Can I Shine Your Shoes?

(Another installment of “Maybe I missed something here…”)

My son and I had just completed our visit to the World Aquarium, and were headed toward Dealey Plaza and an early supper. We were walking a side street in downtown Dallas, still in our Sunday church clothes, when Jeffery smiled and lifted a hesitant wave as we walked past. We returned the gesture as he quietly called from behind, “Excuse me.”

File Jan 24, 6 00 29 PMWe stopped, turned, and matched his few steps it took for us to be within handshaking distance. I extended my hand and said, “I’m Ken.” “Jeffery,” he replied, and turned to my son and shook his hand also, receiving his name as well. Jeffery continued, “I’m wondering if I could shine your shoes, or wash your car? Anything to earn a little money.” Over his shoulder was slung a red partially opened Jansport backpack perfect for schoolbooks. His black wool cap logo matched his sweatshirt, “(NS) Never Satisfied ~ We Trust“. He explained that these were a gift from someone handing them out on the street last night.

My brain, while trying to engage as a fellow human being, also revved up on the “What’s the most helpful way to respond in this situation?” question. A quarter century ago I was the founding director of a Saturday soup kitchen at First Methodist Church, Lubbock. Two decades ago I worked with homeless vets who were residents of an inpatient care and rehab domiciliary program at that Dallas VAMC. When I encounter homeless individuals, I’m wired to relate in a relational and strengths-focused way. I want to honor and respect the unique humanity of each person, and offer what I can to help a person move toward flourishing – in his or her life as she or he understands it.

I didn’t need my shoes shined, and only had $2 in my pocket which seemed insufficient for a shoe shine either way. And I didn’t want to stick around to have my car cleaned, whatever that might entail. I said we were headed to eat, and that he was welcome to join us. He nodded and I asked where he would like to go. “Well, there’s a Williams Chicken near by.” “Sounds fine,” I replied. “We’ve been to Poppies, but not Williams. Let’s go.” We talked along the 3 block journey. I mostly asked questions, though tried not to interview or interrogate him. (I may not have been successful.) We also shared some of our own life stories. Relational includes mutuality, after all. Even with strangers.

We got to the chicken place, 1/2 block from the West End Dart rail station and 1 block from the downtown Dart transfer station – an area with lots of foot traffic. Because the restrooms are only for paying customers, we had to request the key so that we could wash our hands. Time to order. Jeffery was thoughtful about not
assuming – asking before increasing his order beyond some williams chickeninternal threshold he’d determined. I nodded
both times, and then we ordered as well after studying the menu. When we received our food and I’d paid, we sat down, the three of us, and enjoyed our fried chicken and sides. We continued to talk about where we were from, what we’d been up to, and where life was heading. The food was good, and so was the conversation.

Jeffery is black. In fact we were the only non African American folks in the restaurant. While aware of this fact, it did not register that race was a significant factor in this encounter. I didn’t (and don’t) think that Jeffery selected us because we were white. I’m confident that I would not have related to him differently if he were other than African American. My son and I talked briefly about this on the way home, and he noted his awareness of how we had showed up in the midst of what seems like a stereotype.

And then I read on Sandhya Jha’s Pre-Post-Racial America: Spiritual Stories from the Front Lines  this repost from Steve Williams sharing this story told by Professor Steve Locke.

Now I’m not so sure. Did I completely miss something in our encounter with Jeffery? Was I so set on my own interpretation of the event that I didn’t pause long enough to wonder how he might be experiencing it in light of recent events. Was I living out #whiteprivilege?

I saw a homeless man, and I know from my own experience and others’ research that isolation and invisibility are common psychic challenges faced by individuals living in homelessness. Dining With someone is a way to counteract those forces. It is a way to say, “I see you, and respect you, and am happy to share table fellowship with you.” Sure, it was on my dime, so he wasn’t a totally free participant (#myprivilege). That much is clear. I’m not sure how to navigate around that except to say, “Here’s some money for dinner, and we’d love for you to join us.” Unfortunately 1) as already stated I didn’t have the cash for that, and 2) I’ve been around enough people hustling on the street to know better than to hand over cash. I do sometimes, but it’s rare. And he wasn’t working a hustle, he was actually hustling – trying to find work to earn money. In my mind (though not his experience perhaps) race is not a factor in my calculation of how to respond. Perhaps it should be, at least in my sensitivity toward the other and what they may be anticipating, experiencing, or thinking.

I also didn’t honor this man’s request to earn his own way. That much I knew at the outset, but didn’t see a good way around that, except to perhaps say, “All I have is $2. Why don’t you give me whatever level of shine you think that buys,” knowing all the time that would be a merely adequate tip on top of the charge for a decent shine.

So maybe in some way my wrestling, and this writing, help to make up the difference in whatever was lacking in my (our?) attempt to honor Jeffery and his humanity. I hope so. While I’m not color-blind, I also try to not let my vision be color-centric. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can all do better in situations like this. My heart longs for the day when such encounters don’t happen, because people like Jeffery are able to avoid finding themselves in such humbling situations to begin with. I hope my work and life, as expressions of my discipleship to Jesus, help bring about that day.



