“Even as I am being poured out… I am glad and rejoice…”
Philippians 2: 17
I met Joy years ago in Chicago. She was born Jewish, but married a Methodist minister who beat her up on a regular basis. It was traumatic, but she found and embraced Jesus anyway. She got involved with a church surrounded by homeless people. She didn’t know what to do.
She enjoyed being a vegetarian, so she talked her vegetarian friends into opening a vegetarian soup kitchen. The diner serves meals prepared by gourmet chefs, but it serves something better even than that.
The street people who eat there can make reservations. They’re met at the door, greeted, accompanied to a beautifully set table, handed a menu. A waiter comes, makes recommendations, and takes the order.
The food arrives on fine china, and candlelight adds to the beauty of the setting. This diner serves dignity to its customers.
It’s the Dignity Diner.
Then Joy got involved in a program to give flu shots to the homeless. She was a registered nurse, confronted daily by a health care system that refused to provide for poor people, homeless people, people without citizenship or proper documents. She began to take on that system every day of her life. Soon, she was running an all-volunteer hospital that treated only those with no documentation.
She’s the most alive person I ever met, unafraid in a slum that would terrify most. Ready to argue with the richest doctor, the biggest drug company, the most aggravating bureaucrat. She’ll face down a hospital, take any offering large or small, beg for anything, anywhere, at any time. From anyone. She’ll smile and touch a little girl, face burned beyond recognition: A little girl she can’t even talk to because she doesn’t speak the same language.
Me third. That’s her motto. God first. Neighbor second.
I will love my neighbor, no matter how poor, how ugly, or how much the need. I’ll treat them as I would want to be treated. I will love.
Her name is the most appropriate I ever heard.
Reflect on your life for 10 minutes. What brings you joy?
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
Matthew 5: 6
Bill, the young white cop, had heard about the White Mountain hiking trip, so he volunteered to work for a year with a juvenile delinquent who had committed a felony-level offense. The volunteer group, an organization called Mountain Mentors, paired him with an inner-city teen, a black youngster.
Back then the program began with a long, difficult mountain hike. The hikers carried heavy loads and traveled miles into wilderness, usually uphill, often dangerous. They had to carry everything they would need – tents, bedrolls, food, clothing, water, ropes, lights, fuel, stoves – on their backs.
They moved in teams of 10, five volunteers and five criminals.
The terrain demands teamwork. The youngsters often rebel, and the volunteers are instructed not to argue or demand, but rather to let the kids “argue with the mountain.”
This went against Bill’s grain. When someone did something wrong, his normal solution was to demand proper behavior, even if it required handcuffs. And he had come prepared. He had the cuffs in his backpack.
“I’ll cuff him to a tree if he acts up,” he said.
“No,” an experienced volunteer said. “We don’t lock them up. We love them.”
During the week-long hike, in the dark of night, alone together in a small tent, exhausted and drained by the exertions of the day, the two began to talk about serious things. About the whys and wherefores of the world. About motivations and realities. A week later, they came out together, changed.
“I didn’t know if this was going to work,” Bill said. “I had arrested a lot of his relatives, cousins and uncles, a brother. I didn’t think we could get along. But I watched him as we climbed. He’s a leader. He cares. He works hard. He helped the others who weren’t so strong, and he tried to do the right thing. Some of the other boys wouldn’t have made it if he hadn’t stepped up and helped.”
He paused for a very long time, staring into the campfire, struggling to speak a deep word.
“I would be proud,” Bill said, “if he were my son.”
I suspect that we think about righteousness as a one-way street. The good guy wants to stop the bad guy from being bad. It all moves one way. But what if the bad guy never got a break, never knew love, never had a chance? The world is full of people who hunger, deep down, for a righteousness that recognizes their humanity and their need, their gifts and their pain.
Real righteousness brings the two together. Real righteousness finds what’s best for all. It moves in two directions. Those who seek to obey become the tools of God’s providence, and those who are broken are lifted to new wholeness.
Another thing: John Wesley heard it right. He said this beatitude speaks in terms of absolutes. Only food can fill hunger, he said. Only drink can satisfy thirst.
Only righteousness can make a real community.
Reflect on your life for 10 minutes. How do you hunger for righteousness?
“Praise the Lord!”
Psalm 150: 1
Some years ago, a friend brought Mary to church.
She was an elderly black woman, and she wanted to sit down front in the seats most people avoid.
My friend introduced her before the service, and I discovered as we worshipped that she was all in. Every now and then, a quiet “Amen” would slip out, and finally, during my sermon, she literally shouted, “Praise God!”
No one said much that first week. But Mary decided she liked our church. She returned week after week, always sitting down front and always shouting out “Amen” and “Praise God!”
She took the idea seriously. You know. The idea that’s so strange to many Christians. The idea that we ought to praise God.
It didn’t take long, of course, before murmuring broke out in the ranks.
“I wish she wouldn’t do that.”
“That’s not the way we worship here.”
“It distracts me.”
You know what I’m saying. Murmur. Murmur. Murmur. No one had the courage to complain to me. No one was honest enough to walk up to Mary to tell her to shut up. They just talked in the parking lot. And the fellowship hall. And at the coffee shop.
I chose to ignore them.
Mary kept coming, kept saying “Amen” and “Praise God,” often literally shouting the words out in the midst of a sermon or a prayer. After she had attended for some weeks, she asked me one Sunday if she could sing. I immediately offered her a chance, and her song was unlike any of those provided by our other soloists. They often brought accompaniment tapes or rehearsed with the organist in order to sing with musical background.
