Category Archives: Community

What Does Joining a Christian Community Mean?

Joining a Christian community means committing ones self to living a way of life with a shared goal: serving Jesus Christ. What does that mean? It means taking up the call of following Jesus with a particular people, doing particular things, but always praying together, reading Scripture, and being faithful in attendance to one’s Christian church. What it doesn’t mean is being controlled by a dominant personality, always being told what to do, or making decisions solely on the basis of pressure in any direction. If living in community comes down to the food, clothing, or room and board being held over the member and threatened to be taken away, the real purpose for being together is lost. In a similar way if a member feels that they are working for the community and so the community must pay them back by paying off bills, the real purpose of being there may have been lost. Community is about consensus and a willingness to take responsibility for what is needed because of the shared commitment to Christ. There are many ways of doing a thing and so it must be decided how the group will work together. Who will do what and how. My way of doing things is not the only way, but it is a way. I can’t get bitter or look down on other members for not doing a thing as I would have.
There is a bond that community members share in Christ. Philippians 2:1-5 It involves “encouragement, solace in love, participation in the Spirit, compassion and mercy, being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing.”
And what is that one thing? The same attitude that Christ had. “He emptied himself, took the form of a slave, humbling himself became obedient to death on a cross.” (vs. 8-9)
So how are we to humble ourselves “unto death”, and why? Doesn’t God want us alive? Well, yes but our attitude should be one of sacrifice, giving up our wills, our own agendas, our own way of making peace.

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Filed under Community, Conflict resolution, Personal, Prayer

I’d Rather Sleep In The Street

One afternoon last week, a married couple came into the lobby of our ministry with a letter in hand. I recognize the letter by its envelope. It’s from the local Traveler’s Aid society. I see a lot of these letters. They are written after an individual or family have appealed through this aid society for emergency funds to travel to a destination by Greyhound where they will have support. It could be to a family member, to a friend, or to one’s own apartment, assuming someone is at a phone number nearby to verify. The letter tells me that they are stranded here in St. Louis and need support to afford a trip home. The Travelers Aid Society provides the voucher to the bus station and we are one of a handful of organizations, working together, who contribute to the fare. Depending on where they are going it can be quite expensive. Quite frankly, there are times when we have no funds at all to assist and the person has to stay until they can get a job and make enough money to travel on. And sometimes that’s not possible because of their disability. When I saw this married couple I stepped aside to meet with them personally.

The woman speaking told me of how a church in Colorado had all but $90 raised to get them to South Carolina. It wasn’t enough so they settled on St. Louis. I explained that we had some, but not all of the money to send both of them the rest of the way. And upon hearing that we could not get them on a bus that day she burst into tears. I try to be compassionate and measured in these situations. I don’t want to seem uncaring, and I don’t want to be overly sensitive. It’s not easy. I begin listing possible options for further assistance. I give the name and location and contact person of another church that assists. I point out that the amount they need to raise is for a Monday through Thursday bus ticket. She’s still crying. She wants on that bus now.

Finally I mention that we could provide shelter through the weekend, though we weren’t set up to accommodate couples. And this is when the conversation really changed. “Nuh uh, I’m staying with my husband. I’d rather sleep in the street. No way.” I politely told them that this would take time and that the choice was theirs. Then after processing their paperwork, I walked away.

“I’d rather sleep in the street.” The words now ring in my ears. Should I be offended when people tell me this? Should I consider them ungrateful? Should it make me doubt the sincerity of their need?

I really didn’t think much about it when it was spoken. But its just that I’ve heard these words so often repeated about our shelter and also other shelters. I know this couple have never met me before. They’ve never stayed for shelter here. They don’t know anything about it really. But when I mention “shelter” they recoil. They can’t be separated as a couple.

I understand their fears, I really do. If it were me in a strange city, appealing for help from a church I don’t know, stranded and scared, I might feel the same way, so I sympathize. But my sympathies won’t keep them safe from these cruel streets. When I think of the words of Jesus, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” I believe that my offer of shelter, though refused, is what I would want another to offer me. But what I also realize about the words of Jesus is that others are very different from myself. The good I would do may not be received as the good by them at all. Some people will not want an encounter for their good. They just want some quick cash.

Every house, be it a church or a family home, has rules and social guidelines. No smoking, drinking, drugs, weapons, fighting, cursing, etc. Someone has to clean the house. Someone has to attend to the food pantry and to the money. If the house is to survive someone has to care for it. In community, which is what our church is, an intentional community, we agree that we are each responsible not only for our own behavior but for the good of the house overall. So when something needs doing we all pitch in, albeit in different ways.

I’ve never looked down on anyone who refused to live in community. It’s a difficult life. It took many years of living in community for me to learn to ask for help. I’ve always wanted to do everything for myself. I just didn’t have the patience for letting someone else attend to my needs, not when I could get it myself. So I can sympathize with people who don’t like asking for help, and then refuse the help that’s offered.

But just because I understand these things, doesn’t mean that as one who offers the gift I will value the gift less, or will want to alter the gift because not everyone wants it. The gift of shelter is not for everyone, I know that. But many people do accept and appreciate it. They prefer to have a roof over their heads and they don’t consider it an indignity for it to be a free roof. They actually enjoy the experience and they have a degree of comfort in it for a time. They know its not the same as their own home, but it will do for now. And on that day when they do get their own place, I’m rejoicing for them.

Giving and receiving in this context is itself a gift. It’s a gift because life itself, every day is a gift from God. I cannot give what I do not myself have. And I cannot appreciate what I have unless I realize it is a gift.

Along with the gift of shelter come many other gifts. Food, prescription assistance, reading glasses, bus tickets, blankets, hygiene kits, and clothing. We give them because we receive them and receive them because we give them. We learned that last year we received far more in In-Kind donations (things people give with monetary value but that are not money, like clothes) than in cash. Those types of donations involve a wealth of people to receive them and process them and redistribute them. It’s the difference between having a pile of rags or a rack of neatly hung clothes to offer. When I consider that fact, I realize that NLEC is engaged in a life affirming work that appears unsettled all the time. We’re always a little unraveled. But I’d rather be unraveled than locked up tight.

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Filed under Community, homelessness, NLEC, Personal

You Bet Your Life


Dear Friends,

Many people are upset because they are living a PLAN B. They’re upset because what they really wanted in life was not what they got. They had certain expectations, but now they’re living with something different from the plan they thought they were living. Duke Divinity School professor Stanley Hauerwas likes to ask the following question, “Who told you the story that you should have no story except the story you choose when you have no story?” Now you might be thinking “What does that mean?” Let’s break it down. First, the great minds of our age say that your life is a blank slate. You can be whatever you want to be if you dream big. You get to write your own story. There is no grand narrative in life except the one that you write for yourself. Because there is no reference point, no grand narrative, any story you write with your life will have the most meaning to you. You are an individual (just like everyone else). Secondly, question anyone who would question your freedom as an individual. Your ability to choose is the most important ability you have. Don’t ask “to choose what?” just keep choosing.

Herein lies the problem, you and I didn’t ask to be born. We were born in interesting times. Is life a gift or a curse? And what if I don’t want to choose to answer that question? One alternative to this situation is to simply ignore it. Become a sheep and do what you see everyone else doing. Trust in society’s collective consciousness. Base your existence on the Consumer Confidence Index. Buy what everyone is buying. Start out in your youth. Find the kid every kid likes and listen to him. Do whatever he tells you and always be on the winning side. If you are a teenager, do anything to keep from being like your parents. They’re locked into one thing, go out and experiment with everything. Later as a young adult in prison. . . . promise your P.O. that you’ll do anything to stay out, but then go back to the same neighborhood to look up the kid everybody liked. I won’t tell you how that story ends, but I’ve met a lot of people who are living out stories like that today.

For many people PLAN A, aka, “I have no story except the story I choose when I have no story” has all but played out. Now they’re living with a PLAN B. They’re not sure exactly what PLAN B is, but they’re doing their best to make it up as they go along. Just last week a man came to me and asked to join our two year leadership training program. He signed all the paperwork and then had a change of heart. Maybe he’d never made up his mind to begin with, but he had no trouble with the paperwork. But all this week we’ve been discussing the next stage with him, the one where he travels to a new place where he’s never been before. He just wants the assurance that he’ll get to come back within a short time. He’s given no such assurance, so he sits stewing over it in his mind day after day. The decision gets no easier. Can he really trust us? His mind is focused on one thing, his situation. He doesn’t see the many people who are still here after many years, who trust this place and have dedicated themselves to their story here. All he knows is that he won’t be in control of his story as it is anymore if he goes out of town for an indefinite period of time.

