Driven to Abstraction

Recently, a young pastor shared this story with me.  He and his congregation studied Vital Signs together over a year ago, and they have been working to balance their inward focus (ministries for the membership) with an outward focus (ministries to the community).  He thought the church was doing a really good job, making significant strides toward being in ministry to the homeless in their area.  People were organizing food collection drives. A mission fund for ministries to the poor was established, and many people were giving impressively.  A few volunteers were working at a local food bank, and a few others at a shelter.  The energy and spirit was infectious.  People were really proud of their ministry to the poor.  Then tragedy struck:  A homeless man came to church one Sunday morning!

When the congregation actually confronted a homeless person, they were shocked.  No one greeted him.  No one sat near him.  In fact, a few people moved away.  After he came back a couple Sundays — with other homeless people — some regular church members began to stay away.  My young pastor friend said that one of the long-reigning matriarchs of the church sat with him, patted him on the hand, and said, “Well, frankly, we were shocked.  He wasn’t very clean, and he didn’t dress very nicely, and he smelled bad.  We can’t have people like that coming to our church,” she said.  “He’ll drive away the good people.”  The pastor’s heart was broken.  The congregation didn’t want to be in ministry to and with the homeless — they wanted to be in ministry with the idea of ministry to the homeless.

I wish this were an isolated story.  We tend to love people in the abstract.  We want to love the homeless, the sinners, the poor, the single mothers, but when it comes to welcoming actual living, breathing people — well, then it gets a little dicey.  “Those people” aren’t like “us.”  “They” make “us” feel strange.  “They” are dirty, unsophisticated, crude, pushy, and… uhm, real.  Our church doesn’t do well with real.

I spoke with another pastor who said that he was dealing with an unpleasant situation where a long-time church leader admitted he was an alcoholic and was an abusive father and husband.  For years, everyone was fine with his leadership, but that now — knowing the “real” story — no one knew how to respond.  People were uncomfortable, but it wasn’t really a problem.  He was the same man he always was, right?  Of course, the choir director who confessed her homosexuality?  That was a tragedy.  One was acceptable, but one was not.

Where comes grace?  How do we reconcile what we believe with who we are?  Why condemn one behavior while ignoring another?  Why be concerned with people who claim one value, when they live an incompatible one?  What’s the real problem here?

For me, it is that we are Christian in the abstract, but not in the concrete.  We love people that we are not willing to like.  We want to serve those we don’t want to accept.  We will be Christ to only those of whom we approve.

“The reality of loving the unlovable,” a young woman pastor recently told me, “is bogus.  No one really wants to love drug addicts, poor single females, ex-convicts,  and homosexuals.  These people are beyond our capacity to love.”  She went on to say, “I believe God is love, but don’t push me to prove it through the people in my church.  They hate a lot more than they love.”

Is this true?  Is this accurate of most United Methodist churches?  I pray not, but I wonder.  Loving in the abstract is so much easier than loving for real.  A test for me is the story of Jasmine and Amber, two young Cuban-American women from the Bronx.  This is their story:

I (Jasmine) realized that we were going to die if things didn’t change.  We needed something to save us.

(Jasmine was 20 years old with two children from a father who was in prison in New York.  Her 18 year old sister had five children from five different men, and was unmarried.  The two of them lived with their seven children in a single room 700 square-foot apartment, looking to make a life for themselves and their children.) 

I knew that we needed to get our lives together.  We needed to clean up, and we knew we needed help.  There was a church in the city that had a banner over the door — “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.”  That’s where we decided to go first.  We went to church, but it was clear from the moment we got there that they didn’t want us there. (The kids are completely out of control — very loud and very demanding)  We tried seven different churches in the Bronx, but none of them were any different.  They could not stand having two young women with seven active kids.

After a few weeks of facing disapproval and rejection, Jasmine and Amber took things into their own hands.

We decided to go back to the first church (UM) one more time, to steal a Bible and a song book (hymnal) so that we could learn on our own.  None of the churches wanted to help us, but we needed to clean up our lives.  We needed God.

The United Methodist Church claims to want to want to help people know God, but apparently it has no interest in people like Jasmine and Amber.  Yes, we say we want to help the poor and marginalized — unless of course we have to actually meet them.  Heaven help them if they speak differently, or are disruptive, or use curse words, or smell.  We’ll help those who deserve it or who meet with our approval or who we like, but let’s not push it too far.  Sinners?  No way.  Those who make us uncomfortable?  Not really.  Poor people in the abstract are like us, but without money.  Starving people are like us but without food.  Homeless people?  They should be like us, but without a house.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is real, not abstract.  The poor, the marginalized, the homeless, the hungry, the mentally challenged — they are who they are, and it is our responsibility to help them… as they are.  It does no one any good to romanticize or idealize them.  All we can do is love them, and serve them, and meet them where they are.  Love must be unconditional.  anything less is un-Christian.

