“… that doesn’t make it garbage.”

Everyone has seen videos of people in Manhattan walking past homeless people. Some people treat people who are homeless as invisible (at best) or worthless or a blight (at worst). Last night I was spending time with New York City Relief, making friends with people currently living on the street. I had an important list of names of individuals we had talked to and their prayer requests. (The International House of Prayer church prays faithfully for these people each week baEzra and Eddy, Noah and Chris and I thoughtsed on these lists.) Anyway, I absent-mindedly wrote down what one couple wanted from a fast food restaurant on the back of that list, and sent a couple team members to bring back the food. The volunteers came back with the food, but (of course) not with the list, which was now in the garbage! My mistake! And I was responsible for that list! I asked them to go back for it and try to “rescue” it, while I continued speaking with another homeless man who stopped by and wanted to talk. He’d been living on the street for “many years.” He saw the little drama unfolding about our potentially lost list, and said to me, “Just because something is in the garbage, that doesn’t make it garbage.” It was slightly out of the blue, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since. And the great thing is, it wasn’t me telling him that, perhaps to encourage him, but it was him telling me. It was a beautiful moment where we thought together about a simple but profound truth – and for me, it came from a surprising source. (I’m supposed to be the one dropping profound nuggets out there, right?) The thing is, it shouldn’t be surprising. Whether the woman suffering because she doesn’t have her meds, or the young guy who’s relationship with his father has devastated him, or the woman on the street because her husband’s violence almost killed her – these people are just like us – they have truth and wisdom like like we do (sometimes more than we do) – and only a few minutes spent talking to one or two of them makes that obvious.

When we’re down should we be “kicked to the curb?” When we desperately need help should we be considered a blight? Is our very presence a problem, so that others should rightly treat us as “invisible?” No, because no matter what happens to us, no matter where we are, we know who we are. We know who made us. We know who depends on us. We know who still believes in us. We know what we have to contribute.

It’s no different with people living on the street. They’re humans. They’re moms and dads, siblings, parents, aunts and uncles. They’re old and young. They’re single and married. They’re Christians, Muslims, Jews, and seekers of all kinds. They’re God’s handiwork. Others depend on them. Some are lucky enough that others still believe in them. And they have something to contribute. As Jesus said, you just have to have “eyes to see.”

So, next time, try to remember with me, “Just because something is in the garbage, that doesn’t make it garbage.”

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Ministry to Homeless Friends: Lessons Learned

I learned one big lesson each of the first five times I ventured out with the team from NYC Relief (“The Relief Bus”).CBovzOnUkAA8QD6

1. Many might wonder, “The Bible says that God cares for the poor, but does he? How is that?” I learned that if you ask the poor themselves, “Does God care for you.” They are very likely to say “Yes!”

2. We often need to see results, and how what we do is important and a good use of our time in that way. I learned that simply kneeling down to talk to someone, looking them in the face, and showing them the love of God has great significance in itself. In fact, it’s exactly, specifically, explicitly what Jesus says to do. (He doesn’t tell us we have to save the world or force others to change.)

3. I learned from a friend on the street that, if I feel my wife can’t really hear me when I’m trying to tell her something, that I should just “Take her hand, ask her to sit down with me, and then have a conversation.” Simple. No doubt heard it before. It had a special impact this time. (But I still need to do it, so the story isn’t over yet.) I learned that I can learn from someone on the street – and why not?

4. I’ve been either in ministry or preparing for ministry most of my life, and most of that time I’ve had my nose in a book, and I’ve been “all up in my head.” When I met a bunch of 18 year old volunteers, and learned that in their ministry school, this do stuff like this most every day (street ministry in Manhattan), I learned that I had a long way to go understanding what God expects of me and how much more I could also be doing.

5. To do street ministry, you have to start by entering a “no-judgment zone” with anyone you will meet. It’s not about merit or blame. Our job is unconditional love. I learned that I can (and should) bring this same attitude home with me, and apply it on a daily basis (for instance) with my wife and children. Imagine.

If I am ever able to work more full-time with the Relief Bus, I will have to raise support. I’ve already been thinking about what I might say to church groups or interested friends. After four or five points, I know now that I would have to sheepishly admit (point #6), that I do this because I need to. This is how I so spiritual formation. Doing this changes me. It makes me a better Christian, and a better human (which, after all is the point of being a Christian). I don’t know at this point where it will all lead, but I’m all in.