I don’t mean to pick on this guy. I share his story because I believe we are all in the same boat in one way or another. Who or what can we trust in, really? I don’t know about you, but for myself, I regularly struggle with a crisis of confidence. Yes, I’m a minister, but I struggle too. I work at a job where I’m regularly encouraging people to do what seems impossible: serve people who will more often then not seem less than appreciative. I tell my fellow staff members to be encouraged and not lose confidence. But last week I was standing in the woods asking God, “What’s wrong with me? Why am I so anxious and irritated and tired? Why do I feel so used up?”

I could tell you about some of my problems. My family has had three cycles of some kind of flu in the house in the last month. At work here in downtown we have a passive-aggressive property owner in the area who wanders around outside our building with a camera taking video and photos of the homeless and their belongings to regularly send to city hall. Trying to reason with this person only seems to make it worse. I’m partly responsible for two old houses that take a lot of maintenance and some old cars that break down more times than I can remember. And my dog has fleas. Oh yes, it all comes down to that doesn’t it? The final straw. My dog loves me, won’t stay away from me, and she has fleas. Isn’t that reason enough to crack up? It’s always the small things that send us over the edge isn’t it?

So as I wandered out in the woods crying out to God, and then got quiet, I heard Him say, “Cast not away your confidence.” So I went and looked that phrase up in the Bible.
“Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompense of reward. For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise. For yet a little while, and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry. Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him. But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul. Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Heb 10:35-11:1 KJV

So what was the Lord telling me? First, that I had a confidence that I can’t cast away, and that this confidence would be rewarded. Second, that I needed patience in doing the Will of God so that I will receive the promise. Third that Jesus is returning and is not late. Fourth, that I am just and must live by faith. I am, together with you who believe, not among those who draw back, but am of those who will be saved. Finally, that faith that I have bet my life on, and that you believers have bet your life on, is a substance, is an evidence of what we can’t see but know is coming.

What was that I said about betting your life? I bet my life on following Jesus Christ. I’m not living on a PLAN B because there really is no PLAN B. I have a different PLAN A. My story is not the story I chose because I learned there was no story. My story is that Jesus Christ has conquered death and hell and died on the cross to reconcile all things to God. He died for all my sins, he died for your sins. Jesus is returning and he’s not late. He will be right on time. My confidence is not in my abilities. I’m a jack of a lot of trades, but the one thing I can really do right is confide in Jesus. So if I’m getting frustrated and angry, you remind me of that will you? The ONE thing I’m really called to do is confide in Jesus.

I’m just getting started. We ARE having church today. Jesus is here today with power to save. That word for confidence in that verse is translated from a koine Greek word, parrhesia, that is loaded with history and meaning. The philosopher Michel Foucault wrote an entire book about the word. It is usually used in reference to speaking openly, holding nothing back. The Greeks loved their freedom of speech in the polis, and this word is not just a word, but it refers to the right of free citizens to speak their mind, especially when they were threatened by an intolerant ruler. That should stick in your mind because we find the word used throughout the New Testament in a way that says, “you will face opposition, but you better not back down”. Acts 4:13-14 gives an example:
“When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. (NIV)
Here the word for parrhesia is translated as courage. In John 18:20, when the Pharisees asked Jesus about his teaching and doctrine, he replies using parrhesia, saying that he spoke openly to the world.

Jesus promised his disciples that they would be hauled in before the authorities in Matt 10:18-20:
“On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (NIV)

So what’s really different about this word courage in the New Testament is that it is a courage not based on a citizen’s position as free or slave, or on one’s great oratory skills. It is a courage given by the Spirit of the living God, specifically for doing the will of God. God knows my heart. He knows that I’m a coward when it comes down to it. I’ll run away before I’ll defend myself every time. But he took a coward like me and called me to tell sinners everywhere that if he can turn someone like me into a witness, he can save anyone.

I know a lot of you sitting in this room today. I saw some of you when you first joined this ministry last year. Confident is not a word I would use to describe you that day. Some of you were crying. Others were scared to trust anybody. But I’ve been here for a little over a year now and I see God doing in you what you could not have done for yourself. You never thought you’d be setting people back on a straight path. You never thought God would use you to save someone’s life—but he has, and he is. Not because of your great abilities, but because of Jesus’ power over sin and death that is real in you. I’m so grateful to be a witness to that.

Before I came back to this city I was on the run from doing anything like this. My secret fantasy as a young man was to stick out my thumb and hit the highway to anywhere else where no one would know me. Anyone here ever done that? Well I met a few folks who had done that and it didn’t play out for them well, so I thought better of it. Anyway, I was scared to death at first of doing what God wanted me to do. So for a while I wouldn’t tell my wife that God had put moving back to St. Louis on my heart. But God kept pushing me. Then I grew more and more dissatisfied with my work because I knew God was calling me elsewhere. Then I went to my pastors in Chicago, hoping they would tell me that God hadn’t really said that. But they did no such thing. Finally, I gave in and told my wife about it.

Now I’m sorry for running from God. I’m sorry because it is the supreme joy of my life to see what God is doing in all of you. God is doing miracles everyday here one person at a time. And I believe that for someone in this room today or listening to me at home, you want to know that there is a PLAN A. You want to know more than anything else that, sick as you are with sin, God has a life for you. I can say with all confidence that He does. Here is what you need to do:

Learn the Will of God. What is God’s will for you? Believe in the One he sent. (Jn. 6:29)Jesus Christ. What do I mean by believe? Place your trust in, cling to, forsake all else, and bet your life on the fact that Jesus Christ’s death on the cross sealed for all time your future. You can know for certain that God’s will is not for you to be selfish, but to love Him with all your heart, your soul, your mind and strength. God’s will is for you to love your neighbor (that person you notice because you despise them) as much as you love yourself. That’s a start.

Abide in the Word of God. “If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.” John 15:7 (KJV) Jesus Christ is the Logos of God. Your confidence in him is a confidence in the PLAN A he has given you. This Word is not for you alone but is also for all the other children of God he has surrounded you with. They may not be people you would choose. But abiding in Christ means loving them and being loved by them. It means living by the Scriptures together come what may. It means humbling yourself daily. (For me it meant getting up at 5:00AM to take a woman and her daughter to the train station so that my sister in Christ wouldn’t have to.)

Know the Truth, That Truth will set you free. John 8:31-35 says,
Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can You say, ‘You will be made free’?”
Jesus answered them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. (NKJV)
You may or may not feel like a slave on any given day. You may feel quite comfortable, actually. You live in America, land of the free, home of the brave. But your social and political freedom can’t free you from your sins. Nothing you do can free you from sin. Pretending they’re not there doesn’t work. You need Jesus, the way the truth and the life. Knowing Jesus is true freedom.

Without Christ there is no way to stand against the powerful social, political, spiritual and personal forces that oppose us in this world. But just where we are weakest, God is determined to have His way in us. In the end our story is not about our ability or inability. It is about God’s plan.

Romans 8:31-39 says,
“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect?
It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (NRSV)

Life is struggle. Martin Luther said, “To have no temptation is the worst temptation.” May God save us from imagining the spiritual life as a comfy bed of roses. As long as we desire God’s will rest assured we will need courage and holy boldness. The way of Jesus leads us into confrontation. We don’t have to pick fights, God’s eye for the poor ensures that the powers that be will come looking for us. God’s love is controversial because it insists that money and things are temporary and relative to time. God is patient. His love is eternal. He cares deeply and does not lie. This kind of truth exposes many persons for what they have become as paid liars. If you imitate God rest assured life will be an adventure and you’ll turn your body in well worn from intense grief as well as real joy.

Yours in Christ,

Rev. Chris Rice

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Filed under Bible, Community, homeless, homelessness, Pastoral Ministry

New sermon: “Systems Failure”

Systems Failure                                                             6/16/11


Dear Friends,


There are two things I’m certain of: There is a God, and I am not Him. Every day that I pastor here brings me new awareness of my limitations. I do not wear a cape. There’s no super on my outfit. If I had a super power I know just what I’d want it to be. I’d want people to use their brains to their God given potential. By sheer force of will I’d look them in the eye, reason sense into them, and then cause them to forever change their way of thinking. The trouble is, I’m sure my wife could tell you she wishes she had that same kind of power over me! No matter how hard she tries, she can’t force me to pick up my clothes on my side of the bed, or desire to do the dishes instead of leaving them for her today.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if maybe just a few people had all the answers and all the power to heal addictions, grant work and housing to the poor, and make our society truly righteous? And what about God? Didn’t God create something perfect at first? How did He let things get so bad? God the creator of all things is very unlike us. He does not create things without a will of their own. His design involved the possibility that the people he loved could choose to reject Him and the very order for which they were designed. And this is exactly what happened. We humans are stubborn people. That can be a good thing, but it’s very often a bad thing. The strength behind stubbornness can be seen in love and loyalty, or it can be turned to fear and self destruction.