The Gospel weighted toward the poor?

Continuing the conversation about Mary’s Magnificat here and here.
This begs the question: Is the Gospel good news for everyone?

Perhaps the prepositions need some work here. Good News FOR everyone? Yes, most definitely. Will it sound like good news TO everyone? Not likely. I’m assuming here that we could resolve all of the church’s failures, shortcomings and inconsistencies. This line of questioning has nothing to do with our inability to live up to the Gospel’s call and claim on our lives. For the sake of argument, let’s just say that is all resolved, and all we are left with is the Gospel itself, in its pure and true form.

Hannah and Mary point to what they believe is an essential truth in God’s message of love – that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Those who have been beaten down and left out will be brought in, healed and restored. Meanwhile, those doing the beating and the leaving – they will lose their positions of power over others. This is nearly impossible for us to hear in western culture so defined by power and prestige, where might makes right, growth and strength are signs of privilege to be preferred by us.

from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops

If Mary and Hannah are to be believed, then the God made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth shows “a preference toward the poor,” to borrow language from Liberation Theology. Here is how the US Conference of Catholic Bishops introduces the idea:

Option for the Poor and Vulnerable – A  basic moral test is how our most vulnerable members are faring. In a society  marred by deepening divisions between rich and poor, our tradition recalls the  story of the Last Judgment (Mt 25:31-46)  and instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first. 

And here is an excerpt from Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns intro:

From the Scriptures we learn that the justice of a society is tested and judged by its treatment of the poor. God’s covenant with Israel was dependant on the way the community treated the poor and unprotected—the widow, the orphan and the stranger (Deut. 16.11-12, Ex. 22.21-27, Isa. 1.16-17). Throughout Israel’s history and in the New Testament, the poor are agents of God’s transforming power. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus proclaims that he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor (4.1-22). Similarly, in the Last Judgment, we are told that we will be judged according to how we respond to the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoner and the stranger (Matthew 25.31-46).

I would argue that we must lay these ideas alongside Jesus’ teaching that we must become like little children if we wish to enter the kingdom of God. Children are penniless and powerless. They are humble, weak and poor. And they are our mentors and guides for inheriting the Kingdom to come, which in glimpses and fits and starts is already here.

The LORD Searches for His Children

Sermon Notes for 112314 ~ Ezekiel 34 & Mattew 25:31-46
(See also “Some may be more lost than others…”)

As we reflect on these texts and our own lives, we do well to move to each position in the story and see things from that vantage.

  • Let’s give ourselves the benefit of the doubt for the moment and imagine that we are in fact the seep of MT 25, the sheep whom God seeks and blesses in Ezekiel 34. What do we notice?
    1. We cannot save ourselves or provide for ourselves. We are in need of the Good Shepherd’s intervention.
    2. We are lost. The folks in the best position in the story are lost. Being lost is scary and dangerous and confusing. Life is hard.
  • Now imagine that we are the goats of MT25 and the bad sheep of Ezekiel 34 – the ones making things harder for others. What do we notice?
    1. Often, the negative consequences are a result of our meeting our own needs. We may not mean to be hurtful or harmful. We’re just trying to get water to drink and grass to eat. BUT, we do it unmindfully and in ways that disregard the needs of others downstream or who will follow after us. Meeting our needs is fine, let’s just be more attentive.
  • Now, imagine for a moment that you are God, the Good Shepherd of Ezekiel 34, that you are Jesus, the righteous King and Judge of Matthew 25. What do you notice now?
    1. All the sheep and goats are yours. They are all your flocks.
    2. Some of your flocks get more than enough while others go lacking.
    3. Some whose job it is to care for others are too busy caring for themselves.
    4. Some are looking out for the needs of others, some are ignoring the needs of others.

Ezekiel prophesied that “David” would sit on the throne over Gods’ redeemed sheep. Matthew places Jesus squarely on that throne as the “Son of David” and the fulfillment of those promises.

This combination of texts is so tricky, particularly for professing Christians. We want to believe that we are those who “were lost but now are found, blind but now we see.” We want to interpret the text in a way that sheds favorable light on us and our relationship to God. Others may be in trouble, but we are good. We get to enter into God’s kingdom, while others may be destined for eternal judgment and fire.

The problem with this is that the texts won’t sit still. They keep moving around on us “like chasing after wind, or trying to hold oil in the hand.” As soon as you think you’ve got something pinned down, and you know where you stand, it comes whipping around and heads straight for you.

When the question is “Am I a sheep or a goat?” the answer is never either or, never one or the other. The answer is always both/and. We are sheep, God’s beloved who are lost and lovingly sought after. We are also in some settings the unfaithful leaders, the goats who lead others astray, who refuse to help when we can, who fail to live up to God’s righteous demands. We can’t put ourselves or anyone else squarely into one category or another. This may be why Jesus slyly spins the “love your neighbor hate your enemy” proverb around to “Love your neighbor, but don’t stop there. Love your enemy – anyone can love a neighbor.” (MT 5:43)

Taken together, these texts paint a picture in which God reaches into human history, and again at the end of history, to put things right. Relationships and circumstances may work against us, colluding with our own twisted ideas of what is good and right for us. We end up on the wrong side of self, other and God. We end up lost, by our own wandering and by the misdirection of others. God steps in to redeem and restore us. God seeks out the lost sheep. When we become “found sheep” then God enlists us to share the work of reaching and restoring, seeking and saving. Unfortunately, we are still oft times persuaded by our minds to behave selfishly and justify ourselves with religious platitudes.