Mary wanted nothing to do with that. She just stood up and sang. It was simple. It was beautiful. It was from her heart. But she never began with the song. She always had a word. She talked about her life, and we began to learn more about her. She was poor. She couldn’t really afford even bus fare to get to church, so found friends who could bring her. She had some serious health problems. She had a dearly beloved grandson who was in prison. She would talk about life, not to complain, not to make people feel sorry for her. She talked about her life so she could talk about God. She talked about life to say thanks. She told how God was helping her. Protecting her. Saving her.
Then she would sing, and her songs were a love affair. A love affair with God. They were about how God loved her and how she loved God.
They were praise.
And the murmuring stopped.
Can I get an Amen?
Reflect on your life for 10 minutes. When did you last praise God?
“…go into your room and shut the door and pray…”
Matthew 6: 6
Eilleen had summoned me, and despair was written large on her face.
“I have breast cancer,” she said. “They want me to have an operation and chemotherapy. I’m not going to do it.”
Eilleen was now in her 70s, a large, strong woman who was special. She sat on the ad board for years, then on the committee that supervised the pastor. A couple of strong-minded men had been elected to the committee a year or two earlier, and they had sought the seats for one reason. They wanted to attack the pastor.
It didn’t take long.
They began the offensive at their first meeting. They asked question after question. Leveled charge after charge. Cross-examined me mercilessly. They wanted to know what I thought about homosexuality. I answered as best I could, as patiently as I could. It’s that way sometimes in church. We don’t all always agree. Other members of the committee sat silent as this happened, somewhat stunned by the ferocity of the attack. They didn’t know what to do. Eilleen listened for a while because in her heart she agreed with their position and disagreed with mine. But finally she stood and shouted, “Enough!”
She was fed up.
“He has answered your questions,” she said. “I don’t agree with him, but he’s the best pastor we’ve ever had. So shut up.”
But on this day Eilleen no longer seemed strong. More than anything, she was afraid. She told me she had cared for her father and then for her brother when they had cancer. They took the doctors’ advice. Surgery. Chemo. Radiation. Suffering. Weakness. Death. She was there in the midst of the worst of it. She cleaned up the vomit. Watched the flesh disappear from their bodies. Saw their personalities empty into a pain-infested wilderness.
“It doesn’t do any good to be treated,” she said. “I would rather have a few months of decent life than to take the treatment, lose any kind of normal existence, and then die anyway.
“I believe in prayer,” she said. “I’m going to pray.”
Every fiber in my body wanted to protest. I wanted to tell her to listen to the doctors, to have the surgery and to take the chemo. But I saw her fear, heard her doubt. I knew she didn’t need my advice. What she needed was my presence.
We prayed for a year.
I tried to be with her that year. I visited as often as I could, and we eventually reached the point where we didn’t talk at all about her disease. We talked about the church, about others who were in need. We prayed for them.
I was surprised then, one day, when she very quietly said, “I’m going to have the operation.”
“Why,” I asked.
“Well I went to the doctor last week,” she said. “The cancer hasn’t grown at all, hasn’t changed at all. I think God was giving me time to change my mind. I’m not afraid now.”
It happens that way sometimes. People pray for a miracle, but God doesn’t give them that miracle. God gives them another one. We prayed for God to heal the cancer, but God chose to heal the fear. She had the operation. Endured the chemo. And her disease was healed.
She lived and prayed into her 80s, tough as ever.
Reflect on your life for 10 minutes. What is your most fervent prayer today?
“Come to him, a living stone… chosen and precious… , and like living stones let yourselves to be built into a spiritual house.”
1 Peter 2: 4
I went to a funeral. My aunt was Catholic, and a priest offered the mass. A deacon from another parish, an elderly layman who had visited her through the years, assisted. The priest spoke a learned sermon, filled with grand conceptions. I almost fell asleep.
Then the deacon rose. I wondered what he might say. The order of worship said he would “remember.”
He was quite old and moved slowly. He didn’t say a word about my aunt. He spoke about himself. He spoke directly to my uncle Jim, a powerful and wealthy man, now old and frail.
We’re at a wonderful time of life, the deacon said. We don’t have to worry about anything. We don’t have to do anything. It’s the best time. We don’t have to make excuses or do jobs. Nobody expects much of us anymore. We can sit back and watch. We’ve made our mistakes, and now we have become again, in a way, like little children, weak and helpless. I had a stroke, and I made mistakes during the service today. They don’t matter. I’m old. Nobody expects me to be perfect. The young people come, concerned about things, and I don’t have to get too involved. Nobody expects it. It’s their turn. It’s good to be like a little child, he said, to let others carry the load, do the worrying, make the mistakes.
This elderly man, wounded in body, frail, who had obviously suffered and who was unable to participate in the funeral service without mistake, spoke with a deep sense of calm and wholeness.
He closed in the most remarkable way. He looked out over the church filled with people, many of them young, most of whom he knew little or not at all. He looked out and paused. I love you, he said. I love all of you. Then he sat down.
I realized as he spoke that I was seeing what Peter calls “a living stone.”
Stones are hard, cold, unfeeling. Stones don’t suffer. They may fade and weather. Over centuries they may become rounded or be ground into sand. But the sand, like the stones, remains unfeeling. But stones are something else. They have value. They become the building blocks. Homes. Churches. Offices. Schools. Beautiful cathedrals.
Peter speaks about the church. He reminds us that we are a community of suffering stones. Built with a cornerstone that lived, suffered, died, and rose.
Living stone. That’s the material God chose.
Reflect on your life for 10 minutes. How would God use your weakness?