In the beginning God gave the first humans a very important task. Genesis says,

“God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. (Gen. 1:28-30 NRSV)

Now, anyone who has ever been to the Grand Canyon, or the source of the Nile, orYellowstoneNational Park, or has ever opened a National Geographic magazine knows that the earth is a vast place. Scientists are still cataloging species and mapping the ocean’s depths. So how were these two humans supposed to accomplish this task? We’ll never know. Because we know from the Bible that things took a bad turn two chapters later.

The earth was meant to be a place of harmony. A place wherein God dwelled with his creation, humans and animals and all plant life, and together in innocence they had everything they needed. It’s clear that in such a paradise humans had everything they needed. They had more work than they could accomplish, but they didn’t have to worry about it. Their rule over creation was given and sustained by a loving creator. They had no need to kill thousands of fish for a meal, or club dozens of baby seals to stay warm. Such thoughts, no doubt, would have never had to enter their minds.

Then came sin and punishment, and with it WORK as we know it.

“And to the man he said ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it, cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return. The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living. And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.” (Gen. 3:17-21 NRSV)

So, right here along with the Fall and the Curse, comes the possibility of a better future. Man names his wife and God offers covering. Because of this curse the very things that are meant to complete us as humans, namely the ability to provide food and shelter for ourselves, to be industrious and enjoy the fruit of our labor, can never really satisfy. We were meant for more. We were meant to rule with God, but instead our ways are full of thorns and thistles. We wrestle with the knowledge that no matter how hard we work, this world will still be a mess when we leave it. Perhaps we fear that each of us will have left it a little bigger mess than when we came.

Scientists and other theorists have been saying for years that the earth’s population will soon outgrown it’s “carrying capacity.” They say that the earth’s ability to grow enough food for billions of people is vastly insufficient and in a matter of decades our misuse of lands will lead to devastating consequences with many millions dying off. Some hope that technology will allow us to miraculously feed, water, and shelter everyone before we completely destroy the earth with our use of it. Technology has made us more acutely aware of the world’s needs and our lack of supply.

After the Garden of Eden was placed off limits, the Scriptures recount that Adam and Eve and their children did a lot of fruitful multiplying. They lived far longer than we can imagine humans living today and they had far more children than we think possible. So many children in fact that the Scriptures are rather vague about how and where all the people were coming from. Nevertheless, these children drifted further and further from God in their thinking. It got so bad that we might say it was a “system failure.” God decided, in computer language, to do a clean REBOOT. He was ready to wipe the whole earth clean and “reinstall” as it were. “The Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’ But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.” (Gen. 6:7-8 NRSV)

So he gathers a community of righteous persons and a few of every kind of animal and then judgment falls the likes of which we have never seen. Everything died in this massive flood. Then he reinstalls with a promise never to do that again. It’s going to be right this time. He sets a rainbow as the sign of his covenant that regardless of what happens, he will not judge like this again. Noah and his sons are given a similar mandate to Adam and Eve. And then they go about repopulating the earth. Nations develop from these few people and everyone is still speaking the same language. And we see one of the first experiments in technology. A group settles in a plain and makes begins forming a city. The planning committee decides, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” (Gen. 11:4) This is an odd little story. They built their tower and then God confuses their language and scatters them all over the face of the earth. It’s an odd story because it seems like the city was meant to unify them and be a monument to their power. And yet it happens at a time when their purpose is to spread out all over. Some read what God does here to be an angry reaction, a punishment out of fear that humans will threaten His power. He confuses their language and then they spread out further and abandon the city and tower. Rather than an angry reaction, I look at the birth of different languages as a means for new civilizations. God likes diversity. Homogeneity stifles true creativity, and God appreciates our differences. The story of what happened here atBabelfurther illustrates the frustration of our collective creative intent since the Fall. No matter how well we work together as humans, we still don’t know what’s best for us apart from God’s will. Building great edifices doesn’t make us better humans. It just reminds of us of our yearning to reign with God, and the fact that until Christ returns, everything we do is temporary and partially effective.

Rev. Ray Redlich recently brought to our attention the similarities between theTowerofBabeland the birth of the Church in Acts 2 in our men’s morning bible study.

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’” (Acts 2:1-13)

Whereas in Genesis God confused the people’s speech to fulfill His purpose, here God gives the disciples of Jesus the ability to speak in order to be understood by different peoples from all over the vast reach of theRoman empire. And their speech had real content. They were witnesses of God’s deeds of power. The result of this sign was that 3000 people from all over the known world became the first recipients of the kind of life God intended for all people.

This new life lived by the Spirit of God caused the first believers to worship differently, live in proximity differently, consider their time differently, and use their money differently. The Fear of the Lord was on everyone and gratitude marked everything they did. Work was apparently losing its curse because it was not full of fear and selfishness. Believers held all things in common. They sold their possessions and gave as any had need. And day by day God was adding to their numbers.

This vision for work has been called “a new society in the shell of the old.” In Christ God is changing us humans first and then reordering the systems we inhabit accordingly. William James once said, “I am done with great things and big things, great institutions and big success, and I am for those tiny invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, yet which, if you give them time, will rend the hardest monuments of man’s pride.” God chooses to use the least likely sinners, men and women who can’t succeed at doing right though their lives depend upon it to make all the difference in this world.

One such example is the Apostle Paul. Saul of Tarsus was a renowned hit-man for the ruling opposition. Word traveled fast among Christians when Saul was heading to town. “If you mean to stay alive, be somewhere else!”, they probably said. And yet God chose this man of wicked reputation, this man few Christians could believe, to suffer for Christ and spread the gospel to the Gentiles.

In his Epistle to the Colossians he shared this insight for reversing the work curse: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col. 3:17 NRSV) You have to understand this wording “in the name of the Lord Jesus.” In these days all action with authority was done on behalf of Lord Caesar. Caesar was the highest authority in the Roman empire. The Roman household was set up in honor of authority. Slaves and servants acted under the authority of the head of their household. If you came as a herald for a particular household you would speak your message and act under that name’s authority. And Jesus Christ is the name of the Lord under whose authority we all do everything. In doing this we are saying that the household we are apart of does not belong to any one of us. We don’t act under our own authority. We are all humble servants of Jesus Christ.

Paul proclaims aloud our freedom from human systems fraught with failure. We live not to pay bills, and not to buy things we don’t need, but in order to serve one another in love.

13”For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” (Gal. 5:13-15 NRSV) In theUSA we love that word freedom. But it doesn’t ring well next to the words “slaves to one another.” How can you be free and a slave at the same time? The key is in that word love.

The only thing that can break that cursed thinking that says, “I am valuable in so far as I work hard and provide for myself and owe nothing to anyone” is a willingness to acknowledge that everything you have is a free gift because of Jesus Christ. I know so many men who walk around feeling half their size because they don’t have cash in their pocket at the moment. They’ve been taught that buying power is true freedom. I know many others who have learned and are learning that true freedom is not in cash but is in being loved and loving in return. I’m privileged to know some men who have renovated room and after of this building in voluntary service, and the love and work they put into those rooms makes them feel responsible for this place and the people in it. That, brothers and sisters, is true freedom. The freedom to give of yourself willingly, and allow others to care for you in return.

I wish I could say that everyone we serve is ready for that kind of freedom. Many others, its true, find this church’s hospitality stifling. They don’t want to be part of any environment where they have to change. I learned of a mother who came here with her kids and after getting all checked in announced that there was no way she could make it through the whole night without a cigarette. She got her kids and shuffled back out into the rain. Another woman could not bear to be without her cat and so tried to sneak it into her suitcase hoping it would not be checked. And many others have to choose between thirty or more boxes in storage and living next to other people. There are a thousand little things that make serving the poor uncomfortable. For this reason, many people try it out for a little while and then get away as soon as possible. We can accept that. But at the same time, someone has to learn a different way of life, you know?

