It is time to say good bye to ECS …..for now. A new year of seminary classes has already started. Fishing on a Saturday with J and the residents of Downtown Safe Haven have been replaced with courses on the prophets, church history, Anglicanism and ethics. Tuesday nights reflecting with G on what I had just experienced whilst helping with a DUI group have been replaced with reading and Thursday night shared meals and conversation at DTSH have been replaced with writing school papers.
On one hand so many things have changed. But the work of ECS’s ACCORD program continues. The residents of DTSH still continue to try and do the best they can in the world.
One thing for sure is that I have changed. My placement with ECS was much more than just a placement. It was never a case of simply racking up two hundred hours. I am reminded of the words of Proverbs
One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want. Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered.
I truly am richer, enriched and watered. I am transformed. With so many good experiences it is on one hand hard to let go. But that very same struggle is made easier when I ask myself what should I do with the transformation that I have experienced?
Like a house built on rock and not on sand, I will use that transformation as a foundation from which to further build on. The passion in my heart for service beats stronger now than ever before.
I bow my head to God in prayer, and place my future in His hands. I know I will spend more time with ECS at some stage in the future, but for now, for a brief time, it’s time to let go.
Recently I returned back to ECS’s ACCORD program for two final weeks of sitting in and assisting with some of the DUI group sessions. Because of work and personal commitments there had been a five week gap between my previous visit and these last sessions. I had missed the program in those five weeks but the gap also allowed me to stand back and look at where some of the people in the program were in their journey. Jenny*, the councilor who ran the group is a natural at her job and is able to adapt to any group dynamic and draw out a learning experience from everyone in the class. She helps people at all stages of their journey and I have learnt so much from her.
Tonight was a night to check in people on a journey. Some of the group that I had come to know previously had completed their program and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. Others, who were partially through their program, were now nearing the end of their time and of course there was a couple of new people who were just starting the program who I had never seen before. It was clear that some of the folk had been affected by their time at ACCORD. Getting a DUI is a big deal and their time in the program was well spent. For others the time in group sessions, educational classes and individual one-on-one meetings seemed less worthwhile. But that may be an unfair comment, because in reality I was, and am, just an observer or at best a fellow traveler.
Do you ever get a song into your head and can’t get rid of it? That happened to me on my way home that night. I was thinking back, all the way to my infant school, aged just five or six. At school we sang hymns every day in assembly. One of those songs came to mind…..
One more step along the world I go,
one more step along the world I go;
from the old things to the new
keep me traveling along with you:
And it’s from the old I travel to the new;
keep me traveling along with you.
Round the corner of the world I turn,
more and more about the world I learn;
all the new things that I see
you’ll be looking at along with me: Refrain
As I travel through the bad and good,
keep me traveling the way I should;
where I see no way to go
you’ll be telling me the way, I know: Refrain
Give me courage when the world is rough,
keep me loving though the world is tough;
leap and sing in all I do,
keep me traveling along with you: Refrain
You are older than the world can be,
you are younger than the life in me;
ever old and ever new,
keep me traveling along with you: Refrain
Words: Sydney Carter
Music: Southcote by Sydney Carter, arranged by Lionel Dakers
Words © 1971 by Stainer & Bell Ltd. (admin. by Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL 60188).
How true those words are. Faith is a journey (of course there are times when we need to stop moving and be still to feel the presence of God and to let the Lord and Holy Spirit flow into our lives and our worship) that moves us from one place to another. Often we think about the start and the end of the journey but the hymn reminds us of the path along the way. Old, new, bad, good, learning, lost, guided, rough, tough, old, young and in the spirit of the refrain – never travelling alone, always in the company of our Lord.
Steps may be large or small, forwards and sometimes backwards, uphill, downhill. Sometimes we want to run at others we want to crawl.
Sometimes we may be forced on a journey like the participants attending an ECS ACCORD DUI program. At other times we are happy to move along.
Where is your journey today?
What is on the path ahead of you? what is next to you now?
Are you conscious that God is walking with you?
* All names changed
One of the hardest things about writing this blog is that some of the more trans-formative experiences that I have gained during my time with ECS involve very personal encounters with people who I have met. In some cases I have been able to change names but for other encounters that did not seem appropriate. I had one such encounter on Independence Day and so I write this blog post without details but I ask that you read along with me knowing that a very significant encounter occurred.