My “Ministry”

I’m anxious to do.
You’re anxious for me to be.
I feel like rushing.
You refuse to be rushed.
I feel unfairly deprived and overlooked.
You want to humble me
to make me appropriately small
to sit with me in my losses.
I want to be of use to others.
You want to search me
to come to me in my obscurity
changing me.
You want to see if it’s love for you
or love for myself
whether it’s love for others
or love for honor
that motivates me.

It often seems unfair,
but in your love you are saving me
granting me this daily death to self
giving me what I most need
but don’t know I need,
changing me.
And in your love you are embracing me
that I might know that if I have you
I will want for nothing
that you alone suffice.
And in the end, I will know
that everything I thought was me,
and everything I held onto so desperately
was finally nothing.
I will know that
you have given me over to death
that Christ may live in me
and that my inner dying might grow
to reach my death from without.
I will know that you are everything
that in you alone I have all I need
that you alone suffice.

10 Qualities of an Emotionally Healthy Wedding: The Couple’s Version

1175393_10153168582575121_1374684387_nA pastor friend recently blogged about his daughter’s wedding, and how he and his wife worked to make it an “emotionally healthy” one. That great article inspired me to see what I could write along the same lines – for the couple. If you’re planning a wedding, this is for you.

1. Consider whether less could be more.

A big crowd. A huge expense. Tons of food. A DJ, steel band and an orchestra. Many thousands of dollars spent for flowers. It’s hard to know where to draw the line when you’re planning such a momentous day, but it never hurts to purposely stop and think: Will it put you in debt? Are you trying to make an impression, or have a great celebration? Simplicity can be beautiful as well as practical. Ask you parents about their wedding. Haven’t things changed! But ask yourself, has it been only for the better? No one can tell you what to do for your wedding, but be intentional. Don’t just let it happen to you. Be aware of your motives. Be clear with yourself about your goals, and consider whether in some way less may actually be more.

2. Keep your perspective.

In spite of what you may have heard, this day is probably not the most important day of your life. It’s a big day, but there will be other big days too. Don’t set yourself up for disillusionment or disappointment by having unrealistic expectations. Unexpected and unplanned things have a way of happening. Corsages are forgotten, limos are late, a ring is dropped – the chicken is dry, someone gets drunk, people don’t show – whatever it is, it wont spoil your day if you focus on what really matters: by the end of the day, you will have celebrated a momentous event with the people you love the most.

3. Know yourself.

Are you cranky when you’re hungry? easily overwhelmed, tired or angered?  Are you a crier? a confirmed introvert? Do crowds make you nervous? Do you sometimes drink too much?  Don’t be surprised if you are just like yourself on your wedding day. Why would you be otherwise? Prepare accordingly. Bring tissue and a snack, but more importantly, approach the day mindfully so that you can bring your “best self” to the celebration. Think through the possible pitfalls and take wise, preemptive action.

4. Know your limits.

If there ever was a day for to enjoy yourself and have exactly what you want, this is the day! Plan the day around what you want and what you can do, and stick to that. Don’t let someone else hijack your day with their agenda, however well-intentioned. Don’t be afraid to say “no.” You can’t possibly make everyone happy, and you shouldn’t try.

5. Listen to your emotions.

Anxiety, tension, anger, impatience – these are probably unwelcome but nevertheless helpful signals from your body, advising you to make adjustments – adjustments that will help you maximize your enjoyment of the day. Keeping a positive attitude, staying centered in a peaceful place within [If you’re a person of faith, than simply rest in God.] – these and other practices will definitely make for a more memorable, beautiful, enjoyable wedding day.

6. Be present for your ceremony.

What you feel or experience during the ceremony determines what you’ll remember later. You know those brides who say, “I don’t remember my ceremony. I can’t even remember my wedding! It was a big blur.”? Those brides weren’t present for their own wedding. They were in attendance, but they didn’t experience it. When it comes to the ceremony, this means you should focus on what you’re saying to your partner and what your partner is saying to you (vows, ring exchange), and what you’re feeling during these parts (and  other parts) of the ceremony. There may still be distractions during that time, and the adrenaline will be coursing through your body. You may have an “out of body” experience. You may temporarily develop “tunnel vision.” Deciding ahead of time to be mindful of your emotions will make sure you enjoy your ceremony and remember it later.