Too many people are getting theirs and not giving back.

I love Paul’s simple admonition: “Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.” (Eph. 4:28) I love it because, compared to the way our great grandparents lived we all take much more than we give back. We have much more of everything, but we don’t work for it like they did and so it means a lot less to us. Their lives were simpler, you know? They had far less to distract them.

St. Francis De Sales once said, “Every moment comes to us pregnant with a command from God, only to pass on and plunge into eternity, there to remain forever what we have made of it.” With hearts that wait and lean on God’s commands we can live life to its full. Without God every moment propels us back at the curse of doing without meaning.

Would to God that we could learn with St. Therese of Lisieux that all is gift, and all is grace:

“Everything is a grace. . . everything is the direct effect of our Father’s love- difficulties, contradictions, humiliations, all the soul’s miseries, her burdens, her needs- everything, because through them she learns humility, realizes her weakness. Everything is a grace because everything is God’s gift. Whatever be the character of life or its unexpected events — to the heart that loves, all is well.”


Yours in Christ,

Rev. Chris Rice

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Filed under Bible, Community, homelessness, humanity, NLEC, Pastoral Ministry

On being a lifelong volunteer

It was on a very average evening worship service at the end of the year last year that I must have realized for the first time that all these people I knew so well were doing what we do best, just being together in the adoration of Christ. We were back at the Source together. I had been there with them for well over a decade at countless such services. We were a family and in the end it wasn’t about all the work we’d done that looked good under letterhead for potential donors. It was about adoring Christ together in small and big ways, in ways that can’t be quantified but only lived. And as I think of these hundreds of faces I call my family in Christ I realize we have something that the miles that will distance us in coming days can’t take away. We have a Lord who loves us. Our adoration for Christ extends beyond the time and space we share or don’t share. He is working in us all his perfect Will which we know in part.

I was an election judge here in the city of Chicago during the last election. During one of our long moments without any activity one of my fellow judges, an attractive young black woman who I’d call full of inspiration and charisma asked the other four of us an excellent question. “If money was no object what would you be doing with your life?” She began with herself. She said that her hearts desire was to give children the opportunity to see beyond their current situations and achieve their fullest potential. She was given that opportunity in life and she wanted to pass that on.

The next woman (who later traveled with me that night to the receiving station to return the unused ballots, election results, and so on) said that she would love to teach children with special needs full time. She was working two jobs just to make ends meet. She had to rise extra early every day and drive her daughter out to the suburbs for work and then pick her back up in the evening and bring her home. As I got to know this woman better I realized anew that the bigger dreams in life aren’t just for wealthy people. Regardless of one’s situation you can give of yourself.

I intentionally saved my turn to share for the last. I was so inspired by what I was hearing from others that I really didn’t want to stop the spirit in the room. I explained that for me (and this was true for my fellow judge Chris Ramsey who had just shared previous) money really wasn’t an object. I found life a great blessing where I’ve lived. Chris and I weren’t rich of course, but we were living full time at this Christian community called Jesus People USA here in Uptown. The other judges asked us to explain a little more about what this was like. Chris worked at Cornerstone Community Outreach, which has many homeless shelters and outreach services. I worked for Lakefront Supply, a roofing business that used all it’s net income (after expenses) to support JPUSA. I also mentioned that I had grown up in a small Christian community in St. Louis before moving with my wife to Chicago in 1996. For us our dreams involved simply living for Jesus faithfully, trusting Him to meet our needs and reaching out to others, believing Jesus had enough for them too.

I think everyone wants to know that they have a purpose in life. They realize that on some level life has meaning to just about the extent that they have known love and can love in return. This does not come without a struggle however. As people, we’re a mixture of motives and agendas, many of which we only come to see in time. We want to be loved completely, but are only able to open up parts of ourselves. We strive for complete fulfillment, but always feel like something is missing. Here in America many people give their time as volunteers as part of that search for significance.

We volunteer our time without payment for a lot of different reasons: to promote a greater good, to improve human quality of life, or maybe to improve skills, meet other people, look for employment contacts, or just to have fun.

As I mentioned, I’ve had the privilege of belonging to two churches that have used outside volunteers in their activities for close to forty years. These volunteers have provided a wide range of services, from preparing and serving meals to providing medical attention and counseling. Both of these churches also use communal living and intensive discipleship training as a way of allowing volunteers to commit themselves for longer terms.

If you were to stand in the main lobbies of these two church organizations as I have done over the years at different times, and just observe the people coming and going, talking and interacting, you might be perplexed. They represent all ages and races, all kinds of personalities, and backgrounds. Some are tall and some short. Some have walkers and move slow and some are young and scamper quickly, always in a hurry. Some sit and look bored and some are moving too fast trying to do too much at the same time. Both of these churches use their facilities for multiple purposes.

At New Life Evangelistic Center in downtown St. Louis the lobby will be used to give away food, and then it will be swept and mopped and chairs will be set up and the lobby will have women and maybe children who will go through intake and then be taken to rooms on the third floor where they can sit and talk or watch TV or read until bedtime. Then, shortly thereafter the lobby will be full of single men. They may listen to a short sermon, or some music, they may watch TV and talk, and then they too will go up to the fifth floor to sleep. On a different day the lobby will be full of fourteen to sixteen year old white kids from a church in the suburbs. They are there to volunteer for the day and hear about what NLEC is doing.

Later that same day a young man will be sitting in the lobby waiting to see Rev. Ray because he knows he needs a place to get sober from alcohol. He walks with a limp and he needs a cane to get around. His face is red and weathered from the sun. You may see him practice a golf swing with his cane and then laugh and talk to someone you can’t see.

In Uptown Chicago, walking distance from Lake Michigan, you can sit on a bench in the lobby of Jesus People USA and witness people going and coming for various reasons. It’s obvious there is a renovation going on. The carpet has seen a lot of use. There’s a large stain just in front of the door. A large crucified Christ hangs over you, painted on old US Mail bags. This image is left over from an in-house festival the church put on over Passion week in the spring. Three young women are huddled around the front desk chatting and others walk up with questions and short little interruptions. The top three floors of this building provide housing for seniors and people with disabilities. The management of this small business is provided by members of the church. They cook, clean, do laundry, case management, and even church service on Sunday. But it’s very apparent that the seniors are at home in this multi-use facility and take advantage of the whole life of the community.

The second through seventh floors of JPUSA have living spaces for families and singles. Each floor has a kitchen for individual use. Community happens floor by floor, room by room, person to person. People join and stay for varying lengths of time. The number ranges from 450-500 people. There’s a central laundry room in the basement. So much is going on at a given period of time that individuals work to keep track of one another, with their immediate families being their primary connection.

Both of these churches began the same year, 1972, during the Jesus People Movement. Being born in 1974 and growing up at New Life Evangelistic Center, I took a keen interest in the vibrant life and constant activity I witnessed on a daily basis. The community shared a common purse and at the time members took a vow of poverty, raising support through our ministry in churches and various mailings. I felt connected to a large family of believers who were willing to sacrifice whatever was needed to do the will of God. Growing up, I bore witness from afar the work that JPUSA was doing in Chicago. The two communities swapped publications, NLEC sending The Zoa Free paper up to Chicago and JPUSA sending Cornerstone Magazines down to St. Louis. Some members knew of the other’s work and on a few occasions managed to visit.

I visited JPUSA for the first time at age 16. My mom dropped me off for the weekend while she visited family in the suburbs. In 1991 JPUSA was still moving into the hotel it has now fully renovated. I documented my first visit on video and I still have it to this day. I took the wild excitement I witnessed that weekend home with me. I mopped floors at the homeless shelter. I worshiped with them on Sunday morning. And I hung out in the rooms where people enjoyed the New Year together. Best of all was the story telling in the dining room. Here were people who could laugh at themselves and use memories of even difficult moments (like accidently stealing a car or doing a job very wrong) to laugh and enjoy each other’s company.

I came home that weekend with a new energy and a new excitement for ministry at NLEC. Five years later I was at a very different place in my life. I had married and we’d just learned my wife was pregnant. We needed support and accountability, and so my wife Martha and I moved from where we were serving at NLEC in Missouri up to Chicago. Fourteen years later, Martha and I have three children and we are answering a call from God to move back to NLEC in St. Louis. The community there is providing a house where we can live and is ordaining me as one of its pastors.