For a number of reasons I decided that I wanted to spend part of my Independence Day with the residents of ECS’s Downtown Safe Haven (DTSH). It was one of the best decisions that I have made in a long time. Residents took time and pride in organizing a BBQ at the house. One resident used up her last food stamps to buy ingredients to make a cake, an act of generosity that made my day. For some of the residents it was a time to see family, and for some others a time to feel the pain of being away from family.
The occasion also gave me time to talk to some people at the house during the day time – often when I’m at the house on a Saturday day time folk have things to do: work, classes, visiting or just being out of the house. I found myself talking to one resident. The conversation started as light conversation, went deeper, emotions opened up, feelings and fears came flooding out. Of course I didn’t have all of the answers but I could listen and I could be present. Ultimately we could join hands in the presence of the Holy Spirit and be held in prayer.
In the hit TV show ‘The Big Bang Theory” Sheldon is famous for making his presence at his neighbors door known. Standing in-front of Penny’s apartment he knocks loudly and repeats her name three times ‘Penny, Penny, Penny.’ No one is left in any doubt of Sheldon’s presence. How often do we extend the gift of presence? To be there for someone, without judgement of who they are or what they bring to the moment? We do not have to knock loudly like Sheldon does, in fact often it is better that we don’t even announce our presence at all. The Gospels are heaving at the seams with Jesus being present. He enters into relationship with his family, the disciples, he teaches in the temple. But it does not stop there, he enters in relationship with the poor, the gentile, the sinner, the tax collector, the prostitute.
The encounter that I had on July Fourth came out of the blue and I believe that God placed me that day exactly where he needed me to be at. I do believe that if we are to be a truly serving church that we need move beyond our traditional boundaries. Don’t get me wrong I am not suggesting abandoning the faithful but if we are to fully answer the call of Matthew 25:45
‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’
then we must be present in areas where most people would prefer not to go.
Whilst we are on the journey of getting there I rejoice in the work of organizations such as the Episcopal Community Services and Father Joe’s Village for the ministry of presence that they live each and every day.
Maybe tomorrow I will be present for someone at work or at the coffee shop. I may not even realize the gift of my presence, but that is not important because I’m not being present for me. Maybe it is a conversation, or even a hug but it could just be a smile.
Sheldon may say “Penny, Penny, Penny” I hope that I have the grace to say “Brother, Sister, Everyone”.
On a Tuesday night I spend time at ECS’s ACCORD program as part of my summer field placement at the School for Ministry. ACCORD provides court mandated programs that aim to reduce the incidence and prevalence of driving under the influence (DUI) and the negative impact of this behavior on our families, residents and community. I have had the privilege of sitting in on a number of group sessions and hopefully providing another input to the group to support the groups facilitator.
In some of the groups that I have sat in on the facilitator uses the gift of a marble as a right of passage for program members at their last session. After dealing with the administration of the day the person who is attending their last session is invited to tell their DUI story to the rest of the group. This serves as a reminder to the rest of the group of the wide variety of situations that lead to DUIs and gives the graduating member a chance to reflect on their journey and what they have learnt over their time in the program. After this the member is invited to pick a marble from a large jar of marbles that the group facilitator has. The chosen marble is then passed around to each of the other group members who each in turn are invited to say a word of encouragement to the graduating member. After everyone has held the marble and passed on their message, the graduating member is able to say a few words and then gets to keep the marble as a reminder of their time in the program.
In the last group that I sat in on I told the graduating member how I hoped that he would remember all of the lessons learnt during the program. It was clear that he had a firm resolve not to re-offend but the reality of the life meant that there would be times in the future that that firmness would be challenged. I also told him that I hoped that he would keep the marble close by to him at all times and so when that firmness not to re-offend was challenged, that he could squeeze the marble and fell its firmness. I hoped that that in turn would remind him of his resolve not to re-offend.
A marble may be a good reminder of support and lessons learnt for graduates of the DUI program. As Christians we have something even stronger to hold onto – Jesus. If if you are like me there are times that I sometimes forget to turn to Jesus when times get tough. When my day is going bad I can find myself moaning. when I feel weak I sometimes give in to temptation. If only I remembered always to turn to Jesus. He is my rock, he is always with me and he is my savior.
