Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Flip Side of Central Square

Last weekend, as I always do on the third Saturday of every month, I participated in our church's Outdoor Ministry with homeless residents of Harvard and Central Squares in Cambridge. A team from our church gathers each month to make and distribute sandwiches, juice/ water, and brownies to those among us who are living on the street. This ministry began when one of our seminary students realized that the homeless in Cambridge were fed Sunday through Friday, but not on Saturday. We endeavor to make sure folks have something to eat on Saturday.

I have been a part of the sandwich ministry for almost a year, but this is the first time I brought my husband along. He is a paramedic in the Boston area, so he sees homeless people in the hospitals and picks them up in his truck. His perspective on homelessness is much different than most other people as a result. My spiritual "mom," Margie, was with us too, and it was her first time distributing sandwiches. Generally, we try to visit briefly with each person. We ask how they are, if they are keeping warm, and whether they have a place to stay that night. We also remind them that the Outdoor Church will be taking place the following day.

Last month, I was really challenged by a guy named Tommy. He was disabled and very cold when I met him. While my usual partner, Lane, chatted with his friends, Paul and Emily, I went to buy him a small coffee to help him warm up. When I returned, Tommy declared he didn't want any coffee, but asked if I had any alcohol. I was taken aback. "Who asks a Methodist for alcohol?" I asked my husband later, adding, "If I was a nun, he wouldn't have asked me for alcohol!"

This time, Tommy greeted us right away. We asked how he was and whether he wanted any food. He refused food, just like last month, but pulled out his bottle of cheap vodka. I asked if he was finding a place to stay lately, since he is disabled and I was concerned whether he would be able to get to a local shelter. He told us that he had just come from the Boston Medical Center (though his perception of time may have been dubious), where doctors had again confirmed his diagnosis with lung cancer. He said that they wanted to take out his whole lung, but he didn't want to attempt that kind of intense procedure. Stephen agreed that recovery from surgery like that is very difficult. He said that he felt he deserved it because he had smoked for decades. Then he said something that made me really think: he wants to die on the street. Tommy said he preferred to drink himself to death and die while passed out or sleeping than to die from cancer while lucid. I thought about how painful it is to die of cancer, and can't say I blame him.

Still, it was an unexpectedly candid moment on the street. Not everyone will talk to relative strangers about their own death. It was a picture of what end-of-life decisions look like when a person hits rock bottom. It was also a reminder that chronically homeless people are so alienated from society, they feel more at home on the street than they do in society's institutions like hospital.

The Church is another one of society's institutions, though it is Christ's body at the same time. Housed people who go to church are so far removed from the trauma of everyday life on the street that they can have a difficult time relating with homeless neighbors. And homeless neighbors often feel uncomfortable in a building like a church, which is why churches like the Outdoor Church exist. Reaching out across the housed/unhoused divide can be daunting.

Yet we are called, in our hesitance and trepidation, to reach out anyway.

Central Square is known for its addicted homeless population, partly because there is a shelter that focuses on addiction in the neighborhood. It's easy to walk by my neighbors on the street every day without giving them a second look. In my mind, Tommy transformed from "addict" to "person" that day. My conversation with him reminds me that all the homeless people in my neighborhood are people just like me. Reaching out, even once a month, definitely takes me out of my comfort zone. I do it anyway, though, and when I do, I am confronted with a glimpse of God's Kingdom that I didn't expect.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Fleeing from God's Wrath?

Last weekend, I sang the Verdi Requiem with Back Bay Chorale, and it was quite the experience! I recommend you start the (rather long) YouTube video I embedded now so you can get a taste of that experience as you read.

For those of you unfamiliar with Guiseppe Verdi, he was an Italian opera composer, so his work is very dramatic and bombastic. He wrote the Requiem for an opera great who had died the year before, and used the stark contrasts of operatic music to show depict fear of hell and hope of peace in the next life. I felt the bombastic music very acutely because, as a first soprano, I was placed directly behind the bass drum and three timpani! We had eight (!) trumpeters, which also contributed to the "wall of sound" effect the audience experienced.

My conductor is a lifelong Christian. He observed that while Verdi was a secularist, his Requiem places a lot more emphasis on fear of hell and God's wrath than other requiem settings in the Western musical corpus. He theorized that Verdi might have been more afraid of God's judgment or the afterlife than some of his more devout fellow composers because he did not have a personal relationship with God.

Verdi might have been interested to read about the recent discussion around Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins, if he had been alive today. The existence and nature of hell is still a widely debated issue in the Church today, and for good reason. On the one hand, we want to see those who perpetrate injustice get their comeuppance. On the other hand, what kind of loving God sends God's own special creations to a place of torment? My take on it is that hell may not necessarily be in the afterlife; sometimes that "eternal death" and torment can be a part of our existence here on earth.

As a Methodist, I must heed John Wesley's admonishment to "flee from the wrath to come." We don't know how Wesley thought about hell, but we know he had a healthy respect for God's judgment of evildoers- including us! He was motivated to be sure of his salvation by fear of what might happen if he was not forgiven of his sins. Sometimes I think that Methodists today take our salvation for granted, more often considering the "free gift" element of God's grace than our deep need for it.

