Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Work of the People

The following is a sermon delivered at First Parish in Cambridge, Unitarian Universalist, on Sunday, Sept. 2, 2007. This sermon was prepared for Interfaith Worker Justice's Labor in the Pulpit program.

The readings were Isaiah 58 and an excerpt from Martin Luther King's Letter From Birmingham Jail.


Greetings and blessings to you from Boston University School of Theology, where I am a seminarian. With me I bring the greetings and blessings of my fellow students and my professors, who are my brothers and sisters in the Spirit, and my dear friends.

But I have come this morning particularly to bring you the greetings and blessings of a specially chosen and beloved group of men and women. I bring you the salutations of Selida Pol, a janitor who works three jobs, in downtown Boston, Cambridge, and in Chinatown. Selida works 15 hours a day; she gets hardly any sleep, and she supports herself and her family in her home country.

I bring you the greetings of Vanessa Reeves, who worked for three years at Smithfield Packing in Tar Heel, N.C., butchering hogs. She was injured when a 200-pound hog carcass fell on her, and because of this she suffered a miscarriage. Her doctor said the miscarriage was caused by the stressful pace of the assembly line or from the hogs hitting her. While she was in the hospital she wasn’t thinking about work at all. But Smithfield fired Vanessa for not calling in. She was fired when she was in the hospital and she lost her baby.

My friends, I bring you the greetings of all these working women and men near and far, your sisters and brothers in the Spirit, and mine. And on their behalf, and according to the commission given to me by Interfaith Worker Justice, I bring you a message of healing and hope. Let us dedicate ourselves in faith to work generously for the well-being of Selida, Vanessa, and the thousands of working poor among us so that we may be found by our God to worship in spirit and in truth.

Some Unitarian Universalists, I am told, would not characterize their Sunday morning service as worship. The term worship itself is problematic because of the hierarchical and patriarchal assumptions embedded in its meaning. In our public language, worship is used in an exclusive sense, as if what we did when assembled in sacred spaces such as these was exhaustive of the service we render to God and all that is holy. So allow me to offer another, more expansive word in its place: liturgy. It comes from the Greek leitourgia, a compound word which means “work of the people” and in its original secular context referred to work toward the common good of the nation or state, or to use a less hegemonic term, the public. In a theological context, leitourgia became the “work of the people” in public prayer, worship, and spiritual service for God and God’s holy people. The English word liturgy as it is used today is associated with public acts of worship in a church or other consecrated space, but reclaiming its older meaning it may also be applied more generally to ritual acts that bear witness to God and all that is holy, giving praise and thanks for divine favor and blessing.

With this expansive view of liturgy I affirm that what we do here is the work of the people, a people that is chosen, beloved, special, and holy. But it is not the only work. I also affirm that to march with Cambridge janitors for living wages, better health care benefits, and full-time employment is the work of the people—it is liturgy, and it is worship. To go on a hunger strike for underpaid security officers at Harvard University, as students did in Harvard Yard in May, is to worship in spirit and in truth. To meet with the manager of the Star Market in Mt. Auburn and urge the supermarket he runs to stop selling Smithfield bacon, packaged with the blood and sweat of five thousand exploited and abused workers in North Carolina—this is the work of the people, courageous and true. To return weeks later to the same manager with a letter of thanks because Star Market removed Smithfield’s product—this is worship, joyous and good.

And it is indispensable. In fact, without this kind of work, the worship we offer in this sacred space remains a soulless formality. Without leitourgia, our worship can still be technically competent, theologically politic, and even externally beautiful. But internally it is false and intrinsically alien to the divine Spirit of life and to all that we hold sacred and dear. We know this truth well in the head, but we do not treasure this truth fully in the heart, and we do not honor this truth fully with our hands, for truth is served only when truth is done.

This morning you have heard the words of Isaiah, one of the Hebrew prophets. And by prophet I mean one who is a fiercely passionate lover of the sacred and of all people. Isaiah delivers a stern message about true worship to Israel, God’s chosen and beloved people. I will skip the exegesis and get to the point, which is that external worship is no worship at all. The people of Israel stand accused, tried, and convicted of the insincerity of their service to God. Their liturgical practices are judged empty. Their worship is self-serving. This is not to say Israel’s fasting or any of its religious disciplines are wrong, but without the fasting from self-interest which these practices are meant to develop, these devotions enact a lie. Their work constitutes a betrayal.

And who has been betrayed? Israel’s God? No, because one’s God is not betrayed as much as denied. Then who has been betrayed? It is the hungry, the oppressed, the homeless. The people of Israel have broken covenant with their God because they have betrayed their poor. How I wish you could have heard the words of Isaiah 58 from the mouth of the Rev. Dr. William Barber, the president of the North Carolina NAACP, who preached full-throated and unsparingly on Wednesday at the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg. Eight hundred fifty of us gathered at this church in this historic town in Virginia because the shareholders of Smithfield Packing were in the city holding their annual meeting. We were electrified by Reverend Barber, who embodied Isaiah’s words when he said that work without justice is slavery. But even more do I wish you could have seen the Smithfield workers from Tar Heel, who were greeted with an ovation and given a place of honor in the front pews of the church. Vanessa was with them, and she told us how she lost her baby, and we were stunned into silence, worshipful silence. Behind her whisper, we could hear Isaiah bellowing, calling out to the executives of Smithfield: “Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits, and drive all your laborers.”

And we marched out of the church onto the streets of Williamsburg, continuing our leitourgia. We sent a handful of workers and clergy into the Smithfield shareholders’ meeting, inviting the executives and stockholders to join in our worship, to hold back their feet from following their own pursuit of higher profits and production quotas, to stop seeking their own interests, to cease speaking of the workers and labor unions with malice. They did not join our assembly, but we will not withdraw the invitation.

Today we have also heard the deceptively familiar reflections of Martin Luther King, whom many would regard, in addition to being a pastoral and political leader, as a prophet, a Christian prophet. I say deceptively familiar because we are accustomed to reading his rhetoric and comforting ourselves with the knowledge that some of the victories for which he struggled have been achieved. But like Isaiah in the reading we heard, King had no intention of comforting the recipients of his letter from the Birmingham jail. As his letter states, throughout his campaigns for civil rights and economic equality, as he toured the churches of the South, King asked himself, “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?” King knew the answers to these questions because the work of a people tells us what kind of people they are and who their God is. He asked them because he wanted his fellow clergy members, both his enemies in the flesh and friends in the Spirit, to hear the questions. Like Isaiah’s ominous interrogation of Israel, King’s questions call across forty-four years and hundreds of miles from that cell in Birmingham to us. These questions call across thirty-nine years and a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, where King was staying during his stand in solidarity with 1,300 striking sanitation workers. Do we dare to recognize ourselves in the questions? Do we fear to recognize ourselves in the answers?

When people ask me why I came to Boston to study theology, I tell them it is because I want to know and love God better, and to know and love people better. As a person of faith I believe that knowing and loving God is somehow related to knowing and loving people. The better I know and love God, the better I know and love people, and the better I know and love people, the better I know and love God. I also believe the inverse is true: the less I know and love people, the less I know and love God.

I have concluded that it is impossible to know and love my sisters and brothers or my God unless I accept the invitation—a calling, if you will—to join the priestly, prophetic people of God fully in the work of the people. If I am a stranger to Selida Pol and Vanessa Reeves, then I am a stranger to the God I claim to worship. The gentle songs of sympathy I sing in the sanctuary are so much sound and fury, signifying nothing, if I do not join the choruses of the mighty songs of solidarity heard on the streets of Boston, Cambridge, Memphis, Tar Heel, Williamsburg, and elsewhere. For my failure to see the needs of my working brothers and sisters as my own, I seek forgiveness. I pray to the divine Spirit to help me remember that every time the families of our hard-working brothers and sisters suffer the indignity of involuntary material deprivation, a spiritual wound is inflicted upon us all. We cannot turn away from this wound. The wound is part of our history; our story is a story of a wounded and wounding people. But our story does not end with the wound alone. The story ends with healing and hope. It is the healing of this wound that Isaiah proclaims when he announces divine blessings to those who release those bound unjustly, untie the thongs of the yoke, feed the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted.

This is the hope of Interfaith Worker Justice. It is the hope of Selida and Vanessa and Reverend Barber. It is my hope, and I invite you to share this hope with janitors, security officers, meat packers, and hotel workers; with laborers who are African-American and Latino; with immigrant workers, documented or not; and with all who bear the heavy yoke for our enrichment, for despite our neglect of and estrangement from them, they are truly chosen and beloved.

I will not close with my own words of peace. Instead, please hear the peaceful words of two janitors who work in Cambridge, our brothers Elcides Perez, who comes from El Salvador, and Rafael Emilio Soto, who comes from the Dominican Republic.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

A Few Words About Kingdom Building

I work for the union ’cause she’s so good to me;
And I’m bound to come out on top,
That’s where I should be.
I will hear ev’ry word the boss may say,
For he’s the one who hands me down my pay.
Looks like this time I’m gonna get to stay,
I’m a union man, now, all the way.

The Band, “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”

In the name of Christ, I vowed to do anything for the Justice at Smithfield campaign this summer. Whatever the leaders of United Food and Commercial Workers wanted to be done, I would work my utmost to make it so. If the union believed that sending a few small interfaith community delegations to supermarkets every week would bring Smithfield Packing to the table, then I would support the union. And if the union opted for a more ferocious (but peaceful) public demonstration, then I would be there to support the union in that course, too. Naturally, I was prepared for a slugfest (figuratively speaking!) in Boston.