11 replies

  1. So what does effective ministry with Amber, Jasmine, and their children look like? Can it begin with a pastor who is focused on leading the congregation at worship and therefore doesn’t even notice the unkind looks that the family may be receiving? When I’m leading worship, sure, I’m going to notice the noisy individual, but I’m hardly going to pay attention to how others are responding them. While this effort may not require everybody on board, obviously, there need to be a cadre of folks with their radar switched on to be helpful.

    They themselves said they needed to get cleaned up. I want the church to be a place where that can happen, but I don’t expect people to not react when someone is disruptive. We’re not entitled to be cruel, demeaning or insensitive, but as a community, or as individuals I think we do have a right to identify behavior -not individuals -that we deem inappropriate.

    I would hope that a few members of a congregation would more or less informally be a support team for Amber, Jasmine, and their household, as they navigate entry into and their own growth within the congregation, helping them “get cleaned up” while they bring their unique energy and gifts to the congregation.

    • You’re raising what, for me, is a critical distinction. Too much of what we do in the church is behavior modification — teaching people to be nice, friendly, welcoming, and pleasant. This is how we treat guests. But what we need is radical culture cultivation — deep change in attitudes and values. This is what happens when we open the family to a new child or sibling or spouse. In many of our churches, if the disruptive children were related to long-term members, the toleration level would be much higher. If the young mothers had stronger social graces or dressed and acted better, they might have been treated differently. When I talked to people from the church Amber and Jasmine attended, these fine, good people kept referring to “them,” “those people,” “those children,” making it clear that they didn’t “belong.” Most of our congregations are not prepared to deal with very much disruption or discomfort. We, by and large, are not really ready to receive the Ambers and Jasmines in our culture, and what passes for hospitality training in our denomination does nothing to really transform culture — though it does teach some very positive and helpful behaviors.

  2. Dan, thank you again. I should have waited to comment. We started with 3 new patients this weekend, a burn victim and two with untreated diabetes. All are in bad shape and place us at the limit of our capacity to care for them. After being with these guys, I had a personal need to find or put in place order somewhere and entered this comment stream inappropriately. This is part of the explanation for the poor form of my posts. I continue to be grateful for your posts and continue to encourage others to read them. Peace.

    • Hey, Larry, you have absolutely nothing to apologize for. I’m glad to be here when you need to blow off steam. It sounds like you had a very intense, high pressure experience, my friend. You are in my prayers, as are your patients.

  3. Dan, thank you for your response. My posts were poorly formed. Please forgive me for the disruption.

    • You know I was trying to be lighthearted in my response, don’t you? I wasn’t truly upset. My views on our church and the strengths we have due to our UM system are very strong. It often bothers me deeply that we use the system for our own purposes, and often miss some of its best strengths. In my opinion, the Book of Discipline is a powerful tool, with so much value to offer. I wish every church would study Our Theological Task, our Social Principles, and our historic Articles of Religion. Just that could help us all become better grounded United Methodists. So, you have nothing to apologize for. I appreciate your questions.

  4. Dan, are you saying we should not worry about the Book of Discipline and aligning ourselves with the process described by paragraph 122? I may be confused about your past posts in the light of the one made by Dwight. I serve as a Methodist volunteer at a refuge at a former garbage dump in Mexico for 9 years now. The Book of Discipline has been and is helpful, particularly in describing the mission of the UMC and the process by which we go about that mission. Yo quiero que me disculpen.

    • Larry, have you read what I have written at all? It takes one crack from Dwight and you decide I don’t care about the Book of Discipline? Have you been paying attention? I think the Book of Discipline is great when it is used properly. The sad thing is, United Methodists abuse and misuse the Book of Discipline with the same disrespect that Christians have misused the Bible for years. It is a book of guidelines, polity, doctrine, and direction that MUST BE INTERPRETED in context. The whole confusing and disappointing conversation about our constitutional amendments indicates that many UMs don’t really know what the Discipline says or means. Adopting Amendment 1 changes very little, because it remains in context of all of our Social Principles, baptismal vows, membership vows, and other pertinent paragraphs. I have provided a fairly thorough response to your concerns about paragraph 122, and even that is open to broad interpretation. So, hear this, I have been, and will continue to be, a staunch supporter of our Book of Discipline — well and fairly read and interpreted and applied with grace, compassion, mercy, and respect. Where people abuse or misuse it, I will never support that.

  5. I love it when Methodists worry about the Book of Discipline rather than the real purpose and mission of the church. Rev. Dan, you are the town cryer we need to listen to. God bless you.

    • Actually, I wish more UMs read and understood the good old Book of Discipline. It should be helping us be a better church, not a club to be used to beat one another to death. Anyway, if what we do doesn’t bear the fruits of mercy, love, justice, and compassion we ought to find something else to do…

  6. Were it possible to make the story of Jasmine and Amber part of the preparation to respond to marketing/advertising efforts by the UMC. It may be the budget for the present advertising campaign works out to about $3 per US member. The response/effort needed by each US member is suggestive of a level far greater than $3 and a level requiring an educational effort. Advertising requires fulfillment; one must have the service or product readily available when one responds to an organization’s advertising. For the purpose of alignment with paragraph 122, it may be helpful to ask each local church to consider Jasmine and Amber and your post. Peace,larry

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