"Wow, great butt" I thought. I wasn't watching people, I was getting out of my car. And there in an Applebee's parking lot was a half an un-smoked cigarette on dry pavement. My second thought followed quickly. "Why am I noticing cigarette butts?"
Lots of Worcester Fellowship folk smoke. Not all of them, and likely not the majority. But lots do. And cigarettes are expensive. So people "borrow" cigarettes, make their own cigarettes, share boxes of cigarettes, and, if necessary, smoke the last bit of butts found unfinished on the ground.
I know, I know, smoking is bad for you. In fact to hear many speak of it, smoking is a sin. But I know many people, housed, relatively healthy, look just like you and I, who smoke so that they will not drink, or smoke so they will not do drugs. I know people who have severe anxiety and find that smoking focuses them.
I know, I know, smoking will take days off your life. The average, I've heard, is three days, but of course for the folk who get cancer of their mouth, lungs, esophagus, etc., it will likely take them in their prime: at forty or fifty or sixty.
But I gotta say this: addictions can kill you. Addictions like alcohol and street drugs also control your life before they get to the killing part. They keep you in trouble, in poverty, in pain, unable to think clearly, and unable to change your ways. They are like chains holding you in place. Nicotine is, of course, an addiction, but its chain is much smaller. And nicotine focuses your thoughts, allowing a person to stick with their aim to stay sober, to stay clean, to stay non-violent, to stay employed.
I write this story with my third cup of coffee in my hand.
(I didn't pick up the cigarette butt. No matter my views; I don't think I can hand out cigarettes at church.)
From Oct. 28th, 2011 | 04:36 pm
We have a challenge with our lunch line: one of our rules is no cutting. That seems straightforward, but it is not. People arrive at noon, line up at 12:45, and lunch begins at 1pm. After you have gone once through the line you are permitted through a second time.
So people who arrive at 1:10 or 1:20 must to go to the end of the line. And ahead of you are people who already have lunch; they are holding a bag and it has food in it. And you don't have food, and you want to go to the head of the line, because you didn't get lunch yet. But we don't allow cutting.
There are people who can't wait in line. People who have disabilities for sure, using a cane, or with dizziness or some sort of challenge. And people who can't stand still and can't wait in lines and can't follow rules. They hang out visiting with folk and then we say the prayer and the line starts moving, and they move to the friend "where their friend was holding their place". But we don't allow cutting.
I'd guess that half the people we speak to about cutting the line simply follow the rule and go to the back of the line. The other half leave in frustration that we are totally unfair. And so I found myself Sunday checking out what was happening when a man said “hey, you can't cut”.
I came over and stood, looking up at a very tall Hispanic man who was extremely angry saying very forcefully "you cannot cut the line".
And the man said, "I haven't eaten yet."
And I said, "There is plenty, but you have to go to the end of the line."
"Well then I won't eat" he harumphed and stomped away.
One of the others ahead of him was a regular at our lunch, and was angry that the man would even CONSIDER cutting, so he needed to say that, too, hollering at the guy as he left:
"Why the f** do you always cut the line?" and "Why can't you go to the end of the line?"
And so the man came back to the line and started screaming back "I'll go anywhere I d*&$ well please" and "why don't you mind your own business?"
And so now I am standing between two tall men saying in my most grown up, deep, calm, and forceful voice: "Stop fighting and do not cut the line." Repeat eight times.
And the line continues forward, without my cutting man. And the very tall Hispanic man behind this whole scene, the one who first said "hey, you can't cut", that one, right there, with the white shirt and blue stripes, he takes a lunch bag without a word, and heads back to the end of the line, stopping for just barely a second to hand his entire lunch to the guy who had cut and was now sulking on the benches.
He goes through the line again, and gets a second lunch, this one for himself. Without a word.
Matthew 4:23-25 (from Worcester Fellowship Bible study September 2011)
"Jesus went through out Galilee teaching in synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them. Large crowds form Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him."
I opened with this question: "Today we have many friends with mental illness, people who are deaf or "paralytic" (in that they cannot walk). We know they are people of great faith. But why this says that Jesus was "healing and very disease and sickness among the people".
What does this healing thing meant to us today?"
John was eager to reply. For him healing is about all the bad choices he has made. It is about learning that he is not a bad person, but he has made bad decisions. Healing and forgiveness are very similar. I asked a few questions and he decided that healing can be the very movement from being a person who believes "I am a bad person" and becoming a person who believes "I have made bad choices". Once you move to "I have made bad choices" then you become someone who can make different choices and thus can do better, be better, make a change. You are healed in that change.
Alison described how she has cried and cried and cried, and she has come to see that those tears that pour out of her are healing her, cleansing her, washing away the pain of her life. She sees crying as healing.
"How is that related to Jesus?" I ask.
"I don't know. Jesus is living water?" She looks at me to see if that is the answer I was looking for. I don't know what I was looking for, but her answer blew me away.