Imagine my surprise, then, when it turned out that victory in Boston came with relative ease, and imagine my astonishment when the union recently decided to lower the scale and volume of its public actions in the run-up to the Smithfield shareholders’ meeting in Virginia.

How to deal with this, when we expected to take the kingdom by force? For me it comes down to this. Knowing ahead of time that these plans weren’t really up to us but to the union, and having signed up to support its organizing efforts by bringing in faith groups, and not knowing any better how things “ought to be done,” what else could I do but to support the union organizers? It’s not that I put my ultimate faith and trust in them as I would in God, but since I allied with them in this righteous cause and godly struggle, what I could do was act gracefully and offer to them all my creative powers within the often frustrating constraints that bound me.

I was sorry to learn that my co-worker in Nashville, Jason Sikma, was not going to be able to give hell to Paula Deen, the TV celebrity chef and family-friendly face of Smithfield Foods, when she visited on her tour. It would have been a great scene, I know. Sometimes I wish that Smithfield was doing some flagrantly filthy-rich business up here in Boston so that we could have more delegations and stir up talk and trouble. But in Massachusetts the ends did not require stupendous means. Besides, the objectives were modest and incremental: get the pork off the shelf, make the company come to its senses, and give the union the leverage it needs to win recognition so that the workers can operate in a less unequal power infrastructure. And if it was destined that all this could happen with a whimper instead of a bang ... well, sometimes God doesn’t pass by in the heavy wind or the earthquake or the fire, but in the tiny whispering sound.

I heartily agree with my co-worker in Chicago, Nathan Brink, that Smithfield is not ultimately in control. Neither is the union, of course, and certainly we interns are not! That’s a good thing. We ask God for God’s kingdom to come, and I constantly remind myself that no earthly institutions can create it or thwart its coming. And though I can create an environment fit for meeting God and God’s reign breaking into our world, I cannot build that kingdom myself—it would be blasphemy and idolatry to say that I can bring about God’s reign! But I can witness to it, I can testify to it, and I can tell others to get ready for it, because like it or not, it’s coming. It’s still coming!

Corn in the fields.
Listen to the rice when the wind blows 'cross the water,
King Harvest has surely come.

May the Lord’s peace and justice and mercy be ours and for the Smithfield workers in Tar Heel, N.C., and for their friends and enemies.

Friday, August 3, 2007

To the New Seminarians

This is a love letter to the seminarians entering Boston University School of Theology in September.

What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why did you go out? To see a prophet?

I don’t know God. I do know I believe in God, and I believe it is possible to know and love God.

I don’t know you. I do believe I ought to know you, and I know it is possible to know and love you.

I believe that somehow knowing and loving God is related to knowing and loving you. That, to be terribly brief, is what makes me Christian.

To know and love God and you better, I chose to study theology; I believe it is something I was destined to do.

That is what brought me to Boston University School of Theology. What did I expect to see when I got here? Knowers of God and knowers of people; lovers of God and lovers of people. Theophiles and philanthropes. People of conviction and people of compassion.

Thanks be to God, I have found them here. Here, we have a name for those who know and love God and all people with a fiery yet gentle spirit: we call them prophets.

And this place has been a special place, such a place that it has been called School of the Prophets. I did not know our school carried that title before I arrived.

This place has been, for a time, the sanctuary of persons who saw their visions of God, humanity, and all that is holy come into focus. This place has not been a refuge from the world—its students and teachers set their faces like flint toward that world.

I knew Martin Luther King Jr. finished his studies here, and I knew his greatness. Before I arrived I knew King as a preacher and a political figure. Then I came here, and they told me King was a prophet, a Christian prophet.

And there have been many more like him here. They came here; they became here. You will learn who they were. God willing, you will become what they were.

I did not fully realize when I came here that I had gone out to see the prophets. The discovery has changed me.

What do you go out to see? Why do you go out?

I wonder what you will see in your fellow seminarians if you come here. Some of them may be reeds swayed in the wind. In this time or that place, that may not be a bad thing—that wind may be the Holy Spirit! Some of them may be dressed in fine clothing or appear to be greatly concerned about such things as fine clothing. That may perk your sense of delight or disdain, according to the way you practice discipleship. Prepare to be surprised by whom you come to befriend. Depend on being shocked to discover who actually manifests the gift of prophecy to you. Be ready to acknowledge the gifts that have been given to some despite your determination never to share a pew with them, and be ready to concede when your best friends simply don’t have the charisms you fervently hoped would become obvious to a benighted world.

I wonder what you will see in your professors. In and out of the classroom and chapel, I wonder how you will look at your professors, the ones you will come to love and hate. Yes, hate. But even hate may be a better thing than cheap like and dislike if you have good cause to despise what they say and do. Nevertheless, as much as you are able, love your professors and pray for them, too … at least promise me you will pray for them as often as you gossip about them.

I wonder what you will see in Marsh Chapel. I wonder if you will ever set foot in Marsh Chapel when not compelled to do so.

Boston is not a desert, but you may feel deserted here at times. I wonder what you will see in Boston. I do not mean all its cultural attractions, though I do not for one moment undervalue them. Do see the sights, smell the smells, taste the tastes, hear the sounds, feel the sensations. When you have begun to enrich yourself—may you never be done—I wonder what you will see when you look past the oasis. A rich, shining city on a hill, a place to play, a place to pray, a place to stay? Will you feel at home or homeless? Will you see the homeless? The ill? The imprisoned? The addicted? Will you find the people of the Beatitudes, or people with snobby attitudes? Will you be a tourist, an observer passing through, or a pilgrim? Or something else and more, if you let the city and its people so shape you?

I wonder what you will see when you behold the School of Theology as a community—its gifts and flaws, its joys and sorrows, its sanctity and its sinfulness. Yes, living in this community is sometimes uncomfortable, even painful. However, one must distinguish between a healthy discomfort and unhealthy threats, between growth-filled pain and death-dealing hate. We must welcome the former things and do everything in our power to destroy the latter things. How do we recognize the difference between these? And how do we recognize difference itself? Maybe, in the final analysis, knowing and loving God and people will depend on how we reckon with difference.

I wonder also if you will see the School of the Prophets. Some say we are no longer the School of the Prophets. Without prophecy, there is no community; or, as the King James Version of Proverbs poetically puts it, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” But there is also a tension between prophecy and community that destabilizes as it constructs. We’ll never be a prophetic people of God if we never risk troubling the safety and security of our worldview or that of others. Unfortunately, one person’s prophet is another person’s persecutor, and the difficulty lies in distinguishing false perception from reality. We need to learn how to discern the Spirit together. I wonder if you will be a part of that discernment at the School of Theology.

Have you come for Jesus Christ? Well, I wonder if you will see the image of Christ in this community of faith(s), or merely a crisis. What does it mean to be in Christ, and how do other identities of race, gender, orientation, and vocation, to name a few, relate to one’s being in Christ? In my experience here, none of us define what it means to be in Christ the same way, nor can we assume that everyone subordinates other facets of their identity to their identity in Christ. In fact, we cannot even take it as a given that being in Christ is the paramount identifying mark for every student and faculty member of the School of Theology. In my experience, though you would earnestly seek the face of Christ Jesus in each member of this body, this community of pastors and scholars, you will not find it unless your image of God is expanded. And that can be a wonderful thing.

This place is neither pure seminary—breeding ground for pastors—nor pure school of theology—an academy of philosopher-theologians. Our university faces the city, but a river runs by it, and it is the river we face when we pray in chapel. Our school plants one foot in the church and one foot in the classroom. Athens meets Jerusalem. Learning and virtue and piety collide. Love and truth meet, although sometimes it’s for binding arbitration; justice and peace kiss, but sometimes it’s because they have to kiss and make up. “In all of this lies the passion” (John Caputo).

And in all of this there lies prophecy. Maybe even the reign of God.

What will you go out to Boston University School of Theology to see?

Can't We All Just Belong?

The following is a sermon I prepared and delivered for my introductory preaching course, taught by the Rev. Dr. Dale Andrews at Boston University School of Theology.

Note: This sermon was delivered on May 1, 2007. Let me caution you here: This sermon has serious structural and theological difficulties, not to mention rhetorical flaws from a pastoral perspective, that I have been unable to work out, so I present this sermon as it was preached, warts and all the rest of its unsightly blemishes. (I have deleted one and a half sentences, but that is all.) Perhaps the kind reader will offer some constructive feedback.

A reading from the Gospel According to John, Chapter 10.

Jesus said, 27 “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one.”

These are beautiful words from a beautiful Gospel. But these words are also bittersweet. The community that created this Gospel was at odds with almost everyone—with the Jewish authorities, with the wider world, and even with fellow Christ-believers. Nobody really understood the glory of Jesus Christ except the community of the Beloved Disciple, its members claimed. They were the true sheep; they alone heard Jesus’ voice. Brothers and sisters, when I look at our divided School of Theology community, I see the sad drama of the Johannine community playing itself out again. Students, angry and fearful about the direction of the changing Church, are ready to expel fellow students from their midst over wrong doctrine or wrong practice. Worse, students have fallen victim to violent rhetoric and have been threatened by violent actions from their peers. It grieves me that so many people are hurt, and each new fracture of the body troubles me. We are neither one nor whole.

We must understand why all this is happening. In light of our struggle to be one body in Christ, and in light of this beautiful passage from the Gospel, I will answer two urgent questions. First, what does it mean for God and Jesus to be one? Second, who hears the voice of Jesus, who calls himself the Good Shepherd?