7. Be ready for your life to change.

Your wedding is a doorway through which you’ll pass from single life to married life. Even if you’ve been living together, and you think things aren’t going to change, think again. A transition like marriage brings with it lots of significant change. The relationship is legal now, and hopefully non-probationary, so even if you’ve been together a long time, that’s two differences. Officially, you have new relatives, new obligations, and probably new expectations. And someone else has new expectations for you. If you’ve been living on your own, with a roommate or with your parents, moving in with your new spouse is bound to be full of surprises – and some of them might be disturbing or confusing. That’s OK. That’s how this works. Just don’t be caught off guard. Don’t expect that your life after the wedding will be just a more fun version of your life before your wedding. You’re in the midst of a major life transition. Expect the unexpected – and remember than many have successfully navigated these waters before you. You’ll be fine. (I often remind couples during the ceremony with these words from a Country music song: “Give the heavens above more than just a passing glance.” If you call out to God for help, he will make himself known to you and he will help you.)

8. Remember it’s a day for love.

Don’t be a bridezilla. It’s you day, but it’s not your day to be inconsiderate, rude or to throw a tantrum. Take some time before you leave home to spend some time with God, asking for “a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” (Colossians 3:12f) These virtues apply every day, but especially on a wedding day. Save yourself some regret and maybe damage to your reputation. Let your inner beauty shine through. In the end, that’s what people will remember the most – including the groom!

9. Pay attention to how God might be coming to you on your big day.

Christian mystics remind us that we do well to “look” for God in each day, because he is certainly there. Often we miss him because we’re so distracted or hurried – or just because we have no expectation that he will “show up.” Try to approach your wedding day with a sense of expectant wonder about what God may want to do for you, show you, or communicate to you. Remember that wedding Jesus attended in Cana? Do you think that young  couple expected Jesus to do a miracle at their wedding? To show up and save them from embarrassment? To make their wedding ten times as good as it would have been? No, they didn’t, but he did. On that day his “appearance” was dramatic, but it’s often much more subtle. Is God invited to your wedding as a guest? If so, then expect him, and look for him to show up. And remember, he will probably be in disguise. (You might want to particularly keep an eye on any children present, and the waitstaff.)

10. Embrace the joy.

This isn’t usually a problem at a wedding, but I write this for any “joy impaired” pilgrims like me. There is nothing spiritual about being a downer, in fact, quite to the contrary. Believe me, God wants you to be happy. He really does. Celebrate! Feast, drink, sing, shout, laugh, cry, make merry! Remember what Jesus did at that wedding in Cana?  He was relaxed, compassionate and fun-loving. Shoot for that.

Postscript: In closing, I’d like to share a wedding story with you.

The wedding was being “… produced on an epic scale by an unhinged character known only as the Mother of the Bride (MOTB). The logistics–from an eighteen-piece brass-and-wind ensemble to gift registries spreading across most of the continental United States to twenty-four bridesmaids, groomsmen, flower-petal-throwers, and ringbearers–were of a scale usually seen only during the military invasion of a sizable country. But the plans were all working–until the climactic moment of the processional:

Ah, the bride. She had been dressed for hours if not days. No adrenaline was left in her body. Left alone with her father in the reception hall of the church while the march of the maidens went on and on, she had walked along the tables laden with gourmet goodies and absentmindedly sampled first the little pink and yellow and green mints. Then she picked through the silver bowls of mixed nuts and ate the pecans. Followed by a cheeseball or two, some black olives, a handful of glazed almonds, a little sausage with a frilly toothpic stick in it, a couple of shrimps blanketed in bacon, and a cracker piled with liver pate. To wash this down–a glass of pink champagne. Her father gave it to her. To calm her nerves.
What you noticed as the bride stood in the doorway was not her dress, but her face. White. For what was coming down the aisle was a living grenade with the pin  pulled out.
The bride threw up.
Just as she walked by her mother.
And by ‘threw up,’ I don’t mean a polite little ladylike urp into her handkerchief. She puked. There’s just no nice word for it. I mean, she hosed the front of the chancel–hitting two bridesmaids, the groom, a ringbearer, and me. [Robert Fulgham] …
Only two people were seen smiling. One was the mother of the groom. And the other was the father of the bride.

Fulgham explains how they pulled themselves together for a much quieter, gentler ceremony in the reception hall. And how ‘everybody cried, as people are supposed to do at weddings, mostly because the groom held the bride in his arms through the whole ceremony. And no groom ever kissed a bride more tenderly than he.’ [1]

Think about it.

[1] John Ortberg in The Life You’ve Always Wanted, pp. 78f., quoting from Robert Fulghum’s story in It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It, pp. 10-15.

_______
Rev. William Britton officiates at about ninety weddings a year and has been doing so for the last ten years. Through Clergy On Call Ministries he cares for couples and families on their most special and difficult days (weddings, vow renewals, baby blessings and funerals).