Sometimes in the complexity of life, or the intensity of seminary it is easy to loose sight of the basics.
Jesus is my rock and my savior.
He is the marble that keeps me strong in my faith.
Pure and simple as that!
In some ways this is an extension to my blog post from earlier this week as it also is a result of a lunch I had with a fellow blogging friend (see Karl’s Questions). I was given a not-so-gentle reminder however to write this post by something that happened whilst on my summer field placement at ECS’s Downtown Safe Haven yesterday.
I arrived at the house, as usual for a Saturday, just as some of the residents were getting up and thinking about breakfast. One of the residents, Fred* was cooking himself an omelette. I told him how good the mushrooms that were cooking smelled and in response he asked me THE question:
Can I cook you an omelette?
My immediate response was to decline. I was there to help out, not the other way around. But Fred would not take no for an answer.
I can easily add an extra egg and there will be plenty
He seemed pleased that he could do something for me and so finally I said yes. The omelette arrived a few minutes later and I had the best breakfast in San Diego on Saturday morning.
As I reflected on what happened and my response, it struck me that my reason to be at the house was not necessarily to help, although that can be an important element of what I do there, the main reason is to build relationships with people at the house. In light of this how could any relationship form and grow if it is always one way? Just as much as I want to help and to give I need to learn to receive, and in that receiving be transformed by the relationship.
As Christian’s we often want to ‘do good’ but we have to be careful not to run the risk of becoming righteous as a result of our good deeds. In our Baptismal covenant we promise to respect the dignity of every human being. To do this we must be open to the Holy Spirit working through the person we are walking along side.
I am reminded our of Ecumenism and World Religions class last semester. When discussing Ecumenism we noted how it can only truly be successful when all sides move into dialogue and be prepared to be changed and transformed by the conversation. What comes out, must be different to what goes in, otherwise progress is not made.
Navigating our faith is a two lane highway with traffic in both directions, it is not a one way street.
Can I cook you an omelette?
Yes please, I would like that very much.
* Name changed.
Earlier this week I had lunch with a good friend who is also a fellow blogger (see his blog – Karl’s Questions here). After checking in with each other the topic of conversation turned to my summer field placement at ECS. Before long we got talking about our attitudes toward the homeless, people with mental illness and people with addictions. During my time at ECS, whether it be at the ACCORD DUI program or at the Downtown Safe Haven transitional housing facility, I have been spending time with people who are suffering from homelessness, mental illness and addictions. As I get to know folk at ECS I am learning more about their lives and as I do so it is much easier to see the person within rather than the presenting issue. The more time I spend the deeper each relationship grows and the more I see brothers and sisters in Christ who are struggling with life and their ability to cope.
I find myself challenging myself: when a homeless person or someone battling an illness wanders into the back of the church do I see a person or a cause? If I am being brutally honest, many a time in the past I have seen the issue/cause and not the full human being. If you ask yourself that same question and strip yourself down to full honesty how would you answer the question?
I believe that an important part of my calling is to fulfill a promise that we make whenever we reaffirm the Baptismal Covenant:
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
My field placement is teaching me that I can only fulfill this promise when I walk along side my neighbor and accept them for all that they are. This is the model that Jesus gave us when he called Zacchaeus down from the tree:
He (Jesus) entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” Luke 19:1-10.
Jesus did the unthinkable, he broke the rules in order to be inclusive to all, and to everyone who accepted his call he gives salvation. Jesus called the sinner by name and insisted to stay at his house.
I pray that I continue to learn to look beyond the issue, to see a human instead of a cause. Because an issue or cause is something that we ‘give to’ or ‘solve’. A fellow human is someone who we love and in our love, Christ is manifested.
Next time I am asked if I will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving my neighbor as myself. I hope I can say with conviction
I will with God’s help.