On the first question, let us arrive at a basic point of agreement. Jesus says in verse 30 that he and God are one. He says this in the Temple at Hanukkah in response to the Jewish authorities’ demand to know whether or not he is the Messiah. His stunning answer reveals that he is more than a Messiah, more than the political liberator of Israel. He claims a unique relationship with God as the bearer of divine power and the embodiment of the divine will. It is in this sense that Jesus is called the Son of God. Jesus justifies this unparalleled unity by pointing to what he does for his disciples—he gives them eternal life so that they will never perish. This discourse in the Temple follows the discourse of the Good Shepherd, and the evangelist has Jesus employ the language of that metaphor again in this richly theological text. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the noble guardian of the sheep, the hero who lays down his life so that others may have life. Jesus knows his sheep; he speaks to them the words of life, and they respond to his voice. Jesus models God’s justice through his loyalty to the sheep and models God’s love through his obedience to God. He can do this because the God of Israel is the source of Jesus’ words and actions. It is this God who gives the sheep to Jesus the Good Shepherd, and no one can take them away from Jesus because no one can take them away from God. The words and works of Jesus are nothing less than the words and works of God.

What does this mean? It’s a funny coincidence, but tomorrow is the feast day of St. Athanasius, who sparred with Arius and wound up victorious in the Trinitarian controversies of the 4th century. They fought furiously over the meaning of today’s text, and I can hear Arius shouting, “You see? Jesus says ‘My Father is greater than all!’ ” and old Athanasius roaring, “Don’t you see? Jesus says ‘The Father and I are one!’ ” Now I’m not particularly interested in their argument about persons and essences, and the fact is neither was the evangelist nor his community. John is telling a story, not defining a doctrine. This Gospel is firstly revealing the relationship between God and Jesus. John is teaching us that when Jesus performs mighty works and speaks with authority, we experience the reality of God. This Gospel secondly reveals our relationship to God in Jesus. When we do the works of God and speak the Word of God in Christ’s name, we experience the reality of God and Jesus as one, and we share in that unity.

The believers in the community of the Beloved Disciple did not quarrel about whether the unity between God and Jesus was a metaphysical unity of natures or essences or strictly a moral unity. They experienced this power of this unity firsthand—they were grasped by it, and that’s all that mattered. This leads to my second point, which sits between my two questions. Because Jesus’ words and works are the words and works of God, we can follow Jesus Christ. But even the ability to follow Jesus Christ is itself the work of God. We follow Jesus because we are led to believe in him by the inspiration of God. We did not attain faith through our own efforts! Faith is hearing the voice of the shepherd who speaks first—and then responding. Faith is not asking Jesus if he is the Messiah and then deciding whether or not to go along with him, as the religious authorities did when they confronted him in the Temple at Hanukkah. We do not get to anoint Jesus the shepherd! In fact, we don’t get to make ourselves the sheep. Even Jesus did not make us the sheep. Today’s Scripture is saying that God made Jesus the shepherd, God made us the sheep, and God made both for each other.

So God made us to follow Jesus, and God makes it possible for us to follow Jesus. Let me draw out this theme just a little further. I propose that God made us to believe first and to know second. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said of the prophetic office, “The principle to be kept in mind is to know what we see rather than to see what we know.” We follow Jesus in faith. We believe, and then we know what we see. The authorities in the Temple wanted to know first who Jesus was, but they had no interest in believing in him, much less following him. Jesus susses out their true intent—they are looking for a reason to indict him—and so he tells them they do not belong to his sheep. He does not say they do not know him—he claims they do!—but that they do not believe him. On the other hand, the sheep in this text recognize that the works Jesus has performed are a testimony to God. Like Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, the religious authorities in John have known, but they do not believe. Meanwhile, the sheep believe, therefore they know.

I will now be so bold as to put my finger on the problems facing the School of Theology. We face two crises—an identity crisis and a community crisis, and the first leads into the second. First, the identity crisis. Are we merely a school of theology, discoursing well on God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit and the Church but knowing nothing, or are we more—are we also a seminary, professing our faith in these? Writing in his blog for The New York Times, Stanley Fish said, “True religious knowledge is not something one delivers in precepts but something one performs at every moment, because its lesson and one’s being are indistinguishable.” Is Jesus Christ is being carried away from the altar table to the dissecting table? God forbid it! Let our knowledge of Jesus Christ guide us beyond a mere academic exercise, and let us follow all the way. If we seek the meaning of the Scripture, let us do so in faith. “The Father and I are one” is more than a Trinitarian statement. It is much more than a Christological statement. It is an existential declaration of faith in God, and God’s ways become our ways. God’s way of being becomes our way of being. The Father and I are one. The Mother and I are one. The Holy One of Israel and I are one. We live by our knowledge, and we do not merely study this stuff as disinterested students of the liberal arts. It does shape our world perspective! Ours is a vision to be lived! That is what is at stake, and we must at some point step out on faith! Forgive my radical presumption, but remember what brought you here: your love of God and your desire as a Christian minister to belong in word and deed to God. Verse 27 says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” As important as it is for us to know, we must remember that we are believers first. We can follow Jesus Christ the Son of God because through Christ, in Christ, with Christ, God has known us, making us the faithful sheep of the shepherd. When we follow, we become one with Jesus Christ as Jesus Christ is one with the God of Israel.

I believe I have answered the second question. Who hears the voice of Jesus? Everyone that God has known as Jesus’ sheep. And here is my third point. God has elected us to be sheep, and while we may opt out, that does not change God’s decision for us. Nor does it nullify God’s power to determine who belongs to God in Christ. Now, if it is true that only God gives us to Jesus Christ and enables us to hear Jesus’ voice and believe in Jesus’ works, then who are we to determine who belongs to Christ and the Church that witnesses to the reign of God that Jesus proclaimed? I admire the community of the Beloved Disciple for living deeply into its knowledge of Jesus Christ, but I think it failed to heed the implications of the Good News. Its members had an antagonistic relationship with not only non-believers, but also fellow believers who did not confess the Christ or practice Christ-faith as they did. They broke off communion with many other communities of Christ.

Like the Johannine community, I think we misunderstand our place in the economy of salvation. At the School of Theology, this is where our identity crisis becomes a community crisis. Hear me out. There is a consensus gathering among dissatisfied seminarians that our collective classroom experience is too shallow. It is too academic, I hear—too much “seeing what we know,” not enough “knowing what we see.” We are still asking Jesus to tell us plainly whether he is the Messiah. Our courses are chock full of detached analyses of the truth claims of our kindred Christian traditions, killing the spirit of religion. Seminarians want to be transformed by what they know, not deadened by it. They want to be the School of the Prophets again. Many students are rising to the challenge to rouse our community from its stupor. And this is a good thing. However, some students have taken this mission to an extreme. Like ministering angels, they have come to defend Jesus Christ from blasphemous, belittling, or trivializing assaults. It’s funny, isn’t it, the sheep presuming they must protect the shepherd? Even save the shepherd?

They have also come to purify the Church on the one hand, or reconstitute it on the other. I worry whenever Christ-followers arrogate to themselves the privilege that belongs to God alone—deciding who hears Jesus’ voice and who belongs to the flock. This is not to say that Christ-followers may not call their brothers and sisters to account for their sin, for doing so is part of their prophetic office. However, many of us step beyond our responsibilities. It is one thing to call your brothers and sisters to repentance, but it is another to assert by word and deed that your brothers and sisters are not sheep. It is one thing to say that your brothers and sisters have heard the voice of the shepherd but don’t listen very well; it is another to assert by word and deed that they are deaf to the shepherd’s voice. The first is charity; the second is cruelty. Listen to the Gospel: “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.” Yet I fear that is precisely what many of us are attempting to do, under the pretense of “making a stand” for the Church or by redefining the Church so as to push out those who are not ready to embrace their superior vision.

Are we willing to believe in a God so great and so mysterious as to grant that God speaks to our fellow brothers and sisters even when they wrongly impugn our faith and practice? And are we humble in the knowledge that God still speaks to us even when we wrongly impugn our brothers’ and sisters’ faith and practice? Can’t we all just belong? The Johannine community was unwilling to believe this, and so, apparently, are many of us in the School of Theology community. This is unfortunate. Have not all of us heard the Word of God and seen the works of the Lord and believed?

It is not for us to separate the so-called goats from the sheep, nor is it for us to usher the stray sheep back into the pen. I am surprised that some of our most enthusiastic brothers and sisters from the theological left and the right would not trust God enough to let Christ take ownership of all the so-called wayward souls in our midst. The Church does not need any more Holden Caulfields; it needs more leaders like John Mott, Pope John XXIII, and Bernice Powell Jackson. It needs models of koinonia like the Taize Community and the Community of Sant’Egidio.

Christ belongs to God, and we who believe belong to Christ. Only God knows who truly belongs to Christ. It is not for us to decide. Rather than play shepherd, let us be the sheep. Amen.

Last Letter From Boylston Street

Still backtracking ... see Boylston Street Letter #9.

The week of April 23-27, 2007

“After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue.”

These are the white-robed saints who have survived fierce persecutions, and they stand before the throne of God giving thanks to the source of their salvation. In John’s vision the elder says, “For this reason they stand before God’s throne and worship him day and night in his temple. The one who sits on the throne will shelter them.”

The one who sits on the throne will shelter them. Shelter them.

