Here is the Massachusetts Conference UCC article about being arrested for the poor people's campaign.
(Names and details are changed to proctect the privacy of those described here.)
"Are you saved?"
"Are you born again?"
"Have you accepted Christ as your personal savior?"
I hear these questions with dread, making up answers in my head, looking for an out, hoping the questioner hasn't noticed I am clergy and praying he won’t be seated next to me on the plane.
Most good liberals Christians never ask these questions, not of people we don't know, not of people we know, and certainly never of ourselves. What would it mean? What would it signify? What would it explain? We vary on our view of Christ’s identity, and what happens after death, and what is the good news we preach. But we don't vary much in our confidence that being "saved" or "born again" or having a "personal savior" is not the point. We whisper to ourselves "saved from what" and "born to what" and "what is this emphasis on personal?”
And yet as I hear stories from people without homes, people living on the edge, people who have nothing but the backpack they carry, being saved is not that complicated a theology.
Christine cries gratefully every time she tells me the story her husband who beat her so badly she worried about her children, about being hospitalized, about being killed. She shares the vivid details of when Jesus appeared to her, late at night, and told her to get out of the house, out of town, out of any place that she could be found. She travels lightly now; she lost her job, then her emergency shelter, and finally her children to foster care. She is paranoid and afraid of people but she trusts God travels with her, she trusts she will be OK, she knows that Jesus Christ saved her from certain death. "Jesus saved me, Jesus saved my children, and Jesus keeps taking care of me" she insists as she accepts a Dunkin' Donuts card and returns to her hiding space next to the railroad tracks.
Josh’s story of salvation is about drinking, and how Jesus got him to the lowest point, and then got him into the emergency room, and then got him into detox. Josh didn’t stay sober that time, but the second time, or maybe the third, or the fourth or fifth, he stopped drinking for good. “If Jesus didn’t get me sober I’d be dead” he explains simply, without apology, without embarrassment, without doubt.
Andrew also has no doubt, no question, no need for complexity. “I tried drugs to clear my mind, I tried all these medications that didn’t work, I tried suicide, and then finally I tried Jesus and now I’m alive.”
Daniel is equally clear: “My family kicked me out and I had nothing until I met Sue who took me to church, got me food stamps, and saved my life. Sue is church to me, she is my savior, she is Jesus for me.”
“Jesus saved me” is a common refrain on the streets, in the SROs, at the food programs. This is not some complicated theology about where we are going when we die, whether we’ve been baptized, and is certainly not tied to whether we believe the right things. This is a simple statement of faith “I was going to be crazy, going to be injured, going to be killed, but instead here I am, alive! I am saved.”
(The assignment was to write balanced sentences)
I am just like you. I am completely different than you. This is the dilemma of our theology, the question of our faith. I wonder how to develop my own faith story as truth, as important, as complete, and yet to understand your faith story as honest, as significant, as whole. How do I let you have your story when your story conflicts with mine?
I am a main line, liberal (progressive perhaps), and Christian. You are non-denominational, conservative (fundamentalist even), and Christian. You are a philosophical, new age (Wiccan even) and non-Christian. You are a believer, accepting what you’ve been told, and yet uncertain. You are a non-believer, doubting what you’ve been told, and yet certain. You and I are one. You and I are completely different.
This way we are different was on my mind as I headed out to do ministry with the homeless, with the lonely, in Worcester Massachusetts. I was determined to bring a lunch bag to the hungry, a cooler of cold water to those who thirst. I was determined to share a new reading of scripture, to share good news with the captives; I would be a pastoral presence, a listening ear. I knew that people on the streets would teach me about what they needed, I didn’t know how much they would teach me about theology.
It turns out that I needed a more robust theology; I needed to know more about how God works in the world. My theology didn’t actually grapple with real suffering; my theology was dependent on my easy life. It is not that I haven't had hard times. I have had very hard times. But I have not let the darkness in my life change my pretty answers nor my petty beliefs. I wanted a world that was all good and sweet and happily-every-after, I ignored evil and violence and suffering-to-the-end. I wanted to create a world where love could, and love does, overcome all tribulations.