On Tuesday evenings I am spending time at ECS’s ACCORD DUI program. The program strives to reduce the incidence and prevalence of driving under the influence and the negative impact of this behavior on families, residents and the wider community. Last week I sat in two different discussion groups. There are so many different things I could write about but in this post I want to reflect on a comment that one of the staff made to me. At the end of the evening I was talking about my experiences that evening with a small group of the staff. I noted how the clients seemed to fall into three broad categories: those who accepted that their actions led to the DUI; those who accepted the seriousness of the DUI but did not accept, in part or fully, their own role in it (relying on excuses to explain away cause); and finally those who seemed to have not accepted the importance of the DUI itself. One of the staff reminded me that everyone in the program works at their own speed. Some will learn from the program faster, some slower, some will get it whilst they are in the program, some will get it after they have left and some will not get it at all. As I drove home I started to think how we come to expect instant results. Society teaches us to measure our success as a function of time. We live in a McDonald’s world where our expectation is immediate service and anything less is unacceptable.
After getting home I settled down to read some more of Blake Barrow’s book “Stories from the Shelter” (see my last post for more about this book). Chapter thirteen “John” is the story of a resident that came into Blake’s homeless mission, entered into their recovery program for alcoholism and settled into a new life and job at the mission. All was going well until Blake tried to push John a little harder and faster. John was not ready to move at Blake’s pace and ultimately broke his sobriety. In Blake’s own words
Just as I had tried to move John along at my pace instead of his, HUD’s one-step, housing first solution for the homelessness doesn’t fit everyone’s needs. For John, the shelter setting was healthier by far than having his own place…….He went home each day to isolation without any human interaction or supervision, and ten years of sobriety was destroyed in thirty days.
“Just as I had tried to move John along at my pace instead of his” again, even with the best intentions, we can feed the desire for the quick result. We can also see this sense of urgency in the Gospels as well
And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. (Matthew 4:19-21)
It would be easy to conclude that our God is a fully paid up member of the McDonald brigade. The sign of a good Christian/disciple is to instantly follow Jesus. I don’t think that that is the case though. The immediacy of action in Matthew’s calling of the disciples had more to do with demonstrating the awesomeness of Jesus that the disciples immediately felt. Of course it is not only calls to immediate action that we find in Holy Scripture we also find many reminders of patience.
The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
Many of our churches invite the congregation to share in the Holy meal with the words “wherever you are on your journey of faith you are welcome to participate at everything we do at the table”. My own reflections and prayers this week have been that we extend that same invitation to all that we do. God is patient. Whether it is activities in church, working with people attending ECS’s DUI program, walking along side one of our brothers or sisters struggling with homelessness, mental health illness, addiction or their recovery we need to move at God’s pace. And God’s pace will be unique for each and every situation and person. Sometimes we will get that pace right, sometimes we will move to fast and at others too slow.
The lesson of the week for me was to start to learn to read the road signs that God shows us in life so that we know what pace He wants us to go.
My first academic year at the School for Ministry has finished, the final paper written and the last exam completed. I’ve said a sad goodbye to the good folk of St. Timothy’s where I spent my first Spring Field Placement. Now it is time for the summer and that means two hundred hours volunteering with my summer placement agency and for me that is Episcopal Community Services (ECS). Over the next eleven weeks I plan to share, on this blog, my own reflections, stories that touched me and hopefully signs of growth in my emerging ministry skills.
On a Tuesday night I’m going to be with the ACCORD program (ECS’ ACCORD Driving Under the Influence Program (DUIP) strives to reduce the incidence and prevalence of driving under the influence and the negative impact of this behavior on our families, residents and community*). On a Thursday night and Saturday daytime I’m going to be with the Downtown Safe Haven Transitional Housing (DTSH) program (The Safe Havens are transitional housing residences serving mentally ill, chronically homeless single adults in the metro San Diego area**).
To help my own reflection process, I’m also reading “Stories from the Shelter” by Blake W. Barrow. Blake answered the call of God to leave a successful career as a trial lawyer and run the Rescue Mission of El Paso, a Christian shelter for homeless men, women, and children. The book not only tells the stories of the people who call the shelter home but also it chronicles Blake’s own spiritual journey.
In Blake’s second chapter of his book he describes his early day’s as the shelter’s manager. He describes the first time that he had to preach and give a sermon to the residents and visitors. Without any time for preparation he found himself thrust into the pulpit. He reflects on the experience:
I was like the little kid approaching the cold swimming pool and thinking about dipping one toe into the water. Then Pappy came along and just picked me up and threw me directly into the deep end – swim or sink and adjust very quickly to the temperature of the water.
