesson and said, “Sure.  Yeah, I do.”

Dave didn’t say a word. He reached into his pack, took out his bag, laid out a paper, but some tobacco on it, licked it and rolled it up.  Only after he lit his smoke he said, “I go to the library, you know.  And I see there that there’s a number of books on simplicity.  I’ve looked at them and read what they have to say, just for a laugh.  These people don’t understand simplicity any better than that fellah Thoreau did.  And I don’t blame them.  Real simplicity is hard.  I’d say that for most of us, if we were going to learn real simplicity, we have to be forced into it. Being homeless is a good start to really learning priorities.”

“Well,” I chuckled. “Not everyone on the street is simple.  What about April who got a boyfriend just so he could carry her bags and boxes around town?  What about Andrew who filled his car with crap and then piled tubs and bikes on top of his car until it almost fell over?”

Dave laughed loudly and shook his head. “Well, those folks are special, if you know what I mean.  I’m certainly not saying that all the homeless are simple.  But I bet you that April is carrying around a lot less than the piles of stuff she had when she had her own apartment.  But I agree, they are still focused on stuff, and that’s a problem if you are on the street.  You know Tim and Sam?  Sam was forced out of her apartment and she was going to live on the street with Tim.  One guy… I can’t remember his name… made a big pile of things that Sam would ‘need’ when she got on the street.  When Tim got back to help Sam, she showed him the pile and he gazed over the pile and laughed. ‘You think that we’re going to be carrying this huge pile all over the city?  When you’re homeless,’ he told her, ‘Everything you need has got to fit in or on one backpack.’  Then he started pulling out the things she really needed that could fit in the backpack he brought.

Not Andrew's car, but close
“And he’s right, you know. If you leave anything in your camp you are just asking for people to rake through it and take what they like.  The first step of simplicity is being forced to give up on everything, everything except what you need that day.  People who write books like that in the library still have rooms, even houses, full of stuff they ‘need.’  That’s not simplicity.  At least that’s too complicated for me.  You say that prayer, don’t you?  What’s the part about bread?”

“Give us this day our daily bread,” I recited.

“Right.  Daily.  Not tomorrow.  Just today.  God doesn’t really want us to think about tomorrow.  That doesn’t mean I don’t plan.  I build my cabin, and it takes time and preparation.  And I come into town to get some food from you sometimes.  But I don’t worry about tomorrow or what I will have or not have.  I think after my wife left me and I had to live on the street, one of the happiest things I ever did was to cancel my insurance policies.  That’s a lot of tomorrows I don’t have to worry about anymore.”

I hesitated, “But if you don’t prepare for tomorrow, how do you care for yourself?  Don’t you starve?”

Dave chuckled as he said, “Well, I’ve gotten pretty hungry sometimes.  I suppose that’s those are the times I walk over to see you.  But for the most part I don’t save anything for the future.  I might think about how I’ll store some things so the raccoons and cougars won’t get them, so I can still wake up in the morning.  But for the most part, I just wake up and see what’s available.  I don’t think about ‘what if I can’t eat.’  I guess if I don’t eat, then I don’t eat.  But almost all the time it works out.  If it doesn’t, and I’m stuck, then I pray.”

“Huh,” I grunted.  “I didn’t think of you as a praying man.”

“Why?  Because I don’t attend your services?  I don’t know that I need to bother God with my questions all the time.  I do stop in on occasion to give him a thank you… but generally I pray only when I really need to.”

“And when is that?”

Not Dave's real cabin
“Last winter I was in my cabin and I got snowed in.  I had wood for fuel, but if I lit it I was taking a chance on burning my whole house down.  I took my shovel,” he pulls out his portable spade from the outside of his pack and unfolds it, “which is one of my essential tools, I’ll tell you.  Anyway, I took this shovel and dig through the snow.  It took me three days.  I’m surprised I didn’t get frostbite.  I’ll tell you, I prayed up a storm on those days.  And He saw me through.  And at the end, when I got to the church, you were open and warm and there were ninety people here, but there was some warm soup.  I gave an extra thanks to God that day.”

“So, basically, simplicity is only getting what you need that day and trusting God for the rest?”

“Well, it’s a bit more than that.  After all, I don’t live out in the woods just because I don’t want to have too much stuff. It’s really about avoiding drama.  That’s why I don’t live with my wife anymore.  Too much drama.”

“I thought she kicked you out?”