That confidence in love was the foundation of my call to be in ministry on the streets of Worcester, and that confidence in love continues to carry me forward. And yet that confidence in love was not enough to sustain me in the face of violence: violence by the world on my parishioners, and violence by my parishioners on each other. That confidence in love was not enough to bring to a people who had tried again and again and again and again to find Jesus and God, to find peace and wholeness. I believed I was bringing faith to the streets. The faith I brought was not enough.
I did not bring faith to the streets; I went to the streets and found faith. I adapted and adjusted; I listened and I learned. I went out into the streets of Worcester bringing faith to the faithful and they gave me the gift of robust faith. The people on the streets have changed my beliefs and deepened my faith. They have fed me and freed me.
They have shown me that we are completely different, and that we are exactly the same.
(This was written February 2014)
Can you cry at your church? Real crying, I mean, not that little tear of happiness or sadness that barely disturbs your mascara. Not the running streams that redden your eyes, but are hidden with a quick tissue. Not even the quiet crying interrupted by an occasional gasp for air.
I am wondering if it is ok to express those huge wracking sobs that come after a truly devastating loss. I am asking whether it is ok to gasp and moan and sob again and again; whether it is ok to cry out in the pain of loss; whether it is acceptable in your church to express pain that no one can console.
We believe Church is a place to you can go when you cannot be consoled. I have not found a place called Church where that is true. I cannot sit in worship and hear the words of hope, words of promise, or words of a better kingdom at hand.
To be clear, I believe that worship should be full of hope, full of the promise of the Kingdom, full of the image of a life that is better. At the same time, in the immediate moments, hours, weeks, even months of horrific loss, all of those promises are crass parodies that ring horribly untrue during the time of bereavement.
In the aftermath of a tragic accident, a suicide, an unexplainable disaster, in the aftermath of extreme loss, in the aftermath of inconsolable pain, many of us do not want to look ahead to when this loss might be considered ok, a learning experience, just one stop in our life’s journey. Our life is forever changed and the idea that this is might be ok only adds to our pain.
There is a time that it is right to sit in the pain; there is a time it is right to see the brokenness as beyond repair. I am at that time, and I cannot sit in worshipful hope. I can only sit in pain.
Perhaps the answer is that people in that much pain need to be accompanied outside of worship by a component of church: an individual member, a small group, support team. Maybe members should search out pained neighbors and sit with them where they are--outside of worship. Maybe it is too soon to be back in the full circle of community, maybe the care must be intimate, one child of God sitting with another. Maybe the time to be invited back to worship is still to come. Maybe the promise and hope and image of the Kingdom are gifts for a later healing step.
The return to corporate worship may come slowly, or it may come quickly; it will come to each person at their own pace. It will happen after the complete sense of being alone, and after days with people one at a time, after gatherings with two, maybe three others, after we are exhausted by all that time of sitting in pain.
Loving people instinctively want to ease each other's pain. That is why we bring the casserole and send the card and make a visit and attend the funeral and sit with us, filling up an all too empty house. These are all things we need to do to be the people of God with a neighbor in pain.
But loving people also instinctively want to reassure our neighbor that it will be ok, want to quickly jump to hope, and want to pass a tissue in hopes that the unbearable, heart-breaking crying will stop. We want to stop it because we care, yet it is our needs, not those of the sufferer, that are met by our words that insist on looking ahead.
Worship by its very nature must look ahead. We as the church, we as the people of God, are faced with a challenge: can we make a place for those who cannot look ahead? Can we make a place that is not in worship, but is still inside our circle of love? Can we sit with people who are not ready for hope, who are not ready for looking ahead, sit with those who still living with those huge wracking sobs that come after a truly devastating loss?
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