Do I need to go on? Do we not remember what else God promises these white-robed saints? “They will not hunger or thirst anymore, nor will the sun or any heat strike them. For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:16-17).

I have not read enough liberation theology to know whether Revelation is used as a programmatic text by its leading theorists. I suspect these rich, deeply thick passages would be congenial to their work. I say this by way of apology for what I write next. Forgive me if the following strikes you as an egregious lapse of good exegetical sense.

I have seen the great multitude John has seen, the people from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They are the homeless. They are not yet holding palm branches, for they have no reason to celebrate. There has been no final victory. There is no joy. They are not yet wearing the white robes, for their rags have not yet been washed white in the blood of the Lamb. Their rags are washed in their own blood, stained in their own sweat and bathed in their own tears.

They are on the move, the men and women of this multitude. They move through dirty streets over broken glass and under breaking skies and always lost in broken dreams. They wait in long, lonely lines for their daily bread—breakfast, lunch, and dinner; a chance to bathe, a chance to place a call, and a bed at night if they’re lucky and not late. They move through metal detectors and security checks; they move through clinics, counseling offices, and cafeterias; they move through prison cells and halfway homes. They are moving in between dusk and dawn; they are moving in the storm, never in the calm between. They are always moving, but they are never arriving. How far away is God’s throne?

They are not crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation comes from our God.” They are crying out, “How long, O Lord?”

When I see the multitude streaming to the hospitality desk, sometimes I want to leave my post and follow. I want to find out if it is really true that the poor are the privileged channel of God’s grace, as Jon Sobrino says. Where do these men and women come from, and where do they go? And what does God and grace mean to them, anyway?

Nine months at St. Francis House and I’m still puzzled by the poor. I fear the temptations of privilege, but I fear more the spirits, benevolent and malign, that grace and afflict poverty.

Poverty is dull and boring. It is rude and violent. It is not patient, it is not kind, it is not pleasing, it is not comfortable, it thwarts all interests, it aggravates all injuries, it hovers over wrongdoing, and it mourns with the silenced truth. It refuses all things, doubts all things, despairs of all things, surrenders to all things.

Poverty always fails.

And yet … and yet …

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

I have met many wise and gentle souls at the shelter. Their good cheer despite the numbing routine of the day center continues to surprise me. Their simplicity and strength of faith, as shown to me in the Bible study, gives me cause to rejoice quietly. Their piety is unaffected and never simplistic. Grace, amazing or otherwise, must be with them, because with them I have learned the fears of poverty, but I have also had other fears lessened. Without the least exhibitionism, they have shown me what hunger and thirst look like, and they have prayed with me for their relief. And I have prayed with them for God’s mercy and justice, and above all that God’s ways become our ways.

God willing, St. Francis House has done some small part of the works of mercy and justice. I do not know where my pilgrim journey goes from here, but I hope to walk with Jesus and the Twelve and Paul and all the disciples, who tell me:

Remember the poor.
Remember the poor.
Remember the poor.
And when you do,
Remember faith, hope, and charity.
Remember that many have not chosen to be poor, but you can choose to serve among the poor.

Finally, if the kingdom of heaven is like a magnificent house with many rooms, I expect the homeless men and women to occupy the rooms “nearest” to God. If there is such a thing as a beatific vision, anything that accords with the vision of John, may the homeless be at the head of the multitude that stands in glory before the throne of God. And if this is God’s will for blessed, broken, and beloved humanity, let God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven! Amen.

Boylston Street Letter #12

Still backtracking ... see Boylston Street Letter #9.

The week of April 9-13, 2007

What do the resurrection stories mean to the homeless? To you? To me? What do they do to us?

On Friday at my Bible study group discussed the resurrection appearances in John 20:19-31 and drew upon related texts in Chapters 20 and 21. At one juncture we were exploring the differences between the appearance to Mary Magdalene and the appearance to Thomas. Jesus tells Mary, “Do not hold on to me,” which to me does not exclude a physical holding or clinging to the body of Jesus, though this interpretation has gone out of fashion (the Latin “Noli me tangere” has a strong “hold” on me). On the other hand, Jesus says to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Why does Jesus invite Thomas to do what he forbids Mary to do, encountering his risen body? Does Jesus want us to touch the wounds or not? Questions, I had a few….

Do you remember the guest I previously dubbed the “Scripture savant”? The one who tends to monopolize the discussion when he comes to Bible study? Well, he was there Friday, and he had more than a few ideas he wanted to share. Thomas exclaims “My Lord and my God!” but, as our guest noted, there is no evidence that he actually takes up Jesus’ invitation. Seeking to harmonize these appearance stories, he commented that Jesus really didn’t want us to touch the wounds, and he invited Thomas to touch the wounds knowing that Thomas wouldn’t really do it. And then he added that Jesus knew touching those wounds would traumatize Thomas too much. Wow!

I replied that Jesus Christ really does want us to touch the wounds. Perhaps at the appearance to Mary Magdalene, because Christ had not yet ascended to the Father and given the Spirit, it was not yet time to touch the wounds. But by the time of the appearance to Thomas, Jesus had already breathed on the disciples and told them to receive the Holy Spirit, and so he could challenge Thomas to touch the wounds. I said that maybe Jesus’ challenge to Thomas is a challenge to all of us—it is traumatizing to have a real encounter with the broken, wounded body of Christ, but we are asked to “touch” it, anyway. Still, why would Jesus have us “put our finger here” and “reach out our hand” when that’s so risky, so dangerous? Isn’t God violated? Aren’t we violated? Is trauma an inevitable symptom of the divine-human encounter? Do we receive the Spirit before we touch the wounds, as we touch the wounds, after we touch the wounds? This hour of Bible study stirred lots of questions, few answers, and no certainties.

I shared these reflections with Professor Rambo, who has made trauma theory her specialty as she develops a pneumatology around the Johannine gospel and the experience of Holy Saturday. She wrote: “Perhaps in touching the wounds, Thomas is reoriented to his own woundedness. Perhaps in seeing the wounds, we are confronted with our own humanity (in all of its complexities) and, in turn, to see the woundedness of life and see the promise of life/love emerging from practices of witnessing to woundedness….

“It has always been interesting to me that the scars of the cross remain. It is a mark of our woundedness, but it is not an open wound. It does not threaten; instead, it reminds. What about thinking of the wounds as both a reminder of the death and the promise of life emerging from it … when Thomas touches, perhaps he is witnessing to the first movement of the Holy Spirit, in the touching of wounded flesh….”

She also cited a Johannine commentary by Hans Urs von Balthasar in which he asks us to enter the wound of Christ, to touch his heart, by which we “touch the pulse of God’s purpose for creation—to love.” Christ invites us to touch the wounds of his body so that we may love! I am reminded now of something else the Scripture savant said. To touch the body of Christ is an overpowering experience—even the briefest brush with it could be devastating. But in this contact with the divine wounds we are restored, not destroyed; empowered to believe, not to doubt; freed to live, not doomed to die.

I am counting on the resurrection power these days in ways I never did before. By it I seek forgiveness and wholeness; through it I expect to see the world transformed now, and not only in the future. I hope for greater things, and ardently I wish for others to be grasped by the promises of new life in the Spirit of God. I don’t think it is an accident that this turn in my faith and thought has come about while at the shelter, where I have come to know some very expectant men and women.

Boylston Street Letter #11

Still backtracking ... see Boylston Street Letter #9.

The week of April 2-6, 2007

I witnessed the dying of a religious symbol here on Holy Thursday.

The ritual of foot-washing, which has its origins in the account of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper (John 13:1-20), has been performed here for many years, I am told. All who work in the shelter are invited to participate, and all the guests are welcome. This year I was invited to give the reading from Paul recounting of the institution of the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). Karen LaFrazia, the executive director of St. Francis House, would wash the feet. I was looking forward to a beautiful re-presentation of Jesus’ consecration of servant leadership, as fine a sacramental ritual as the Church possesses.

Only the guests weren’t buying into it.

It took some coaxing from Karen and staff to bring several guests into the large classroom of the day center for the prayer and ritual. As I understand it, some guests balked at joining the foot-washing service because the shelter already provides foot care daily in the clinic, including soakings, massages, and pedicures, as well as the provision of clean socks. What more could this religious service do? Ironically, as staff approached the hospitality desk to make another announcement about the foot-washing over the public address, one of the foot care volunteers got to the microphone first to advertise the podiatric services in the clinic! Once we had several guests assembled with staff, we began our service, proceeding quickly to the foot-washing. Several staff persons and volunteers removed their shoes and socks. However, I noticed that none of the guests removed their footwear. Karen had finished making her rounds with her pitcher of warm water and plastic basin, and none of the guests had participated in the washing. Then, at last, one guest changed his mind. B.K., whom I know to be Catholic and must be in his late fifties or early sixties, moved from the back row to the front. He sat down to my immediate left and said, “Okay, I’m doing this on behalf of all of the guests here in St. Francis House.” Then Karen washed his feet lovingly, even gratefully. And B.K. thanked her with words of blessing. The service was over.