“It was mutual, I suppose.  But for the most part I got the worst end of the deal.”

“But you’re living the simple life, right?  No drama?”

“Yeah, and I almost froze to death last winter.  That wasn’t so great.  But no drama is good.  You guys have a lot of drama around here.”

“True.  I wish we had less.  Far less.”

“Well, I think there’s a time to just walk away from it.  Walk away from relationships, from the anger, from the demands…”

I was skeptical.  “You mean that you should just give up on relationships?”

Dave looked up and backtracked, “No, not just give up on all relationships. Tim and Sam, they’re good for each other, you know?  And they’ve had some rough patches, but they are working on them and they care about each other.  That’s great.  But look at most of the relationships on the street.  Craziness.  You can’t hear the love past all the yelling.”

“I understand that, but many relationships, if you really work on them, you can make it.”

“I wonder if you can really have the energy to work on relationships when you are struggling to survive.  Relationships mean you are thinking how the other person thinks.  That’s tough when you don’t have enough food.  In time of survival, it’s best to just think your own thoughts.”

“But even when your surviving don’t you have to care about other people?  Help other people?”

“Absolutely.  And when you are surviving, helping others is simple.  You need food, so do they, so you both share what you have.  You need water, so do they, so you share.  If one of you has got shelter and the other doesn’t, you share your shelter.  But if you go deeper than that, it’s tough.”

“So how do  you think people like Mark and Diane do it?  They’ve been together for a while.”

“I don’t know how they do it.  Just compatible, I guess.  They have their arguments, too.  I bet they take breaks from each other sometimes. But for me, it’s just simpler to live without a relationship.  Fewer rules.”

“I’m sure you have some rules you live by.”

“I try not to.  As few as possible.  It’s easy to stack up rules like firewood, but they are a lot harder to get rid of.  It’s simpler to live without rules.  I know that you say you have four rules around here, but you have more than that.  You have this complicated system of who can sleep overnight and when.”

“Well, generally we aren’t supposed to have anyone here, but I make exceptions.”

“And everyone is trying to figure out your exceptions because everyone wants to camp on this property.  It’s safe. Or at least safe-er.  So you have these hidden rules that drives everyone crazy.  I know you let some people stay and others can’t.  But that’s the thing, it complicates it.  For me, it’s just about care and respect.  Just care for people that really need it and respect everybody.  That’s all.”

“Well, I’d like to do that, but there’s hundreds of people needing care around here…”

“So you make your own complications.  I live out in the woods.  The traffic’s a lot lighter out there. Sure, I come back around.  I’m not a hermit.  I want to talk sometimes.  As you can tell.” He grins at me. “but I don’t live around all the people all the time.  There are times to be with people and times to be by oneself.  You’ve got to balance it for who you are.”

“That’s what Thoreau did as well.  He was out in the woods for much of the week but spent the weekends with his mother.”

“Huh.  Well perhaps he knew what he was talking about after all.”

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Your Kingdom Come

Once upon a time there was a kingdom of children, with a wise and celebrated leader.  The leader was a healer by trade and he brought these children from abusing families to be his children, and he cared for them with sweetness and gave them a wonderful home with all his vast resources at their disposal. 

At one point the children, still very young, decided that they were old enough and that they could take care of themselves.  The leader said, “You are still very young and need someone to guide you.  You can feed yourselves, but you can’t get along together.”  The children rose up in protest and anger and demanded that they be left alone to take care of themselves.  The leader said, “You are ultimately in charge.  If you want to leave my house and take care of yourselves, you can.  But I would rather you stayed in my house and lived with me and let me care for you.  I love you so.”  These words fell on deaf ears, and the children, as a group, decided to leave that night and rule themselves.

You could guess what happened.  The children, at first, were focused on surviving together and figuring out how to eat and build their shelters.  But soon little squabbles broke out.  Broken bones happened that weren’t healed correctly.  Some children wanted what they did not make, and if they were bigger, they took it.  More and more children got hurt, and everything was a mess. They chose some of the children to be in charge, to bring some order and stability, but all they did was cause more hurt.

But rather than think to themselves, “We should go back to our leader’s house” the children blamed the leader for all their troubles.  “The leader could heal my hurts, but he didn’t,” some would say.  “The leader said he loved us, but look at how miserable we are!”  “The leader could feed us better than this, but he abandoned us.”  “The leader is angry at us because of our misdeeds and so is causing us to suffer so.”