This was perhaps the greatest sin of the Pharisees. They were devout, and also terribly wrong. They thought that loving God meant rejecting anyone who had anything about them that God would not approve. Which of course put them on the very list they were creating – those who are not perfect in God’s eyes and thus worthy of our scorn.

Instead we turn in a humble posture before God and one another, realizing that only in this posture can we stay right with God. As soon as we presume the judgment seat, we come under judgment.* As human beings, we have made a right mess of things. So it is, and so it ever more shall be. Even so, we are responsible to make an effort toward putting things right. God has reached out to us and calls us to our better selves. At our best ,we receive what God offers, which is the wisdom and strength in community to grow toward maturity, laying aside our exclusive self-interest and choosing instead a mutual interest that creates a place for all at God’s bounteous table of blessing.

*NOTE: This does not mean that we avoid discernment and accountability. Both are essential. When Jesus says, “Judge not, lest you be judged,” I think he is not actually telling us to avoid wise and discerning scrutiny of words and actions and circumstances. He is, however, warning us that with this scrutiny we bring ourselves under the same. It is a proverb stating the way things work, not an edict telling us how to behave. Perhaps the best illustration of this is found in Proverbs 26: “4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. 5 Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” In other words – Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t. But what choice do you have, really. Do what must be done, and recognize that you bring the same back on you.

Virtual Ash Wednesday

Secular and religious people have many important things in common. One of those, that is being remembered and honored by Christians today, is the need to experience repentance and forgiveness. Who among us has not fallen short of the moral, ethical or relational standards we set for ourselves, to say nothing of the standards others try to set for us? When I fail to honor the sacredness of friendship and love. When I make a promise that I am unable to keep. When I speak words in anger or fear that assault and wound. When I neglect my duty to nurture and care. When I tear down rather than build up, degrade rather than construct, poison rather than nourish. When my silence supports systems of oppression, particularly when I then gain in the process.

When I do these things, what then? How can I move from this position to a status of restored relationship? What can I offer, what do I need to receive? Who can help?

In my own life, I have found the story of Jesus to be a compelling witness to my own brokenness and frailty and lack, because he shared in it, even to the point of death and fear of the same. For me the greatest pain in my own failures is not that I have committed them, but that I may be unable to experience restoration. What if things can’t be repaired (some can’t)? What if time runs out and I never get to say, “I’m sorry,” and hear, “You are forgiven”? What if… I live not in certainty, but in hope.

I hope that you know where to turn, to whom you can go, to find the help that you need when you face these issues in your own life. I also hope that you are able to extend compassion and mercy to others, not because they deserve it, but because you need it too.

Learning to Not React to Criticism

I just read a thoughtful post by Erin Wathen over at entitled “The New Anonymous”. She was actually responding to an earlier and equally helpful post by Matt Rosine on his blog Mosaic: Stop Writing Anonymous Letters and Stop Reading Them Too.  Whether the anonymous criticism comes written on paper or across cyberspace, it can be hurtful. It is typically mean spirited, though the author likely considers themselves writing out of genuine concern, and perhaps even in “Christian Love”. I have found that some people are even willing to own their criticisms as they send them, whether privately or publicly. These people may even be claiming scriptural justification for their actions, quoting things like “…speaking the truth in love…” from Paul’s letter (Ephesians 4:15).

While I agree that we should not react to such messages, I do not agree that we should refuse to read them or ignore them once read. The critique is carrying several messages, which can be helpful to the leader, even if no direct response is offered. If we as leaders are going to step into those troubled and troubling waters, then we need to prepare ourselves adequately for what comes.

Leading with strength requires that we not respond from a place of anxiety. This can be difficult, particularly under such pressure as these messages carry. Being non-anxious, or more accurately “less anxious” is a primary focus of Family Systems Theory.

Once we have the insight, we still need some technique. That is where Crucial Conversations from VitalSmarts becomes very useful. This resource gives us additional insights for how to remain in conversation with people when we find this difficult. The book then gives specific steps for what to do and why. It is filled with examples of practical application. The digital version also includes links to online resources including videos.

Knowing what to do, and being able to do it, are two entirely different things. Many clergy and other leaders experience peer learning groups and supervision wherein they practiced an Action/Reflection model of training and formation. After these periods of formal training, many leaders have little or no opportunity for ongoing support in their development. Working with a coach, mentor or peer group on these principles can help develop the insights and grace to remain connected while differentiated. Gather a group of peers, in person or online, and support one another in this shared journey toward maturity and wholeness. Working with a trained mentor, facilitator and coach can be a great enhancement to this experience. Contact me if you would like to explore some options and would like help forming a group.