As a lifelong Christian volunteer I’ve learned a few things about giving and receiving in the art form that is Doing Mercy. I observe that jobs come and go, but the actions of love, when done for Jesus, remain. Living out of a calling to ministry, which involves giving from a replenished source, is the only way I can stay sane, sober, and involved. I’ve seen volunteers come and go. I’ve made many wonderful friends over the years. But the most enduring relationships, that I know will remain even as I move locations, are those with friends who identify with Jesus rather than the job.

What’s the difference? I know from experience that when I take on a task, I put my whole self into it. And that’s biblical right; being fully committed? Well, I’ve learned that I can easily put the task before my people, before my family, before coworkers, and yes, before God himself. When in the end I want to see that project finished more than I want to eat, more than I want to hold my kids, and quite frankly more than I want to pray, the job has become an extension of my ego rather than a service to God. The kicker is that the kind of tasks I’m talking about are the ones I’m most passionate about. Where I feel like my gifts can really shine. Where people can really know what I’m about. Something I can really take pride in.

This is where volunteering gets difficult. How much time can a person put into a task before they want it for themselves alone? How many hours of labor will finally make me want to take over and leave you out? This is the conundrum that I believe points back to the question: “Why am I doing this?” and really “Who am I doing this for?” There is nothing so unsatisfactory in the end as a task done “for Jesus” that is actually in reality for me. Far fewer people want to clean toilets for Jesus than write books. Far fewer people want to mop floors and change diapers for Jesus than host seminars and share the great wisdom Jesus taught them personally.

So what I’ve learned in community the hard way is that in order for voluntary action to be truly meaningful, I have to identify myself with Christ rather than the particular task. How do I do this? In an attitude of surrender. When I wake in the mornings I have to clear my head of all the ambition, the hope, the fear, the half-awake frenzy for whatever and just lay it down. It was on a very average evening worship service at the end of the year last year that I must have realized for the first time that all these people I knew so well were doing what we do best, just being together in the adoration of Christ. We were back at the Source together. I had been there with them for well over a decade at countless such services. We were a family and in the end it wasn’t about all the work we’d done that looked good under letterhead for potential donors. It was about adoring Christ together in small and big ways, in ways that can’t be quantified but only lived. And as I think of these hundreds of faces I call my family in Christ I realize we have something that the miles that will distance us in coming days can take away. We have a Lord who loves us. Our adoration for Christ extends beyond the time and space we share or don’t share. He is working in us all his perfect Will which we know in part.

Now I’d like to come back to the original question my election judge friend asked, “If money was no object what would you be doing with your life?” Her question points back to the fact that for most of us money is the object impeding what we really want to do with our lives. And I would add, not just the money itself but what it represents to the people who care about us, like our families. She couldn’t just empty her bank account and spend the money doing what she most wanted to just because it was her hearts desire. What would her family think? And the other woman I mentioned had so many legitimate bills and needs in her life, she couldn’t get the job she really wanted because it didn’t pay what she needed. And this is the reality that most people of good will face.

In the case of the two churches I’ve been with, the founders really didn’t have much to lose. My parents married and went into ministry around the same time without much thought as to how they’d get money to live and do ministry. They only knew that they had to have faith that God would provide. At JPUSA the founders were literally surviving by faith in those early days. They prayed every day and God provided food and money seemingly out of nowhere. It appears fool-hardy by today’s economic measurements, as it was then. The principle regarding voluntary service and money was simply that the worker is worthy of his hire (Luke 10:7), freely you receive freely give (Matt. 10:8). Be faithful with what God provides and God will provide again (Matt. 25:23). Now this kind of hand to mouth existence doesn’t leave much laid up for the future. It leaves the onus back on God to somehow provide. And you know what? I consider myself a living testament to the fact that somehow God always has.

In this way, life becomes an adventure of faith. The ordinary gets transformed right where the need is. As long as the eyes of faith see that ordinary sack of potatoes as God’s provision, God keeps providing. It’s only where the work becomes drudgery, the mouths become the same warm bodies in line, the feet the same dirty shoes to be mopped after, that our vision is lost and we fear how on earth we’ll make it to tomorrow.

I have learned that recovering alcoholics and addicts make some of the most faithful and spiritual people you’ll ever meet, simply because they found they had nothing else to lose and everything to gain from a loving God. In the book Twelve Steps & Twelve Traditions and in discussing the Twelfth Step which involves this spiritual awakening and carrying the message, they zero in on the fear of financial insecurity I believe is common to most wage earners in our debt absorbed society. They noted that they’d been spendthrifts when it came to pleasing themselves and impressing others. They’d acted like the money had no end, but then acted miserly between sprees, unknowingly saving up for the next binge. Money was about pleasure and self-importance. As the addiction progressed it became the means for the next drink and “the temporary comfort of oblivion”.

Upon getting sober and working in recovery they found that when a job was only a way of getting money and having independence, they were the victims of unreasonable fear! But they became free when they saw it as an opportunity for service. “In time we could lose the fear regardless of our material prospects. We would cheerfully provide humble labor without worrying about tomorrow.” They learned that their spiritual condition mattered more than their material condition. Money finally became the servant and not the master. It became a means of exchanging love and service.

“When, with God’s help, we calmly accepted our lot, then we found we could live at peace with ourselves and show others who still suffered the same fears that they could get over them, too. We found that freedom from fear was more important than freedom from want.” (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Gift Edition, 1980, pgs. 120-122)

How can we move from money being the object that keeps us from doing what we want with our lives? Well, I think faith and trust has everything to do with it. Over the years I’ve witnessed a number of people come up to my dad and ask for prayer in the following way: “Please pray for me. I know God wants me to _______, but I just can’t do it right now because I’ve got so much going on.” He would pray for them, but I know that they just still went away miserable because it was the money thing, you know? What is the one thing Jesus said made it hard to enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Riches. (Matt. 19:23-24) I can’t help believing that it is that fear of financial insecurity, that way of seeing money as the big impassable wall, that keeps Americans from really giving their all to God.

It seems so unfair doesn’t it? Money symbolizes our voluntary activities. We can say we believe any number of things, but how we eat, what we wear, what our house looks like, what our children expect, all of these relate to the way we spend our money. For some people it is obvious that the money has them. The debt has them. And it’s obvious that unless something drastic changes they know how they’ll spend the rest of their days here on earth and where they’ll be buried and how they’ll be remembered. It’s all quite predictable. But for others, it’s clear that the money doesn’t have them. They’re a more rare breed. They get tempted like everyone else, and they’ll have junk they don’t need, but when it comes down to it they’re able to give spontaneously. They’re able to share their lives with people they wouldn’t otherwise meet in moneyed circles. They use money to serve and it’s because they believe in a power greater than money.

Living in these two church communities has not been easy. I’m a pretty strong willed guy to be around and I’ve suffered all the necessary blows to my ego that come accordingly. But in looking back over my life not too long ago, I know I had a lot to lose every time I stubbornly refused to open myself up to others. Yes, in church it’s very easy to lose focus, to lose the eyes of faith and open up to resentment. My right actions have not always been for the right reasons. But as Johnny Cash sang, “I’m living the right life now.” And I’ve got so much to be grateful for. That life is apparently for many other people I’m grateful to know; and it’s there for you too if you don’t already know it.

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Filed under 12 Steps, Community, homeless, homelessness, JPUSA, love, work

Guest Post: Freedom from Animosity!

By Jeremy Nicholls

As Phillip was talking, I started visualizing a scene similar to “Taxi Driver”. A transient hotel. Tight stairways. A trail of blood. A very angry man and two extremely scared men trying to get away, and just LIVE…..

Janice invites these two homeless men into her apartment. She knows them well. She has a case of beer and wants some drinking partners. Being alcoholics and homeless, they oblige. They’re drinking, laughing, singing and telling stories. After a few hours, the alcohol is gone, so Janice steps out to go to the liquor store.

JD has been out all day, steps into his apartment and finds Phillip and Drew chilling in HIS apartment. They were laughing, yelling and intoxicated in HIS house. He knows them, but he does not want them in HIS house. It doesn’t matter that his girlfriend invited them in, he simply does not want them there; they were drinking up HIS money, the money he received being a respected Vietnam vet and a prisoner of war.

JD walks into the kitchen, grabs two knives and starts going absolutely ballistic. He advances toward Drew, but the smaller Drew starts using Phillip as a shield and escapes. His arms and chest get slashed. Dripping with blood, Phil manages to bulldoze out the door and stumble down the few flights of stairs.