I have many theories as to why the guests did not choose to participate in this ritual. First, there is the matter of the redundancy with the foot care in the clinic. Our guests would be absolutely right to judge the “real” ministry to be occurring daily in the clinic, and I would not fault them for viewing the Holy Thursday service as a pale shadow of the former, a thing staged more for the benefit of the staff, seeking to assure itself how benevolent it is. Second, these are homeless people who have very little to their name except their dignity and pride. I can imagine that, in their position, to take off your shoes and present your feet for washing would be humiliating instead of empowering. Even to suggest gently to our guests that they remove their shoes can be construed as an affront to their dignity. Third, I don’t know how many guests are familiar with the origins and meaning of the ritual, but I surmise that even if they did, the guests could not believe that Karen was truly humbling herself by washing their feet. After all, Jesus was a genuine servant leader who surrendered his authority and his equality with God to be on an equal level with his disciples, if not lesser. On the other hand, when the foot-washing ritual was over, Karen would still be the executive director of the largest daytime shelter in New England, and the homeless would still be homeless.

What can you do when a symbol, a sign-act, loses its meaning? Well, I think you need to smash the symbol to pieces and reconstruct the symbol in a different way. Maybe the symbol of foot-washing never had any significance for our guests in the first place. We have ways of finding out what the symbol “does” to them. Robert Neville would interrogate the broken symbols like this: 1) how do we interpret the symbols being used; 2) what are the practical consequences of using these symbols; and 3) what is the state of the soul of the one affected by the symbol? I think the preceding reflections have addressed the first two questions; as to the third, I remain lost in contemplation. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever “know” the soul of the homeless. Touching the sacred with them is a delicate undertaking. I pray that, in the five weeks I have left at the shelter, I may gently share in our guests’ stories and traditions and all the things that give their life meaning. Perhaps we may discover a common, holy ground and remove our shoes together.

Boylston Street Letter #10

Still backtracking ... see Boylston Street Letter #9.

The week of March 26-30, 2007

More than ever, I regret that I don’t know how to speak Spanish.

On Monday we held a Lenten morning prayer in the day center using the lectionary readings for the feast of the Annunciation. Like a service of morning prayer we conducted during Advent, this service was open to our Spanish-speaking guests. A Capuchin Franciscan brother who does counseling and intake with the guests and is fluent in Spanish assisted me in the preparations. Now, let me confess that our prayer was not planned quite as we had advertised it. We announced that the prayer was going to be bilingual, but in reality the prayer was in English with one reading, the Gospel of Luke, in Spanish. You see, in December we prepared the opening and closing hymn in English and Spanish as well as every reading from Scripture. We were looking forward to an enthusiastic response from our Spanish-speaking guests, but in the end none came. Therefore, this time around we hedged our bets: we invited all to come to our prayer whatever their native language, but we expected to have an Anglo audience and planned accordingly.

Well, on this Monday we had one English-speaking guest and five Spanish-speaking guests. They were attracted to the large classroom where we were worshipping because we were offering coffee and breakfast pastries. The only trouble was, they did not seem much interested in participating in our prayer, despite my Capuchin partner’s communication of our purpose to them. The atmosphere became uncomfortable for me as our guests looked at us in bewilderment. Why were we handing them songsheets written in English, when we knew they couldn’t read a single word of the lyrics? And why did we go on singing words they could not hear?

All our Bibles were in English, and I had only one copy of the Spanish text of Luke’s Gospel for the Franciscan friar to read. Feeling desperation, in haste I asked the Capuchin to translate the verses I would be reading from Isaiah as we proceeded. This he did heroically, but the effect was not very prayerful, and our Spanish guests grew only more disengaged. Murmuring, two of them carried on some bit of merriment between them, laughing among themselves, sharing what I worried was a kind of malicious delight in our linguistic difficulties. We tried to recite one of the psalms responsorially, but this was a spectacular failure. By this time our sole English-speaking guest had become restless, telling me he couldn’t understand what we were saying with the Bible—that it wasn’t the way his preacher had taught him to understand it. In the meantime, a couple of guests had walked in for some coffee, oblivious to the prayer going on. Their insensitivity offended our English-speaking guest, and he rebuked them. At this point I lost my cool, and I sternly warned everybody to attend to the purpose of this gathering, which was to hear the Word of God and be still before God’s presence.

Everybody got the message, regardless of their native tongue, and we continued with the Gospel of Luke in Spanish, then English. We paused for silence, then we attempted some prayers and petitions. This did not work well, and the fellow who said he couldn’t understand how we were reading the Bible made a protest and left before we concluded. (Meanwhile, the other two guests who had come in for the coffee, both English speakers, stayed on.) The snickering continued among a couple of the Spanish speakers, and we ended with an awkward Our Father in Spanish. During that prayer I moved my lips, but no words came out.

I felt so foolish after the service was over. I’ve been working at the shelter for over seven months; I should have known better than to prepare a prayer expecting a certain kind of turnout. I forgot one of the axioms of pastoral ministry to the homeless: you don’t prepare, you get ready.

See what happens when you make plans? I don’t need to read the story of the Tower of Babel to be convinced that God delights in undermining our unitary designs. But what makes this incident different from the Babel story is that our tongues were already confused before we met, and we never intended to do the same work. Even the English speaker was speaking a different language from the Capuchin Franciscan and me. We acted like Pentecost had never happened. But we are living on the other side of Pentecost, and we have the gift of the Spirit to help us interpret tongues—to translate, not transliterate. We can do better. And if I can’t learn Spanish, at least I can speak Christian.

Boylston Street Letter #9

One in an occasional series of reflections on homelessness and my duties as a pastoral intern at St. Francis House, a daytime shelter on 39 Boylston St. in Boston ( Apologies for the long-delayed backtracking.

The week of March 19-23, 2007

I have little to report, but much to ask. Please keep Mallory in your prayers. Her life is in danger, so soon after her day of glory.

She graduated from our Moving Ahead Program on March 16, certainly one of the proudest, most hopeful moments in her life. I could not be present to cheer for her because I was demonstrating in Washington, DC. If only I could have been there and here in Boston. I thought of her, and I thought about how good it would be to resume our Friday afternoon tutorials, moving from mathematics to reading comprehension and writing skills. She could continue striving for her GED and continue rebuilding her life. Our routine, one of many healthy routines she had adopted, would go on as before.

But life is not working out that way, because Mallory has become homeless. Not figuratively in the way I have described homelessness before, but literally. Recently she was booted from the recovery residence she was living in because she allegedly failed a urine test three times. (Mallory vigorously denies she could have failed the tests and has claimed it was discrimination because she is a transgender person.) She is practically penniless, and despite her job skills training through our program she is having difficulty finding employment. Finding work and low-income shelter is complicated because of her CORI status and the short length of time she has maintained sobriety.

Speaking to me and to the MAP admissions director, she confessed that if she does not succeed in finding a place to live and work to do in Boston, she will have no choice but to return to Springfield, where, she said, she would very likely meet her demise among bad company.

As dire a scenario this is, I thought to myself, our shelter’s life skills program really works, because there’s no way Mallory would have realized before that her way of life in Springfield was leading her to an untimely death. She has discovered a community in Boston that is nurturing her into new being, and she knows she can rely on a network of support broad enough to meet all her needs and deep enough to sustain her through many crises. In her mind, to return to Springfield is become entangled in a web of disease and dysfunction, to places that deform the better habits of the mind and heart. Mallory knows where temptation lies; she believes she has been delivered from a host of evils, and she does not want to be rendered into their clutches again.

But time and circumstances are conspiring against her wish to stay in Boston. She is shuttling around the city meeting with housing, employment, and CORI counselors and other social services specialists to work an eleventh-hour miracle. Understandably, she has no time now to continue tutorials with me. She regrets it, but she said her life is really in a mess.

I told her that I cannot help her much now, but I will do the best for her I can—I will pray. You can do that, too, so pray with me for Mallory.

Catching Up

It's been far too long since I last posted. I will do some backtracking before beginning in earnest to chronicle the present, if I ever summon the discipline to do that.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

A Little Travelling Music

The following is a sermon I prepared and delivered for my introductory preaching course, taught by the Rev. Dr. Dale Andrews at Boston University School of Theology.

The reading is Psalm 121.

1 I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

3 God will not let your foot be moved;
The One who keeps you will not slumber.
4 The One who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

5 The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.

7 The Lord will keep you from all evil;
God will keep your life.
8 The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and for evermore.

There are many songs in the Bible, and I like to think that the book of Psalms is like the Bible’s greatest hits collection, an anthology. Who could forget Psalm 23, “The Lord Is My Shepherd”? Or Psalm 19, “The Heavens Are Telling the Glory of God”? These and others are rightly remembered as timeless expressions of praise of God’s loving kindness or God’s protection or God’s majesty. Within the 150 psalms there’s a particular collection of psalms, an album if you will, that scholars call the “Pilgrim Psalter.” It’s like a concept album in that all these songs have to do with pilgrimage. One of the “hits” from this album is Psalm 121, so well known that its first verse, too, has become its popular title: “I Lift Up My Eyes to the Hills.”

I think that if you put together a Top Ten list of the greatest biblical songs of all time, Psalm 121 would be up there with Psalm 23 and the Magnificat. And why not? Psalm 121 is the traveler’s song. This is the one you crank up on that long cross-country road trip. I presume you know Dr. David Livingstone, the famous Dr. Livingstone, the Scottish Presbyterian medical missionary. On the morning he left England for Africa, he prayed this psalm. But not only Dr. Livingstone. For 2,500 years Jewish, then Christian pilgrims, have sung its words. First, there were the Jewish exiles returning to the Promised Land from Babylon late in the sixth century before the Common Era. Then, for many generations after the exile, the Jewish peasants who now settled beyond Judea lifted up their eyes to the hills of Jerusalem as their caravans crossed the desert plains on the way to the holy city for the three great annual festivals. In the Middle Ages it would have been Christian pilgrims on the perilous way to Spain to venerate the relics of St. James at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Today Christians of all stripes who flock to Rome from the world over are likely to take comfort in the psalm’s promise of God’s watchful care and protection along the way. You need good songs when you’re on a long road trip. Psalm 121 is one of the best.