Reveals & Resolutions re: Downward Mobility

God surprised me today with a list of things that need to change. I’m posting it here to keep track of it, and to be able to come back to it (both to review it and to modify it if necessary). I won’t be putting a link on FB or twitter, or adding categories or tags to this entry, or any ones to follow, in keeping with resolution #1).

In my life I need…

1. much less image management, and much more secrecy. [a]

2. less time spent in learning, and more time spent in doing. [b]

3. less learning from others (saints and scholars), and more learning from God.

4. less striving, and more relaxing “in the deep center.” (Scazzero) [d]

5. less releasing the heat within, and more cultivating and protecting it. [e]

6. less intensity, and more levity (celebration, wonder).

7. much less speaking, and much more listening (especially to God). [g]

8. less desire for honor (greatness), and more desire for holiness (goodness).

9. less concern for myself, and more concern for others.

10. less judging of others (less arrogance), and more forgiving of others (more love). [j]

11. less defending myself, and more humility (attempts to set opinions straight). [See #1 above!]

… and with that we’ve come full circle.

This represents the prayer of my heart, of my best self, of the image of God in me trying to rise up.

“Lord, help me to keep these things ever before me,
and to present them unceasingly to you
as areas of my life
where I need your healing.”

___

I added these supplementary notes several days after writing the list. I don’t want them to distract from the simplicity of the list itself, or give an inappropriate weight to “saints and scholars.” I find them helpful though, and this list is for me, so I have included them here.

Notes:

[a] “Human conversation is largely an endless attempt to convince others that we are more assertive or clever or gentle or successful than they might think if we did not carefully educate them. … The practice of secrecy is Jesus’ gift to approval addicts.” John Ortberg

[b] “The path of descent is the path of transformation. Darkness, failure, relapse, death, and woundedness are our primary teachers, rather than ideas or doctrines.” Richard Rohr

[d] “In our religious striving, we are usually looking for something quite other than the God who has come looking for us.” Eugene Peterson

[e] The Desert Fathers had a saying, “If you want to keep the fire hot, you must not open the door of the furnace too often.”; “Silence is the discipline by which the inner fire of God is tended and kept alive.”  Henri Nouwen

[g] “Intentional silence serves as a necessary and valuable counterweight to a society filled with thoughtless and excessive words.” Peter Scazzero; “The silence of solitude is nothing but dead silence when it does not make us alert for a new voice sounding from beyond all human chatter.” Henri Nouwen

[j] “If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate those things in yourself, not in another.” Thomas Merton; “Until we have seen someone’s darkness, we don’t really know who they are. Until we have forgiven someone’s darkness, we don’t really know what love is.” ~ Marianne Williamson

Downward Mobility and Marriage

“Love must be learned, and learned again and again;
there is no end to it.
Hate needs no instruction, but waits only to be provoked.”
Katherine Anne Porter
.
The verisimilitude in Porter’s quotation cannot be denied. There’s brilliance in these short comments. Have you mastered what it means to love? Probably not, but even if you have, tomorrow is a new day. Love must be learned – and then “learned again” – and after that, learned “again.” There is “no end” to this learning. You might master many things, but not this one. It’s like mastering God. You can’t do that either. (Funny to think about it this way, since the Bible says “God is love.”) If this sounds unnecessarily negative, review the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 – and please, don’t think of weddings! Instead, think of marriages:

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way.It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged.It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.”

These are such beautiful words. So powerful. So timeless. They give a profound definition of love that can be “road tested” in any relationship – but especially in marriage. I remember in my teens when I contemplated marriage. I just knew I was going to be a great husband. (I had the same misplaced confidence about my parenting skills before I had children.) Then reality hit.

Skipping ahead some (so as not to unnecessarily depress or disillusion the reader, or to cause myself to want to stick my head in the oven), I find myself now married for the second time, and sometimes the strangest thing happens. Sometime my wife says something about me (a criticism) that I remember hearing from my first wife. Now, you know when that happens, you have to at least try to pay attention. There’s a pretty good chance that, in addition to the spouses, God is speaking to you.

And here can we turn back to Katherine Anne Porter for more illumination. She described marriage as “… the great revealer, the great white searchlight turned on the darkest places of human nature.” I’m telling you, she should have been a theologian. More valuable insight confronts us here, for here we learn that “human nature” has its “darkest places.” (You may have noticed this theme in the Bible as well.) And marriage, she says, acts like a searchlight, seeking out those previously hidden places, and acting as “the great revealer!” Relationships of all kinds will do this of course, but not like in marriage where there is more intimacy, an abundance of time spent together – and no escape! Remember this proverb, “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool mom.”? Well, it’s the same with your spouse. All the crud and cruelty,  the shallowness and selfishness, the defensiveness, the laziness, and all the behavior driven by fear or lust or greed or pride – will all be “revealed.”