Exhausted, Phillip gets outside and breathes a sigh of relief. The wounds aren’t too bad, but he looks up and sees his attacker charge at him with his two knives. Somehow JD had beat him down the stairs. As Phillip continues the story, I picture St. Peter’s attempt to protect his Lord by chopping off the guard’s ear. JD brings his two knives down upon Phillip, viciously slashing the top of his head. With this sudden increase of blood gushing from his skull, the violence finally ceased.

The police arrived. An ambulance came. JD was arrested. Drew appeared from behind a dumpster telling Phillip how he was on his way back in to rescue him. Phillip is exhausted and bleeding. He is mad at his friend’s cowardice, but decides not to argue. He was simply glad and relieved the traumatic event was over and takes the ride to the local hospital. He is thanking God he is still living!

As I sit there listening to Phillip and the other 2 guys talk about JD and the psychotic aftereffects of being a prisoner of war. I listen to how Janice is someone who continually stirs up “mess”. I sit there astounded by the severity of what happened. I am thankful Phillip is still alive to share his stories. I am wondering if there was any revenge bought on by the resulting hatred and nightmares. I don’t want to ask!

Phillip continues with words similar to these….
“About a year later, the prosecutor finds me and is trying to charge him with attempted murder or aggravated battery. He wants me to testify in court. He wants to bring him down. I look at him and laugh; ‘man, if you had come to me a week or a month after the fact, I would have had him fried on the electric chair. But it’s been almost a year man! It’s been a year! We’re cool! Let him be! Let him be free! How can I hold animosity in my heart toward him?'”

Phillip told this story in a local hospital’s Intensive Care Unit, where we were visiting another victim of pointless and unprovoked violence. These 3 men were viewing me as their pastor or priest, so they had asked me to pray over Ron and someone else I didn’t personally know, who was being kept alive by machines. We had held hands and prayed to the God who heals, forgives and endured the cross.

Stunned! This amazing story had left me sitting there; absolutely stunned! I think of all the pain, nightmares and trauma he suffered because of that dark night, and he just let it go. He laid it in the Lord’s arms! I look at Phillip and tell him, “what an example of Jesus – you are an example of Jesus!”

I had come to bless a brain bleeding and blackened Ron, yet ironically, an unusual source had blessed me through a horrifying dramatic story. After years of working with homeless folk, I have come to realize that I see more of Jesus in them (with all their struggles, addictions and sin), than they see in me. So I shared this with them….

“Rich and middle class Christians have so much to learn from you guys and the homeless community. Churches and families are too often divided by petty differences, financial matters and hurt feelings. It is easy to dodge and avoid when we see each other once a week and can vacate to the luxury of our homes. There can remain a bitter silence, and it can last for years. When someone lives in a shelter or on the street, dodging one another becomes almost impossible and the emotion comes to the surface. Vicious fights, threats and incidents do happen and, in my mind, I think reconciliation is an impossible dream! But, I love the fact that I am frequently proved wrong, because among the poor and homeless, forgiveness is ever present! Bitter enemies fellowship! Mercy is given! Grace is received! Love occurs!”

Today, Phillip and JD happily share meals together and all I can say is: Thank you Phillip for showing me what forgiveness truly is!

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Filed under Community, Conflict resolution, homeless, homelessness, love, money

Housing Justice in St. Louis, MO

Here’s a link to a Facebook group I believe subscribers to this blog would be into. Hopeville USA is a community of over 100 homeless people who live on the edge of the Tucker tunnel in downtown St. Louis. On May 17 the city wants to shut down Hopeville regardless of whether they have somewhere else to go. Please get involved by joining this group and lending your support.

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Filed under Community, homeless, homelessness

Interview with Julia Duin

Julia Duin is religion editor for the Washington Times and author of six books, including Quitting Church: Why the Faithful and Fleeing and What to Do About It. Her latest book is Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community. Julia agreed to answer some questions for me about her new book via email. I hope these provoke further discussion on the nature of community, the Charismatic movement, and the importance of story even when the telling is fraught with difficulty.

Chris Rice: I consider one of the most interesting things about your book the fact that you yourself are a charismatic Episcopal Christian and you approach the subject of this book as a member of the church itself. You came to the community not to do a story but because you were looking for what the Holy Spirit had for you. As a journalist in this position how do you feel you maintained objectivity throughout the writing process?

Julia Duin: Much of what happened at Redeemer – 2/3 of the book, in fact, happened before 1986, which is the year I arrived in Houston. So it was easy to be dispassionate about what happened during the first 22 years of this renewal simply because I was not part of the action. However, I did manage to visit all the places the community was: 3 sites in the UK and the main 2 sites in the United States. It was really helpful for me to see the island of Cumbrae and the 2 community places in southern England – one of which I unwittingly visited in 1982 years before I moved to Houston or thought of doing the book. I will say a reporter who was not also an insider would have had an impossible time doing the book. They would not have known the code words, the inside stuff – things I was privy to for several years before deciding to write the book.

CR: You say “the places the community was” but don’t you mean the places where Graham Pulkingham started ministries? I mean, in the book Church of the Redeemer and Graham Pulkingham have friction between them by the time he is starting ministries elsewhere. So these are separate entities right?

JD: Actually, Redeemer and the Community of Celebration were separate entities. Graham and the CoC were the same.

CR: Every member of a community has his or her own expectations for their lives in and among the other members and so are limited in their ability to see the whole picture. They have a particular vantage point for telling the community’s story in their own way. In telling the stories of Church of the Redeemer, Graham Pulkingham, and their place in the larger Charismatic movement how did you move from your own vantage point to seeing the bigger picture overall?

JD: I felt that Redeemer was a microcosm of what happened all over the country. Word of God in Ann Arbor and other Catholic communities (ie Mother of God in Gaithersburg, Md. and Sojourners in Washington, DC) had similar melt-downs. Being that I was covering a lot of this as a freelancer for Christianity Today at the time, I knew what was going on nationally – which I might add most people at Redeemer had no idea of, say, what Christian communities in the Pacific Northwest were doing. Well I did know stuff like that. It really helped that I had lived in this Portland community several years before so I was one of the few people at Redeemer who knew how the other half lived; how community was being done elsewhere.

CR: Were there angles to the story that you wanted to picture but were just unable for some reason?

JD: About angles, I cut out a lot of the theological critique. I thought the extra stuff was valuable but I knew the readers would not stick with me. I also knew a lot more of the sexual sin that was going on – what got mentioned in the book was the tip of the iceberg – but some stuff I was unable to prove. One person said he was going to sue me if I mentioned him. Well I did mention him but I was not able to confirm the fact he raped a 14-year-old. I know some people in Houston are really unhappy with the book but if they only knew the stuff I *didn’t* write about.

CR: You conducted most of the interviews in the early 1990s, why did the book take twenty years to get published?

JD: I went through 32 publishers before I found one that would take this book. That’s what took the 20 years. The current one was #33. The secular publishers didn’t know who Graham was nor what charismatics and pentecostals were and they sure didn’t ‘get’ the intentional community concept. Evangelical publishers were more attuned to those things, but they objected to the sexual content. One told me the book was prophetic and needed to be published; he was just afraid of lawsuits. Please. I had a good libel lawyer working with me and there has not been a problem.

CR: It sounds like the book was a largely thankless task for a long time. You knew you had an important story, but faced a lot of opposition. Did you ever feel like throwing in the towel?

JD: Believe it or not, I didn’t because of the amazing ways the story fell together. How was I do know Graham would die in such a dramatic way? That he’d spill everything in that late-night talk with me? That people like Marilyn Mazak would magically show up in Houston just when I needed her? And then she disappeared, never to be heard from again? It was clear God was arranging things so I could write the book but what was discouraging was the 15-year wait between the time I finished writing the book and got it published.

CR: In a nearly linear timeline you chronicle and describe in detail the different problems that lead to the decline of the Church of the Redeemer. At the same time you describe Graham Pulkingham’s new community ventures in Scotland and then in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. You seem to see the Community of Celebration as a failed venture and yet that community lives on today with a Benedictine Rule. Has the community been opposed to your writing this book or cold toward you personally?

JD: The community has been tremendously cold since the scandal broke in August 1992 and since then has refused to work with me re the book. They blamed me for exposing Graham. I sent Bill Farra a registered letter around that time asking him to help me about but he refused. Several years later, I was in North Carolina and had arranged to meet with Betty Pulkingham to wrap up some loose ends. She cancelled the interview about 3 hours beforehand despite the fact it had been a two-day trip for me to get down there. After that, I figured I was on my own and that I’d have to work without the help of the community. Fortunately I had already completed 95% of my research by the time the story ‘broke.’