Of course, the leader never took his eyes off of them.  He loved them so, but he knew that they wouldn’t welcome him.  Finally, he couldn’t stand seeing them in their misery so he went and visited them.  Right away, he saw a child who was covered with sores and so he brought out a bottle of salve and made him feel better right away.  He saw another child who was irrational with anger and he spoke to him and calmed him and gave him peace.  He saw another child who was suffering with a broken bone that never healed, so he gave the child a local anesthetic, reset the bone and carefully wrapped it.  He saw two children fighting and he separated them, listened to them and loved them.

Soon many children flocked to him, realizing that he didn’t come to punish, but to love.  And he told them, “You all need to learn how to care for each other.  Take the effort you put in your anger, in your punishment of each other and put it into love.  Stop studying how to be in charge, and study how to help each other better. You have everything you need to care for everyone.”

The chosen rulers of the children could see their power slipping away, and that children would soon choose the leader to be in charge of them again, he was so kind and caring.  So they arrested the leader, beat him up to an inch of his life, and told him he had to leave.  He turned to the children and said, “I have to go.  But I will always be here.  Any of you can choose to have me as your leader again.  All you have to do is ask me, and I will guide you to love and care for each other.  Just call out my name, and I will be there to lead you.”  At this, the rulers of the children stabbed the leader, causing him to bleed, and he left.

Some of the children wondered if the leader was too weak to lead them.  Some of the children wondered if they should go to him, and try to find the house where they all once lived.  Many of the children said that the leader was just selfish and he was trying to trick them.  But many of the children listened to the leader, called out to him and he did lead them.  We aren’t sure how, but he did.  They would say, “Leader, your kingdom come.” Then he would come, secretly, and lead those children to love and to care for the other children, even if the other children didn’t deserve it.  And the world became a better place because the king came, if only for a little while.

This is a representation of Peter Abelard's soteriology.  I don't believe that it is a complete theology of salvation, but I do think it represents a better theology than substitutionary atonement. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

What I Learned From "Smoking"

Jesus ate with the sinners and tax collectors and so in order to be like him, I smoke with the homeless. 

I don’t actually smoke, because why would I willingly draw chemicals into my lungs, full and undiluted by air?  (I've never smoked in my life, actually) Instead, I just stand with the homeless while they smoke and jaw with them, listen to them.  I understand the consequences of second hand smoke, Aunt Marge, but how could I turn down such an opportunity? I can meet the needs of the homeless all day, and that is opening the door to relationship, but chatting is the foundation of relationship.  And if I die of lung cancer, I will consider it all worthwhile.

Really, church should be less like a theatre performance or concert and more like a smoke break.

It is brief and relaxed. Everyone who comes is at rest, relaxing between work opportunities.  No one needs to dress up. Everyone has an equal voice, but we all stop to listen to wisdom, whomever it comes from.  And instead of “amen” we say, “that’s right” or “right on” or we just add onto their insights with our own.  In a smoke break, everyone has a vice, and it’s out in the open, but we don’t judge.  After all, we have our vice as well.  The smoke breakers are rejected by the self-righteous, and they might be jealous of our meditative break.  We have an opportunity to share real thoughts, because there’s no agenda. Thus, the seed of real change can be planted in that kind of an atmosphere, despite the haze.

And a lot of my church work occurs in the smoking area.  The majority of my counselling happens there. And the majority of my listening.  The smoke break is the center of the community, because that’s where the real stories come out, that’s where we find out who is really hurting. That’s the place of listening, of communing.  Sermons don’t mean much behind a podium, but they can really touch the heart in the middle of the smoking area.

I’ve learned many things “smoking” with the homeless.  Here’s a few of my lessons:

  • I’ve learned not to be offended by small things like foul language or poor manners or second hand smoke.
  • I’ve learned that the heart of respect isn’t politeness, but caring enough never to bring harm to another’s heart.
  • I’ve learned how to laugh at others.  And myself.
  • I’ve learned the sorrow of deep regret.
  • I’ve learned that in a community of the poor, we all share each other’s trauma.
  • I’ve learned to be lenient at other’s flare ups, but to be angry at my own unrighteous judgments.
  • And I’ve learned that listening has greater impact for change than preaching. Because listening allows the speaker to preach at herself.

Smoking is a sin, (so I’ve heard, but I’ve never heard God say it).  It’s certainly unhealthy.  But smoking with the sinners is a rare opportunity.