Like it or not, we who follow Jesus Christ are on a road trip, too. James Limburg says, “The call of Jesus was never ‘gather around me’ or even ‘listen to me,’ but ‘follow me.’ ” You can look it up, too: sure enough, the first thing Jesus says in the Gospel according to John is “come and see,” and the last thing Jesus says is “follow me.” Okay, so we’re going on a road trip. The only thing is, this trip is never-ending. We may take some rest stops, but we’re not stopping anywhere for too long. We are not settling down. Ours is a journey with God and back to God. We are not meant to make a permanent home here. Homeless or not, we are all wanderers with no set destination in this world. All these destinations are fleeting. And this psalm, Psalm 121, is about more than an occasional pilgrimage. It’s about the journey of life. All our life is a journey, and the psalm speaks to all of life. The Jewish know this; they have the custom of reciting Verse 8 when leaving home: “The Lord will keep your going out and coming in this time on and forevermore.” Christians know it, too; this psalm is a part of our liturgies. The Evangelical Lutheran Church uses it at baptisms and burials, and is it any wonder that we call such events rites of passage.

Remember that what we know today as the church began as a movement—hear that word, movement—called The Way. It would be more comfortable to stand still. It would be more comfortable to worship God from the security of home and church-house, centered, surrounded by friends and family. But God doesn’t stand still. From the days of Abraham through the Exodus, from Jesus’ itinerant ministry to Paul’s missionary travels, we have come to know God best in the journey. Like it or not, God has made us for rambling. Thank God we have a little traveling music. Here we have a classic, “I Lift Up My Eyes to the Hills.”

So how do we sing this song, Psalm 121? One rabbi, Jonathan Magonet, says it can be sung to a variety of melodies, either “jolly and rhythmic” or “solemn.” How do we choose? That depends on how you feel about road trips, I guess. You could sing it like a happy country-western shuffle:

On the road again, just can’t wait to get on the road again
The life I love is makin’ music with my friends
And I can’t wait to get on the road again

Or you could sing it solemnly, like the blues:

Well I’m so tired of cryin’ but I’m out on the road again, I’m on the road again.
Well I’m so tired of cryin’ but I’m out on the road again, I’m on the road again.

How will you sing this song? Like some pilgrims, you might try singing it solo, asking the question in Verse 1 and answering it in the affirmative in verses 2 to 8, assuring ourselves of God’s providence. Or, you might do a duet with a loved one; some scholars suggest the psalm was written as a farewell liturgy, like a dialogue between the pilgrim about to leave for Jerusalem (verses 1 and 2) and a priest or elder who stays behind, sending him or her off with words of wisdom (verses 3 to 8). Or, you might do a group sing-along, like the ancient caravans of pilgrims, trading verses back and forth in call and response.

I think we could sing this song in any of these ways. If Psalm 121 is about the lifetime journey with God back to God, then it has to be any and all of these ways, because this journey is joy and sorrow, hope and fear, pleasure and pain, making music and crying, life and death and life again. We make the journey together and sometimes on our own. And God is with us all of the way.

But how should we sing it today? Well, today I feel like singing the blues. Let’s lift up our eyes to the hills. These are not just metaphorical mountains. The ancient psalmist had the hills of Palestine in mind. Yes, Yahweh, the Rock, dwells in the heavenly heights above those hills. Over those hills lie Jerusalem and the Temple. Those hills are symbols of hope. At the same time, there’s danger in those hills! You could easily slip and fall while ascending those hills. These were also the high places where the false gods were worshipped. Here bandits lay in ambush to terrorize wayfaring pilgrims. The hills represent the indifferent world, the uncaring world, the cruel world! You can almost hear the cry of Abraham, poised to slaughter Isaac on Mount Moriah, in the psalmist’s cry “From where will my help come?” Hear the creeping despair in the darkness that D.H. Lawrence voiced in his gloss on Psalm 121, a poem he titled “The Hills”:

I lift up my eyes to the hills and there they are, but no strength comes from them to me.
Only from darkness and ceasing to see strength comes.

Hear the cry of Zephania Kameeta of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia, who a generation ago suffered with his people under apartheid and the nation’s oppressive structures. This is how he reads the first two verses of the psalm:

I look up to the powerful of the world; will my help come from them?
My help comes from the Lord, who from my childhood took my weak hand in his strong hand and led me in his way to this day.

God may reside above the hills, but make no mistake: our help does not come from the hills! Sometimes the hills provide comfort, but usually they challenge us. How do you think the homeless and the poor sing this song? It’s not so easy to cross from the question to the answer, “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” When a homeless person looks up to Beacon Hill at night from the freezing fields of Boston Common, starving and lonely, beset by drug dealers, lunatics, and violent prowlers, and asks “From where will my help come,” this is not a rhetorical question! Biblical scholar Karl Plank says the distance between the psalmist’s question of “my help” and the answer in God’s watchful care and protection is a profound one. Read between the lines of verses 1 and 2, and there’s a gigantic gap. What happens between the question and answer? What happens as we lift up our eyes to the hills? All of life, my sisters and brothers, all of life. The pilgrimage, the journey, the festival, the jubilee, the affliction, the struggle, la lucha, whatever you want to call it, is in there. Therefore, when we say our help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth, we are not just stating some kind of fixed eternal truth about God, although this part of the psalm has entered the Apostles’ Creed. No, to say “my help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” is to make a decision in faith that no matter what happens to us, God is our sure protection! Not technology, not progress, not our own strength, but the Holy One of Israel. Nothing else will avail the weary pilgrim.

Here is a poetic re-interpretation of the first four verses of the psalm by David Rosenberg:

I look up and find a mountain/to know inside/then light appears
Inspired from most high/My Lord, creator/of earth and sky
We shall not be moved/this power inside/never fell asleep
Over Israel.

But still, this song is not an easy one to sing. Don’t the promises in the last six verses of the psalm seem a little glib, the assurances too blithe? And these promises get greater and grander! God will not let your foot be moved; God will not let you slip and fall, because God is the guardian of Israel, and God never slacks off or sleeps on the job, unlike some of those other so-called gods the Canaanites and the Babylonians worshipped. In other words, God is our strength. The God who guards you is your shade, protecting you from the burning heat of the sun during the day and the mysterious power of the moon at night—the moon, whose rays the ancients believed caused insanity (hence the word lunatics). In the face of the elements, God is our security. This God who guards Israel also protects us from evil, meaning harm, calamity, and disaster. The Lord controls all of this. But that’s not all. God also protects our life from all harm: not just our soul, but also our existence over against death. God protects our life, and not merely our appetite, our craving, and our breath—God keeps our personal existence. In the end, God is our life.

How do we sing such a song in the wake of hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires? How do we sing such a song in the midst of homelessness, poverty and violence; militarism and terrorism; racism, sexism, and heterosexism?

Let’s look at another pilgrim. We commemorate his pilgrimage every year. In fact, we just celebrated it again two days ago, so Jesus’ raucous entry into Jerusalem on the eve of the Passover festival must be fresh in your mind. We know what songs the disciples were shouting: Luke tells us it was “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” Matthew and Mark add a helpful “Hosanna” in there. Now, I happen to think that Jesus was singing a different tune. He knew the psalms, and while the disciples were ecstatic, maybe buzzing on a power trip, bellowing “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” under his breath Jesus, who had more than an inkling of the dangers facing him, was saying soberly, “I lift up my eyes to the hills.” Was he already thinking about the Mount of Olives and the agonizing watch under the ominous moonlight, awaiting his enemies while his friends slumbered and slept? Or of Calvary and the withering heat of the sun? Or of the cross that would cause his foot to slip, then finally take his life, slowly squeezing his breath out of him as he hung upon it?

Nevertheless, there is something about this psalm that leads me to believe that its praises were on Jesus’ lips on the way into Jerusalem, in spite of the fate he knew awaited him. Five little words: The Lord is your keeper. They come from Verse 5 and provide the themes for the entire psalm. In this little psalm “Lord” appears five times; “you” or “your” appears ten times; and “keeper” appears six times. God does not merely dwell in transcendence above and beyond the hills. God is here, here with us. We are God’s, but God is ours. God is traveling with us, coming and going with us; making music with our friends, crying with us when we are alone; living with us and in Jesus Christ dying with us, yet wondrously keeping our life even in death and bringing us into new life. Never slumbering or sleeping, God keeps our going out and coming in now and forevermore. No other god but the guardian of Israel is doing this. No merely human power is doing this.

Jesus chose the unsettled life. He turned the world upside down, proclaiming the coming reign of God, the everlasting reign that unmasks worldly power, unveils privilege, and brings selfish pride to ruin. Jesus made the reign of God present to those living on society’s margins and denied it to those living in its center. Jesus could not do this of his own power. God was with him. Jesus’ pilgrim journey led him to the cross. But the Lord was Jesus’ keeper, and God kept Jesus’ life. And so with Jesus let us look to God our keeper for our strength, our security, and our everlasting life.

How do we sing Psalm 121? Listen to the song of one more pilgrim. Thirty-nine years ago tonight, the last night he was alive, he gave his final speech at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn.