Singing the Requiem last week gave me an appreciation for our need to flee from God's wrath. I was called upon to depict the coming of God's anger and to beg for God's mercy (Kyrie Eleison) and God's liberation from sin and death (Libera Me). That music is seriously scary!

When I sang, "Liberate me, O God, from eternal death," I thought about how Paul said that the earth is crying out in labor pains as we, God's people, birth God's Kingdom of peace and love in the world. We still need to be liberated from sin; God's Kindgom is coming, but it's not all the way here yet. Likewise, I myself have been forgiven, yet I have not yet reached Christian perfection. I still sin, and need to be constantly made more holy through the work of the Holy Spirit in my life. When I sang this piece, I cried out to God to save me from my sins now and the sins I will commit (or omit) in the future.

We as Methodists must "flee from the wrath to come" ...but we run right into the arms of our Savior. Our God is both just and merciful. Although we continue to sin, God welcomes us with open arms every time we come running back. That is what Verdi didn't know. Because he saw God as a one-dimensional judge, he didn't realize that God's love contains both God's justice and mercy. I certainly hope that at some point before his death, he experienced God's love and forgiveness. If he did, he probably had a deep appreciation for his salvation. May we all appreciate our salvation as deeply as Wesley.

UPDATE 6-29: I just found an article by Rev. Larry Hollon on this very same topic: John Wesley and the idea of hell on earth. It describes JW's Industrial Revolution context, and I think all Methodists should know this!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Resurrecting Hope

At last, warm weather has come to Boston- it's about time! I've been outside over the weekend. :o) This week is super-busy for me, because my choir is in performance week for the Verdi Requiem. I'll post more about that later.

For now, check out this beautiful post by my friend Susan over at the Contemplative Cottage: Resurrecting Hope. It's about the parallel between growing flowers and growing faith.

I'll be back next week with my sanity and some thoughts of my own. See you then!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Church Unity: United Methodist or Untied Methodist?

I've been wanting to tackle this topic, but didn't quite know how until one of my favorite bloggers, Rachel Held Evans, held a synchroblog on Church unity. Her Rally to Restore Unity urges us to "take it down a notch for Jesus."

This project began partially as a result of the recent firestorm over Rob Bell's new book and John Piper's flippant response, a three-word tweet.  But it is also a response to the current climate of vitriolic and mean-spirited rhetoric among Christians, especially on the Internet. In the midst of knee-jerk reactions made possible by Facebook, Twitter, and user-friendly blog platforms, she encourages us to stop and think before we post, comment, or tweet.

Rachel is also encouraging us to stop and think before we jump into decades-old or even centuries-old debates: predestination, premillenialism, evolution, women in ministry, abortion, homosexuality.

In seminary, these debates played out in miniature form in the classroom and writ large over entire school years. During one of many section discussions, I heard a fellow student jokingly call our denomination the "Untied Methodists."

These days, especially with voting on General Conference delegates coming up, I have begun to wonder if we United Methodists are truly united. Hanging around LakeSide at Youth Annual Conference and Annual Conference for years, I heard plenty of heated discussions. Lately, though, I have really listened to my fellow churchgoers and have been disturbed by the "us" and "them" talk. It scares me that we fear and dread talking to fellow United Methodists who think differently than we do, and we even go out of our way to avoid these conversations.

Though we theme our conferences "One Body," we are factioned along ideological lines, hermeneutical commitments, and social positions. At conference, we play out our old ecclesiological disputes in terms of biblical interpretation and homosexuality. In marriage, couples often say that they have the same fight over and over again. The same thing is happening to us. Though we think we are fighting over the primacy of Scripture, it is really about the tension in our relationships with one another. Thank goodness we lay ground rules to help us behave civilly even if we cannot be kind in heated moments.

We gather, we worship, we fight, and we go home. Outside of conference, we still tiptoe around women in ministry, racial inclusion and other issues that have long been put to rest at the General and Annual Conference levels.

This pattern makes me so sad for our denomination. I am dismayed to see us locked in patterns of conflict. Can we stay together- United- while we work through bitter disputes, even as other mainline churches experience schism? Or will we become "untied"? Will we allow lines in the sand to become stronger than the ties of fellowship?

Our history shows that we can do either. In 1844, the Methodist Episcopal Church split over slavery to become the MEC and MEC South. But then in 1936, it reunited. In order to reunite, the MEC had to stop ordaining women and created the Central Conferences, which segregated the church by race. Reuniting came with a price: that price was justice for women called to ministry and African-Americans.

The story of the MEC, one of the UMC's ancestors, tells us that unity comes with a price. That price is compromise, and sometimes ethical compromise is contrary to God's demand for justice. Disunity also comes with a price. A church that breaks away loses the richness and diversity of being one body with many others who are different, and who can teach us new ways to believe.

As we prepare for another General Conference, we must pray for God's Spirit of unity. We have a lot of learning to do in order to live together harmoniously. Being ""One Body" in Christ" takes work, perseverance, courage, and love. The fruit of all that work is that our "body of Christ" is Jesus' hands and feet in the world. We must learn to abide with one another so that we can carry out God's mission.

Therefore, I propose a new action item for General Conference 2012. I would like to amend our Conference procedure to include the following: Eat. Together.

Potlucks NOT Polemics
Because you can’t argue if you’re stuffing your face.

“It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”  – Jesus