Porter provides a great service by letting us know we’re not alone. It doesn’t matter. She’s speaking to everyone. It’s not just you. It’s not just your spouse. In the words of C. S. Lewis, we’re all either “sons of Adam” or “daughters of Eve.” This is what we bring to our marriages – a distinct resemblance to Adam and Eve. Do you remember how they turned on each other? How in the end, the lovers sold each other out, like Julia and Winston in Orwell’s 1984? When our first parents turned from God, the logic and order of their lives was destroyed. (There was “a disturbance in the force.”) Now they would think of themselves first, refuse to take responsibility for their actions and shift the blame to the other – just to mention a few endearing new behaviors. These behaviors would come to them quite naturally, like Porter’s hate, “which waits only to be provoked.” In contrast, something beautiful and so very necessary as love, would be counterintuitive and almost impossible to practice consistently. It must be “learned, and learned again and again.”

Looking at it another way, we could say that the things that are required in marriage are anything but mysterious: Put the other person first. Control your temper. Let the truth prevail. Humble yourself. Be courteous – and so on. Just do these things – just show love in these actual behaviors, and you’ll be fine. It’s clear that anyone can have a good marriage. It’s only necessary to practice these simple behaviors which everyone understands. (It’s not like figuring out the “sound of one hand clapping”, or whether or not a tree that falls in a lonely forest makes a sound.)

But looking at it yet another way, we could say that the things that are required in marriage while simple, are also simply nearly impossible – or at least let’s say “exceedingly difficult.” (Many people seem to find it so at least, if we can gather anything from high divorce rate, as just one measure, or the Six Word Memoir book on Love and Heartbreak. which is full of painful insight.) What’s simple to understand proves not-so-simple to do. We find we disappoint ourselves, our spouse, others we know – and God. What I believe we find is that, without his help, we can hardly do it. Without his help, we have little chance of success. (I’d like to say “no chance”, but I’m trying to be academically credible. Really though, I mean “no chance.”

What then to do? I think I know. Again, it’s simple and it’s not. I’ll give you a hint for now. It’s not more information, more motivation, or just trying harder. It’s not those things – as helpful as they sometimes are. It’s more than that – or maybe less.

I’m going to separate it from this blog entry though, because this is one is long enough, and out of sympathy for my readers, both of whom must be pretty worn out by what I’ve said already. Pray for me then, as I attempt to compose part two – and what is much more challenging and not at all as much fun – living it out.

In the next installment of this discussion we will really see the centrality of downward mobility in marriage as an approach which can lead to fullness of life and love.

 

Downward Mobility and Ego

“I want to have control
I want a perfect body
I want a perfect soul.
I want you to notice
When I’m not around
You’re so f—— special
I wish I was special.”
“Creep” – Radiohead

“And after each performance
People stand around and wait
Just to tell me that they loved my voice
Just to tell me that I’m great.”
“Opera Singer” – Cake

“If you do not control your ego, your ego will control you. If you do not have a plan for your ego, your ego will have a plan for you. You can be the master of your ego, or you can be its slave. It’s your choice.” (Vincent M. Roazzi in The Spirituality of Success)

Can you picture this: Three men standing around in the lobby after church talking about how “ego” sabotages our relationships – and even it’s impact on our conversation right then?! I was interested, but even more, I was convicted. So much so that God seemed to give me this prayer.* I wrote it down so I can return to it often (like daily):

“Lord, I come to you to confess that I am powerless over the domination of my ego. Instead of me controlling it, it controls me. Help me to subject myself to you first, and in doing so to learn to subject myself to others. Help me to be quiet before you first, and in doing so to learn how to be quiet before others. Help me to attend to you first, and in doing so to learn to truly attend to others.

Deep down I know that
… since you are in control, I don’t need to control others
… since you have heard me, I don’t always need to make myself heard by others
… and since I am loved and have favor with you, I need not strive to win the love and favor of others.

Help me to act according to the promptings of your Spirit instead of the compulsions of the flesh –
… waiting for permission from you before I act or speak
… and practicing doing “small things” for “nobodies” when no-one is watching.

I pray these things Lord, because in these ways I am “so far from the kingdom of God.”

“So what could I say?
And what could I do?
But offer this heart, Oh God
Completely to you?”
“The Stand” – Hillsong

*with special thanks to Steven and Vic, whom God used to minister to me in an unexpected moment at The Bridge Church