It really doesn’t matter what happens now.... some began to ... talk about the threats that were out—what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers....Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place, but I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain! And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. My eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord!

Do you hear? At the end of his long, weary road, Martin Luther King lifted up his eyes to the hills, and he saw his help in the coming of the Lord, his keeper! The Lord is coming, coming to meet us on our pilgrim journey. Brothers and sisters, let us lift up our eyes to the hills. Amen.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

There's a War Going On ... Is Anybody Listening?

I have a beef with The Daily Free Press, the student newspaper at Boston University.

Christian Activists United for Social and Environmental Justice, our social justice group at the School of Theology, organized a panel discussion titled "The Impact of War: A Community Conversation," held in Marsh Chapel on March 28. We invited five individuals from within and outside our School of Theology community, civilians and military veterans, to share their stories, their hopes, and their prayers very openly.

What was the purpose of our discussion? From my opening remarks:

It may seem curious to some of you that we need a discussion like this. Isn’t it obvious how war affects the men and women who serve, their families, and their communities? Sixty years ago we would not need a gathering like this, but these are unusual times. The talk of war is on everybody’s lips, but for many its actual presence is elusive, even invisible. The talk of sacrifice is everywhere, but few have felt what sacrifice is. In fact, some of us may have grown up without knowing any friends or relatives in military service. Whether we support or oppose one conflict or another, a veil has come down upon many of us. We don’t understand the impact of war.

Of course, many of us are preparing for ministry in communities dealing with the awful shocks of war. Therefore, there needs to be a conversation. I think this forum will benefit many of us who are simply cut off from the experience of military service and do not know how to empathize with those who have encountered war and its after-effects. There needs to be, where possible, a lifting of the veil, and an opportunity for many of us who have no idea what military service and its possible trauma are like to learn how to show empathy through the sharing of impressions and experiences. There’s a lot about the impact of war that people just don’t know or don’t find worthy of talking about, and perhaps this forum can become a source of graced enlightenment.

Tonight, from a common but multifaceted Christian and humanistic perspective, we hope to uncover the impact of war and the complexities of our responses to war.


The Daily Free Press sent a reporter to cover the event. I was delighted, until I picked up the newspaper the next morning. Here is the puny story the paper published on March 29:

And here is the even smaller story it ran the same day about student efforts to stop the Darfur genocide:

Meanwhile, the sports section that day was overflowing with copy about the women's lacrosse team. Here is the letter I wrote to The Daily Free Press in response:

To the Editor:

No offense to your newspaper, but it's a shame that you could devote two articles totaling 35 paragraphs, plus a "7 Questions" sidebar, to the exploits of the women's lacrosse team and only 12 and 13 sentences, respectively, to reports of student efforts to stop the genocide in Darfur and a theological discussion of the impact of war on our loved ones and our communities.

It's easier, I know, to sidestep these grave matters and narcotize ourselves with Anna Nicole Smith, "American Idol," and the Red Sox. Americans are living in a fool's paradise.

Here are my seven questions for your readers:

1. Whether we support or oppose the war in Iraq, do we as American citizens take mutual ownership of this war?

2. To paraphrase Lincoln, do we share the cost of caring for those "who shall have borne the battle" and for their widowed and their orphans?

3. Can we make necessary distinctions in the way we regard the soldiers who fight this war in Iraq and the civilians (most of whom never put on the uniform) who started it?

4. Do we enter Darfur and destroy the janjaweed? If we do, who goes? Who pays for such a military operation?

5. Do churches, synagogues, and mosques teach their social ethical traditions, particularly on the justification of war?

6. Do our churches, synagogues, and mosques actively promote diplomatic alternatives to war, teach how to wage peace, and defend the rights of conscientious objectors?

7. Men and women in the military who believe in God (or don't) grapple daily with issues of life and death, sin and guilt, and the meaning of their service. They need to be spiritually fed. Do communities of faith promote the calling of men and women to the ministry of military chaplain?

Students and faculty are struggling with these difficult questions in a way that doesn't boil down easily into headlines or 250-word articles.

As I explained to your reporter, the talk of war is on everybody's lips, but for many the war's real presence is elusive, even invisible. The talk of sacrifice is everywhere, but few have known what sacrifice is. In fact, some of us have grown up without knowing any friends or relatives in military service. Whether we support or oppose one conflict or another, a veil has come down upon many of us. We don't understand the impact of war.

For the record, the panel at Marsh Chapel included civilians as well as military personnel. Our panel featured a clinical social worker who spent five years counseling men and women traumatized by combat or sexual trauma while in their military service, and a theologian from the School of Theology who is well-versed in Christian social ethics. I wish your newspaper could have captured the flavor of all our panelists' stories and the reverential spirit in which their wisdom was shared.

Anthony Zuba
STH '08
Christian Activists United for Social and Environmental Justice


The Daily Free Press published the letter on March 30 but deleted the first paragraph and the name of our group at the end. I guess the criticism hurt them a little too much.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Boylston Street Letter #8

One in an occasional series of reflections on homelessness and my duties as a pastoral intern at St. Francis House, a daytime shelter on 39 Boylston St. in Boston (

The week of March 5-9, 2007

The kingdom of God has been proclaimed, but it has not yet come. Lord, am I aware that it has not yet come! When competition defeats cooperation, when contract nullifies covenant, I know the kingdom has not yet come. When I know sin, I realize that the kingdom has not yet come. When I am sin, definitely I know that the kingdom has yet to come.

But the kingdom has been proclaimed. I’ve heard it! Sometimes I, too, have spoken words that heralded the Word that makes of everything a new creation. It really happens, and the optimist in me believes that it happens with us as often as it happens in spite of us.

Every man, woman, and child who practices social ministry ought to imagine standing between the times: between life as it is and life as they believe it will be. We begin where life is as it is, and we move toward life as it will be, and those in the Church are at the boundary of time present and time future. Or, picture another image for the Church: an isthmus. The Church is the land bridge between two great continents, the present world and the new creation. All of humanity from all time has been on a great migration from the first creation to the final creation, and it is our generation’s turn to cross from one to the other, guided safely over via the isthmus.

What does this have to do with the shelter?

I experienced two moments on the boundary of time, or along the narrow land bridge, on Friday. First, during Bible study, a guest (let me call him Deacon Jones) who joined us for the first time used the hour to offer his own catalog of Augustinian confessions. I knew Deacon Jones nominally before this; I knew only that he was one of the most well-mannered gentlemen I’ve met in the shelter. After hearing Jesus’ teaching about repentance in Luke 13:1-9, he testified both to the wretchedness of his circumstances and the glory of God transfiguring him. It is easier to believe we are simul justus et peccator after hearing Deacon Jones speaking gently but intensely about the misery and mercy of homelessness: the sleeplessness, the hunger, the cold, “snapping” on the streets, being held at knifepoint; yet also praising God for surviving another day on the streets, finding plenty in spite of sinful scarcity, and stepping out on faith to break up lethal fights. His witness shames me into silence. Have I forgotten the meaning of penitence? When a truly impoverished person testifies, you get the impression that none but the poor are genuinely remorseful about failing to pray to God or read the Bible. Trust that impression. His kind of faith sharing does not happen all the time, so you must be ready to listen. It was all I could dare to do. All mortal flesh must keep silence in the presence of Christ and his saints. Deacon Jones was a saint in that hour. Looking back on that morning, I’ve concluded that it is a good thing to study the written Word, but it is a far better thing to study the man or woman who becomes a talking book, a living Word.

Second, the transgender student Mallory fell down, but she rose again. She called me early in the afternoon to apologize for deciding to quit our weekly GED tutorials, offering that her life was complicated, and she needed time to sort it out. However, less than half an hour later, she called back and changed her mind: she wanted to continue, after all. That afternoon was the most productive of all our tutorials. She was getting the hang of reading, comparing, and adding decimals despite no prior experience with anything but whole numbers! So delighted was Mallory by her accomplishment that her melancholy had all but disappeared by the end of the afternoon. I had never seen her so proud of herself! And it made me regret having to tell her I could not attend her graduation from the Moving Ahead Program on March 16 because I will be in Washington. But I know she will be waiting for me when I return: we have to work on reading comprehension and writing skills. She insisted on it.

We’ve come too far to turn back. We must go forward. The kingdom is not yet here, but it is on its way, and it graces every dream Deacon Jones, Mallory, and I have.

Boylston Street Letter #7

Continuing backtracking ... see Boylston Street Letter #4.

The week of Feb. 26-March 2, 2007

The faith sharing and Bible study group meetings have been slimly attended the last few weeks. If not for the pastoral intern from Harvard Divinity School, there would have been no Bible study on the 23rd. This past Friday one guest joined the Harvard intern and me, which was a blessing, but this guest proceeded to monopolize the discussion (unknowingly). He does brilliant exegesis; however, his tendency to read all of the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels through the lens of the book of Revelation, combined with his inability to yield to others in the group, made for a stifling and unspiritual experience on Friday. This is ironic, given this guest’s repeated affirmations of the presence of the Holy Spirit in his life! I cannot speak for the Harvard intern, but I was relieved when our hour together was over: I, for one, no longer felt suffocated.

Strange that I should have wished for this Scripture savant to be quiet, isn’t it? He could speak with authority about the Bible, yet it did not feel like he was sharing with us … it felt more like he was displaying the most precious jewels of his erudition. Impressive? Without a doubt. Inspiring? Not at all, which leads me to wonder whether his is genuine authority. He could communicate conviction, but he could not communicate faith. If I were not already a Christian, I would not have tolerated his holding forth, and I sure would not have been moved toward belief by this guest’s exposition of Scripture.