Yes, they live on – in a fashion. I talked with a friend who recently visited them – and looked at their web site – I think they’re down to 7 members. They appear to be living off the copyrights and proceeds of their music although I never hear it played any more nor do I see their books for sale in Episcopal venues so at some point that money has got to dry up.

CR: When you say that, “they live on—in a fashion. . . at some point their money has got to dry up” it sounds like you want them to fail. They’ve been going on as a small community, serving very locally for around twenty years. That’s a lot longer than many Christian communities lasted. It’s clear from the book that the way he confessed to you and it all came out was quite a mess, quite emotional, more so than you wanted it to be. But isn’t it possible that these Christians at Community of Celebration are still a beautiful expression of God at work in their local community in spite of all the sin in Graham’s life and at Church of the Redeemer before their founding?

JD: The folks at Celebration did do a lot of good, no doubt about that. But when I began observing them in 1990 – after they’d been 4 years in the Pittsburgh area – it was clear they were not making much of a dent in the neighborhood. I never heard anything further about their business incubator and I saw first-hand how few actual inhabitants were coming to Celebration’s services. It was 180 degrees from what happened in Houston.

CR: On a side note I would point out that Community of Celebration is offering .pdfs of all the books written by and about Graham and Betty Pulkingham on their website for free. These books are long out of print. To address the other side of your comment, “they appear to be living off the copyrights and proceeds of their music,” I know from the newsletters I’ve received from them over the last twenty years that this is not the major source of their income. They have a donor base similar to other small communities that consists of churches and individuals who visit the community at least annually and make contributions. Members also have outside jobs in the area. They work as chaplains and social workers in Aliquippa.

JD: I just heard from a former member who visited them earlier this month and they’re down to 6-7 people. I just do not call that healthy. They are obviously not growing, compared to what Shane Claiborne is doing in Philly. And Shane is pushing people away – he’s gotten inquiries in droves.

CR: Church of the Redeemer was unique in that it was controversial within the Episcopal Church but the Bishop took a hands-off approach even where his authority and accountability were obviously needed. How does this story speak to the way denominational churches discipline congregations?

JD: Well, one important thing is the bishop should not be as compromised as Alden Hathaway was in letting Graham be his spiritual director. One important thing I’ve seen in the Catholic charismatic communities that went belly-up is that people were warning the bishops way ahead of time that fishy things were happening there. Often the bishop did nothing. It was not until the secular media started calling that anything was done.

CR: It would be easy for someone who opposes the Charismatic Movement and Christian communities in general to use your book as proof of all their worst fears. But you don’t seem to be on a crusade against Charismatics or Christian community overall. Looking back on all that you’ve been through with this book, how did you end the book with so much hope for what God can still do through flawed humans in the future?

JD: Am certainly not on a crusade against charismatics as I still am one. But we had such high hopes back in the 1970s -we thought all of American Christianity would go communal and instead, the communities were what did not survive. By 1990-92, nearly all had crashed and burned. Even Sojourners, which did survive, gave up its households (except for interns). I think interest in community is going to come back in a major way, so I am writing to warn folks of what happened 30 years ago with Christians who were just as smart as people are today. I am hoping that younger people do not repeat the mistakes of the baby boomers.

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Julia Duin’s Days of Fire and Glory book review

Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community by Julia Duin
368 pages
Crossland Press (September 8, 2009)
ISBN: 0979027977

Julia Duin, religion editor for the Washington Times has written a very interesting account of the influential Houston Charismatic Episcopal church, Church of the Redeemer. She builds on first hand knowledge and close to 150 members who were parishioners. The story pivots around the church’s rector Graham Pulkingham. The bare facts of what happened to Graham are not new. After two decades of influence in Charismatic and Evangelical circles as an author, speaker, and bible teacher, Graham admitted to having seduced many of his male coworkers. As the person who finally got Graham to admit what he’d done, Julia broke the story to the larger news media. Her book, Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community, is a biographical narrative whose primary interest seeks an answer to the question: “How could things go so wrong at Redeemer?”

Set alongside other communal biographies, Julia Duin’s research is equally detailed, chronological, including everything from where the money came from and went to how time was spent among members on a daily basis. Her very vivid use of word pictures to describe a given setting really draw you into each moment. Her description of the workings of communal households is especially inviting. Redeemer’s household style, where a particular nuclear family would take in singles to live with them and be cared for, was adopted by Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, IL. The book uses interviews from so many different families that it can get rather cumbersome to remember all the names and situations involved. Days of Fire and Glory references and builds on the five books written during the 1970s by Graham and Betty Pulkingham and Michael Harper.

The book’s weaknesses are found simply in its being a biography as deconstruction. Duin mirrors the fast changes at Redeemer with those of the larger Charismatic movement. As a religion editor during the many scandals and moral failures among Charismatic leadership beginning with the Shepherding Movement and into the early 1990s, she writes of Redeemer in reference to larger trends. But the further she gets from first person accounts, the more subjective her reporting becomes. Her narrative tries to weave seamlessly between communities in different places: Redeemer in Houston, Woodlawn in Colorado, Word of God in Ann Arbor, and Celebration in Scotland. She looks for abuses in leadership, suffering members, or a general lack of spiritual power. But if hard pressed, many of the stories she alludes to might seem incidental if kept separate and her perspective anecdotal. Charismatic communities live or die by their sense of identity in the worship and teaching, their sense of mutual calling and their commitment to the story they’re living. It’s clear that each of these different communities in her story have similarities, but with different membership they are also very distinct. She looked for a common sickness infecting the whole. This is where her narrative is much more about deconstruction and less about the people and stories themselves.

There are several things that really unnerve me about Duin’s approach in this book. The first concerns the importance of the gift of prophecy to direct the future of the communities. Of equal importance is spiritual discernment. Taken together we see the development of some kind of spiritual sixth sense. If church leaders and members are both tuned into the life of the spirit, everything falls into place. The future of the church is assured. God’s protection will cover everyone from all harm, no one will fall into sin and everyone will be one big happy family full of the Holy Spirit’s power. The power and influence will continue to increase and spread the world over. As I read the book I get the feeling that this is what the author and members were expecting to come of their worship and common life. She is constantly taking the church’s spiritual pulse in her expectation that things will just pull back in line and they’ll all be one happy family again.

Of course there are some other assumptions as well. Part in parcel to the Spirit’s infilling comes a conservative doctrinal and political worldview. She points out everything that smacks of a politics reflecting Graham Pulkingham’s liberal period before the infilling. That period where he smoked cigarettes and tried to change the neighborhood out of liberal altruism. These political allusions are few and far enough between to keep from belaboring the point, but she makes it clear—Spirit filled Christians are conservative. Backslidden ones go all liberal again. This is just as narrow and devoid of political imagination as it sounds.

What’s taken as a given is Duin’s own ability to know where God is moving and when things are dead or dying. Of chief importance is evidence of an impact. Long after Graham Pulkingham had left Redeemer and had settled in Aliquippa Pennsylvania with the Community of Celebration she is assessing their impact in the early 1990’s:

“The community still envisioned itself as a group of poor believers, living in the neighborhood and challenging the larger political and social structure for change, but it was questionable whether such laudable things had made a dent in Aliquippa. After five years there, they had not made nearly the impact that Redeemer had made in Houston in the five years after Graham’s baptism in the Spirit. Instead, the community seemed more shell-shocked by Aliquippa’s daunting challenges and the need to constantly protect themselves. Graham and his community, I realized, did not have the spiritual power to make changes. They were the same actors with a similar script, but 25 years had made all the difference in the world.” (Pg. 269)

Excuse me, but I just have to ask where she lays claim to the authority to say where God is working and where He is not? I mean, let’s think about this. When I die I would hope that there would be family and friends there who could say, “This man loved God and his family. He served the church and was used by God.” This is every Christian’s greatest hope right? But who gets to go further than that and say x number of people’s lives were forever changed because of his impact? Who before God gets to say I have or don’t have the spiritual power to change anything?

There are a number of things that break my heart about Graham Pulkingham’s teaching recounted in the book, and much of the teaching in the Charismatic and Jesus Movement circles he moved in. The first is that they were preaching community. Now I’ve lived in two different Charismatic communities and I’m still close to both of them. But to my knowledge, neither of these preached community as some sort of special spiritual endowment. The leadership sought out the writings of other communities that had been at it quite a bit longer and learned that community is simply not for everyone, and we don’t get some special favor from God for living in it. We’re certainly not more spiritual for living in community.