On Thursday night I walked into the Safe Haven house and immediately bumped into ChrisH, another of the postulants who had been there for the past few hours. He took me to the office so that I could introduce myself top the staff. I was told go be with the residents, build relationships. Chris showed me around, we had dinner with everyone and sat through a house meeting. Then it was time for Chris to leave, and suddenly I was alone. I walked into the room where people were sitting and watching TV, sat down and tried to strike up a conversation. It was a bit forced, folk wanted to watch the basketball and not talk to the newbie volunteer. In those first few minutes I discovered that relationship building in that place at that time consisted mainly of sitting and making dumb British comments based on my lack of knowledge of American sports. I noticed a middle aged man, who I later found out was called George** who seemed shy and almost dismissive. The evening continued and I learnt quite a bit about basketball.
During one of the longer commercial breaks most of the residents headed to the garden to smoke, George and I were left. To be honest I can’t even remember how the conversation started but it did. Soon everyone came back for the next installment of the playoffs – Clippers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder, George offered to show me around the garden. The tour was’t too extensive as George sat down as soon as we were outside in the cooler evening air. Then he began to talk, he talked a lot, he described his life, his depression cycles, his past, his hopes for the future, his fears. It just kept coming out. In class we had practiced role playing. Role playing always felt false because getting them started seemed to be so artificial. But here in real life, it was like the start of a role play – this guys life just came out. I hadn’t thought about how I would handle a situation like this. Luckily I didn’t have to do much talking I mainly just listened. I felt truly thrown in at the deep end but it was a hot night and so God had pre-warmed the water. This was ministry in action and I felt, even if slightly uncomfortable, that I was exactly where God wanted me to be.
Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)
I know that my time with ECS will not be just another task that I have to do as part of my formation. It will, and is, a sacred time to be blessed by building relationships with my brothers and sisters in Christ that find themselves with particular challenges in their lives. It is an honor to be given a chance to build those relationships. I’m glad that George threw me in at the deep-end. Maybe next week I will come with my swimming trunks.
** All resident and staff names have been changed.
Sorry for the dramatic headline and picture, but I bet that I got your attention! Fear not, I was not surprised to be told that my Tuberculosis skin test was positive because (1) I knew it would be (2) you did not have to be blind to miss the rather large red reaction to the test (3) I was vaccinated with the BCG vaccine when I was a teenager back in the UK (good job UK NHS for a particularly long lasting vaccine) and so I always test positive on the skin test and come back negative on the chest x-ray.
I had to have the TB test as part of my preparations for working with Episcopal Community Services (ECS) over the summer. When I got to the testing clinic I asked if I could bypass the skin test and go straight to the chest x-ray. I was told “Sorry sir, not possible, you have to take the skin test first”,”but it will come back positive – do you want to see my BCG scar on my arm?”,”no sir, I know you know it will come back positive but we still need to do the test”. This conversation could have gone on for some time but I gave in and accepted the inevitable. One injection and two day’s later I got my chest x-ray and all was good. Talk about slow progress.
I’m learning that ministry can also be a slow process at times as well. In a world where we constantly strive to achieve the next goal, to meet the tough deadline, to prove that we have achieved positive results the work of ministry, lay or ordained, can feel totally opposite to what we are used to. This leads me to think, how do we measure success in our Christian life? Surely it is more than ASA (Average Sunday Attendance), program statistics or even results of a parish survey (although all three of the former can provide very good pointer to how the church as an institution is doing).
I love the passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans (chaper 12, verse 2, NRSV):
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
I also like the same verse but translated in the New Century Version bible:
Do not be shaped by this world; instead be changed within by a new way of thinking. Then you will be able to decide what God wants for you; you will know what is good and pleasing to him and what is perfect.
Do not be shaped by this world, be changed from within.
As I travel down my formation path I am reminded that I must be open to a new way of thinking.
As all Christian’s prepare to enter Jerusalem on Sunday and walk with Jesus in the steps of Holy Week I pray that we are open to a new way of thinking, a new way of discovering what God is calling us to do today.
Sometimes that path with be straight and the journey fast. Sometimes the path will be bendy and the journey slow. Sometimes we may need to do the obvious to spread the Good News. Sometimes we need reminding of what we are sure we already know.
Often, it will be hard to judge how well the journey is going but in the end, if we end up where God wants us to be then a little pain and redness is nothing to get too excited about.