This reminds me of what another guest, a keen observer of public affairs, told me earlier that morning: for the last 40 years, progressives have been the best recruiters for the far right, because the vehemence with which they promote their generally sensible causes scares away many sympathetic citizens. Progressive politics puts off the people who can and ought to be considered part of the “grass roots” but who are consistently talked down to or chastised or ignored entirely. I must confess that it discouraged me to hear him say that, and I countered him with this question: what about the need to speak a prophetic word for the common good, disturbing as it may be? He did not reply directly to this question, but he stated in words similar to mine that institutions which claim to promote the common good must aim at putting power to work instead of preserving their own power. In other words, if the institutions are not prophetic, the prophetic words of those serving in those institutions will come to naught, especially the words of the zealots.

How I wish to teach as one having authority, and not as the scribes! How difficult it seems some days to know just how to speak radically, lovingly, and constructively! You want God’s word and will to be accepted, but you know the sacred history of the law and the prophets tells you otherwise. The Christ-event assures you God’s word and will cannot fail to be fulfilled, and this I believe. Yet the silence and the violence….

Boylston Street Letter #6

Continuing backtracking ... see Boylston Street Letter #4.

The week of Feb. 19-23, 2007

Some days at the shelter it happens that you have to minister to the masses, leaving no time for one-to-one encounters with those who need your help or those who may be in a position to help you in your hour of need. Lately I have regretted being in a space where it has not been possible to have what I consider to be pastoral conversations. But upon further reflection what I think I mean is that I would like to have some more spiritual encounters and some more spirit-building conversations before this ministry is concluded. May the disciplines of the Lenten season sharpen my senses so that I might attend to my duties at the shelter with renewed awareness of the opportunities for a meeting with the image of Christ in any face, fair or homely. These moments are nearer than we think. On Friday there came two moments like this.

For the first time, none of the guests came to our hour of faith sharing and Bible study. It may have been a fluke that all the regulars (I use that word loosely) were not to be found around the atrium or the day center. Or if they were present on other floors of the building, they could not be bothered to return to the day center. Certainly it was no help that the elevators to the mezzanine were once again out of order, once more because of a fire in the trash room on one of the top floors. Perhaps it is again time to spread the news about this group by word of mouth. Whatever the reasons for guests’ absence, not all was lost. Another pastoral intern from Harvard Divinity School, who has platooned with me at the hospitality desk on Fridays, joined me for the hour of prayer and reflection and discussion. We lifted up in prayer the men and women who have attended our meetings before and hoped that good things were preventing them from attending, such as new employment, educational opportunities, or even new housing. My partner from Harvard is fresh-faced, good-natured, and far more imperturbable than me in the setting in which we minister. He arrived at St. Francis House last year in mid-autumn, and his duties have largely overlapped mine. It may surprise you to hear me confess that, at first, I felt like he was encroaching upon my turf! How territorial! How ridiculous! But since then I have been humbled by his gracious affability, and now I readily seek his presence at the Bible study. By his participation Friday, we were able to keep this chain of weekly gatherings in Christ’s name unbroken. God bless him for that.

God also bless Mallory and me as we struggle together through our Friday afternoon math tutorials. Again she was feeling less than her best, coughing and hacking out a chest cold. She arrived late and in a difficult mood, haggling with several telephone operators and physicians’ secretaries to renew some vital prescription medication in vain. In spite of Mallory’s churlish feelings, we slogged through two hours of word problems and broke through the darkness into some place of light. I can remember the exact moment: we were practicing the fifth in a series of arithmetic word problems, I was half-asleep on my feet, and Mallory in her melancholy was insisting that there was not enough information in the question to make a solution possible. I told her to think again and look carefully. There was a minute of silence, then, in a voice more buoyant than I had yet heard that afternoon, she announced that she had figured out what to do. She was pleased to tell me that it took her a little while longer to work it out, but she discovered what she needed to do. The last fifteen minutes of our tutorial were the happiest and most productive of them all. Whether Mallory continues with this Friday afternoon remediation has yet to be determined because her life is very much touch and go, not least because she is a transgender person. I hope we may keep going forward, if only for the fact that I felt a precious lightness of being at that moment when she understood what the problem was and how to solve it. She felt so proud of herself, and it made me care for her, genuinely care for her, for the first time. She made a breakthrough, but so did I.

Boylston Street Letter #5

Continuing backtracking ... see Boylston Street Letter #4.

The week of Feb. 12-16, 2007

The Moving Ahead Program celebrated the graduation of its 69th class on Friday, and I attended the ceremony at the Boston Center for Adult Education on 5 Commonwealth Ave. I walked there from the shelter with Mallory, the transgender student whom I was supposed to tutor that afternoon. We decided it would be a better use of our time to cheer on the men and women who were stepping out of the shadows of shame, disenfranchisement, and hopelessness into new lives.

As usual, the testimonies from the graduates were moving and steeped in gratitude. Several staff members and current MAP students paid tribute to these persevering graduates, and even Mallory stepped forward to give thanks for their example. A small but sumptuously catered reception followed, the kind of banquet that Jesus saw fit to use as a metaphor for the reign of God in heaven and earth.

Here, at these graduations, you see hope fulfilled. However, I felt strangely detached from the proceedings. Maybe it’s because I work at the periphery of this program and have not been touched by these children of God. Maybe it’s because I was thinking about school, my classes, and my love life. Maybe it’s because I felt sleepy.

Maybe it’s because while these men and women are moving ahead, I’m also moving on.

First of all, I am eager to plan a course of study for a Ph.D. or Th.D. in theology. Second of all, the novelty of ministering to homeless persons passed a while ago; and, in recent days, so has the feeling of guilt for not doing enough to lighten the lives of the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters. The welfare of the homeless and the heartbroken does not depend on me. I have allowed myself to “let go and let God.” However, sanguinity poses its own risks. If anything, I am concerned that the familiarity of the shelter will breed complacency and inattentive behavior. Already there are indications of obliviousness in my morning shift. Sometimes my nose is stuck in a newspaper while guests wait at the hospitality desk for their daily bread; sometimes I linger in the photo room, where we produce guest identification cards, to check e-mail. One more confession: While I was running an errand for the shelter last Monday morning, receiving and delivering a donation of soaps, shampoos, and moisturizers I had secured for the shower room and clothing distribution, I was thinking about how much of a relief it was not to have to staff the hospitality desk during the peak hour of craziness.

“Only, we were to be mindful of the poor, which is the very thing I was eager to do.” When this internship started, I could not think of any better way to use my time on Mondays and Fridays. Now I can think half a dozen things that are good and needful and that have little to do with the poor, at least those of St. Francis House. (I decided to take President’s Day off.) Is it God’s will leading mine, or merely my own will?

Boylston Street Letter #4

While living simply and living well the last five weeks, I have been derelict in my blogging duties. Let me start backtracking, with correspondence from my ministry to the homeless at St. Francis House.

The week of Feb. 5-9, 2007

Whenever the weather takes a sharp turn for the colder, I know I’m about to take ill. Moreover, my immunity always seems to be its lowest at exactly this time of the season: I’ve caught more colds in the second week of February than at any other time of the year. Wednesday evening I came down with a sore throat and general fatigue, and I decided not to risk making my condition worse by working at the shelter Friday.

No surprise there. However, this was the first time I begged off my duties at St. Francis House, and it did surprise me to discover how many people were going to be affected by my absence. There was the day center supervisor, who was now going to be one hand short at the hospitality desk; Mallory, the transgender student in the Moving Ahead Program, whom I had just begun to tutor for the GED exam, plus two others I was about to begin tutoring Friday; the MAP instructor who referred these students to me; Brother Dan, who sets aside time every Friday afternoon for a debriefing; and Professor Knust, who was scheduled to visit the day center at its most active. I placed five separate phone calls on Thursday morning to excuse myself to make sure I left no one in the lurch.

But there’s one group of people I couldn’t telephone: our guests, especially those who attend the Friday faith sharing and Bible study hour. How do you suppose they felt? Or how about those guests who take comfort knowing that on Friday morning they’ll see that familiar furry face ready to hand out razors for their prickly faces? I placed my sick calls out of courtesy and respect for those who rely on me; if only I could have extended the same direct courtesy and respect to the guests. When you’re down and out, you’re out of sight and mind.

That Friday I took time to recuperate and finished reading a textbook on pastoral care and counseling. The author, who likened pastoral caregivers to gardeners cultivating the “ground” of a faith community, emphasized the importance of self-care for caregivers, lest they suffer burnout. I do not take issue with the author on this point, but I note with mild regret that it was disarmingly easy to decide to take the day off. Moreover, I do not trust the feeling of relief that swept over me Thursday morning, which could be worded thus: “Thank God I don’t have deal with the homeless today.” Seriously, I was glad the shelter’s problems were not to be my problems that day.

Is it okay to feel like that? Do you call that good pastoral self-care? I could have reported to the shelter. I’m not burned out. I didn’t feel that bad Friday morning, certainly not much worse than most working-class people who don’t have the luxury of taking sick days. In short, I question the sincerity of my motive and the purity of my intent.

I could end with one of any number of Gospel proof-texts to vindicate my skepticism or chastise my self-loathing, but that won’t do. Better to remember that Monday is another day. The poor will still be there, and they will neither condemn nor praise us. I pray Jesus Christ will still be with us.