But more than that, what Graham and the other leaders and families at Redeemer experienced in the early years of the Spirit’s power seemed to cause them to want more power and not necessarily more love. They wanted more of the worship experiences, the healings, the new converts, and these things didn’t necessarily strengthen their marriages, their families, or even their social skills. What we’re left with is a great sense of loss.

It’s a book of great sadness, shattered hopes, and broken relationships in the midst of great yearning. In the end she writes:

“Graham was right. It was community that made Redeemer and other powerful charismatic fellowships across the country what they were; it was community that allowed the Holy Spirit to move so quickly; it was community that birthed the music and the worship, that encouraged the spiritual gifts, that created an indefinable quality of love that drew thousands to Houston, that caused millions to read the books and listen to the music. People there gave generously because they had been loved generously by God, so much like the Christians who, 2000 years earlier, gave away all they had to gain Christ. It was a sacrificing community that made love so real to so many, that rescued the neighborhood for a brief few decades, that drew in the lost and unwanted. This is not the conclusion I expected to find, but a reporter’s job is to tell the truth. My task is done, and here you see it complete.” (pg. 318)

My only response to this is that community is not some special place that we dream about but that only comes in heaven. Community happens where we work for it. It’s not always the place we want to be. In my case it was where I was born, not what I chose initially. It’s full of many impossible people who without the love of Christ we would never choose to live with. Most importantly, Christian community does not belong to us.  Serving Jesus involves laying down our visions of what the outcome of our efforts will look like.  This is perhaps what is most difficult in the best of communities, where leaders don’t lie and cover up sexual sin and deceive their parishioners. How can we not have expectations when we put so much time and money and attention into our little projects, which we’re so certain are blessed of God? Attempts to shape people into our image will fail or God willing should hopefully fail soon. A lot can be learned from Julia Duin’s work. It is sad that so much heartbreak went into this story and that in the end Duin’s own relationship with the Community of Celebration is broken.

I keep thinking about all the failed expectations for the many white upwardly mobile Houstonians who sold everything in order to buy dilapidated houses in Redeemer’s neighborhood. Communities are rarely formed from so many professional elites. They all came looking for something. They wanted to bring God glory the way they knew how. That meant making a name for themselves: writing books, hymns, and influencing the world over. It all happened so fast, and as I look back at it I can’t help but think why should their dream succeed? Everything I know of God is that the first things that get sacrificed along with money and time are my expectations. I get hurt the most when I’m going to write that great book for God, knock them dead with my preaching, or simply say the exact “right” thing in the wrong spirit at the wrong time.

Finally, I think it’s important to realize that we never know the whole story where people are concerned. Every person entering community remains their own individual while they are there, with their own perspectives and spin on what goes down at a given time. There are many others who were at Redeemer or are now maybe at Celebration who would tell their story very differently. In so far as Julia Duin stuck to the facts that she received from her interviews and sources, her story is a valuable witness for us today. I dare say many other communities from the same era, Charismatic or not, are now passing from memory without anyone to tell their story. If you have an interest in communal narratives pick up a copy of Julia Duin’s book Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community.

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Musings on Home

home sign

On Friday I drove down to St. Louis for a long over due weekend of ministry. I got to stay with my sister and her family that first night. My dad came out and we celebrated his birthday together with home made cake and raspberry sorbet. I brought dad a present I made him on the plasmacam at work. It was a sign that illustrates the word Home. The words on it are Dwelling, Place, Home, Healing, and Permanence. In the middle is a little image of my wife and daughter, a stamp made from a photo I took with my cellphone. The sign took far longer to make than I’d anticipated at first. I’m still getting used to the software, and art concepts don’t come easily to me. But homemade gifts still mean much more than buying them.

My sister keeps my mom’s journals which date back to when she was in high school. I borrowed the years 1969-1977 and am working my way through them. From the time I was a teenager I had an interest in what got my parents involved in ministry. Though my parents were very different people in their early twenties what I’m learning is that the Charismatic and Jesus Movements were fostering in them a commitment to Christ and to service that would sustain them for the next three decades. My mom writes about very simple things. She likes lists. She writes about what she did that day, her health, the people she hangs out with, the classes she’s taking in college, the letters she gets from my dad. She writes about witnessing and possible witnessing opportunities. She wrote about what she watched on television. She is very discreet and seems aware that someone will want this information later. Her journals were used years later to write about the history of their ministry.

My kids seem in awe that it’s okay for me to read their grandmother’s diaries. They know that their own diaries are off limits to each other. Don’t I feel weird going through her personal writings? Well, yes, I admit, I don’t want my own journals read by anyone after I die. But I don’t write the same way my mother does. I write for the most part about how I’m doing with the Lord, my personal failures, my fears, etc. This kind of thing shows up rarely in mom’s writing.

So anyway, what I’m doing right now is trying to compile a picture of the kind of people my folks were when they were in college, got married, and then started ministering together. Its an emotional journey for me, but its inspiring, largely because they seem such unlikely candidates for heading up an ecumenical charismatic non profit spread out across three states helping homeless and poor people and utilizing television and radio to spread the gospel. Their ministry grew sporadically and slowly, they never had enough finances to rest secure, and only enough to step out in faith in the next way. Now, close to forty years later my mother is gone and the work continues.

I find that inspiring because now that I’m grown and married with kids I see how easy it is to lose sight of what a miracle every day is when you have a routine. When you’re young all of life is an adventure. You have no idea what’s coming next. You don’t want to predict where you’ll be but you’re excited to see anything new happen. As I get older and I’ve lost my mother and grandpa and some good friends I start to wonder if all change is not loss. I know change is a good thing but I’m less eager for it. I know a bit about what more money and growth entails. I know a bit more about the costs involved in media exposure and public attention. But I have also experienced God’s faithfulness, clear answers to prayer, and miracles big and small. Like my parents I have an expectation that when I align myself with God’s Narrative of time and history that there is real Hope. Hope is being on the way, not content to stay put because what God gives is truly good. In this life we are promised struggle, opposition and persecution. We also get misguided praise, personality worshipers and people along for the ride doing the right things for what later prove to be the wrong reasons. All in all the final truth is that there is no way to be in control in this life. It’s hard wired into us to try to be in control as much as possible, and to get frustrated when our efforts fail.

But to follow Jesus is to know that taking up your cross means you’re not in control! This whole idea of carrying the cross alone because I have to just like Jesus is silly. What is a cross for God’s sake? It’s a cruel form of execution. Who put’s themselves on a cross? Nobody. The thing we can’t seem to wrap our heads around is that the God of the Universe became incarnate and then let Himself be cruelly executed by the state like a common criminal. The only thing more insane than that would be that that God would call us to that same sort of powerless vulnerability. Even worse, Jesus gave this impossible commission that we preach to all the world to do the same thing! Whoa!!! Surrendering control seems downright unChristian. Where’s the part about Jesus wanting to make me into a better person who can then make a better world by being nice to everybody? I hope you “catch my drift” here.

What makes a theology of the cross possible in any sense is the understanding that God is for humanity to the point of kenosis, self-emptying, and that that self-emptying is a sign of God’s faithfulness, that even death itself does not annihilate Hope. Someone might argue that it was easy for God to empty himself only to be raised again later. He might say further that such posturing is not truly an example to us humans. I heard that line of reasoning all the time growing up among fellow church kids. “Of course Jesus resisted the devil’s temptation, he was perfect!”

There’s an endless loop in that reasoning, and an inherent refusal to see God as part of His creation. As a follower of Jesus I believe God has never left the world alone. I believe that God is present in all of life’s cruel and miraculous reality, and that we are not alone and forgotten. My life’s meaning, my story is one that I share with all those who have God’s promises.

A further note about the sign I made dad. Those words Dwelling, Place, Home, Healing, and Permanence, are descriptive words in faith. Its hard to think of home as permanent when your mom dies while you’re young. It’s hard to dwell in a house where the residents are at odds or are not truly present when they’re there because they’re on the phone or watching TV or are planning on being elsewhere in the coming moments. It’s hard to think of home in terms of healing especially when we all know that some of our worst emotional wounds have been inflicted there, by people who love us and whom we love. Home is the stuff of dreams in this life. It is what I hope for, what I try to make, and yet what I know I fail to give and receive. Home is where God is. It’s where relationships happen. It’s where foundations are built and virtues are fostered. I want that.

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