"Wow". I paused. "I think the only words I would take out of that answer is the ‘I don't know’ part. It sounds like you really know the healing of Living water".
Max is a big white guy with grey and black hair cut short, almost no neck, and a big bushy eyebrows. When you look at him he looks back with very deep dark eyes. He has told the story two or three times today, about how, this morning, at indoor church, he accepted Jesus. And how it was incredibly painful, he thought that he would have a heart attack or that his heart would explode. He had been thinking about it for several weeks, but this week he just went and did it and he was shaking from head to foot. He had been pretty sick, he tells me, just a few weeks ago, his mind was not right and his addictions were really hurting him. But he went to the hospital, and then to CHL, and his insurance was used up for physical treatment, so he had to get mental treatment instead, but that was better now, and he is working on the addictions.
Healing for him is accepting Jesus and how that hurt so much, but is going to help him to fight these addictions. How last week he stayed sober for almost a whole week, but then he drank on the weekend, but now he is sober again and he is going to keep trying, although he doesn't understand what makes it like it is just fine, he can keep it up and then all of the sudden his body wants to drink again and he can't stop and he does. But right now he is sober and working on staying sober and that his healing.
"So healing might hurt sometimes?"
"It felt like I was going to burst, that my heart would fall right out of my chest"
Sam talked about how lonely he feels when he is by himself and how he begins to think that he doesn’t have any friends and the world is against him and then he found a group of people and they don't talk to him so he doesn't feel better, in fact he feels even more like he doesn't know anyone. So he started saying "hello" to people under his breath, so it wouldn't hurt so much when they don't reply, because, you know they aren't ignoring him, it is just because they didn't hear him. And so he says hello here and there, very quietly, under his breath.
And this guy turns and says back to him "hello"
And Sam says how did you hear me?
And the guy says "you feel like no on in the world can hear you, don't you?"
And that was a miracle because Steve did feel that way, and this guy heard him and he got to know this guy.
And healing is when your friends say hello, and when you see your friends, and healing is when you make a new friend just by saying hello, really quietly, under your breath.
And the ideas continued. Sometimes you don't really get healed. Or maybe you get healed a little bit, but the hurt doesn't go away. Maybe it is because God wants you to keep working on that issue. Or maybe it is that you need to go deeper, that you haven't really found out what is wrong, or what is the underlying problem. So you are a little healed, but not completely. And then you figure out the next part and you work on that and you are a little more healed. Like it is little tiny steps to be healed, not just one big thing.
(From September 2009)
Andrew has died. I don't know him, except to say hi, and to ask how he is. I met him most clearly after he was pushed at the shelter a few months ago. He broke his wrist, and had a broken nose, and some internal bleeding that kept him in intensive care for a about a week. Georgeanne pointed him out to me: "that's Andrew" when he arrived at church, and I went over to meet him.
He remembered me, so clearly he had been to church before. He was cheery and friendly; he easily to let the fact that I didn't remember his name slide. An altogether pleasant man; he joked about the wrist, and about the bandage, and expressed how pleased he was to be alive.
This is one of those hard things about getting to know folk at Worcester Fellowship. What we see on Sunday, in the crowd of lunch and worship, and even in bible study; what we meet the first two or three or eight times we talk to someone, is, just like for you and me, a very superficial part of their person. It is a real part of them, for sure, this cheery, confident, hopeful self, but it is not their full story.
And indeed, I know from Georgeanne that Andrew was not fully pleased to be alive, and, while he was rather amazed by the way people had come to take care of him, to check on him, and the many more who asked about him, he didn't really get that this was honest caring. In intensive care, his body was right on that line between life and death. And then he had turned the corner and was back with us, with a cast and bandages and bruises and an outwardly cheery demeanor. He expressed thanks, and did well for a few weeks, but that other part of him, that shadowed, deep, lonely, and fearful part of him quickly took over.
Anyone who met him, on the street, or at lunch, or just hanging out in the park, met the cheery, obviously well-adjusted guy. He shared that he was alcoholic, and that he was depressed, but all in a "don't worry, I'm going to beat this" way.
One of the challenges of our ministry is that the visitors mostly meet the cheery exterior of our parishioners, mostly hear about the successful days sober, and the alleluia about a new apartment, and the thanks for a great relationship. Or maybe that is a strength of our ministry, that visitors see that there is hope, and that they can be part of that hope.
There is hope. Struggling people find pleasure, and calm, and serenity in the fact that they can share their shadow side with us, and still be loved. I don't know if they all believe that God loves them, but many do believe that WE believe that God loves them. And they have a better hour, and sometimes a better day, or a better few days, when they have had the opportunity to be their well-adjusted, cheery selves with someone who cares about them. And they have a better hour, and sometimes a better day, or a better few days, when they have an opportunity to share their at-the-end-of-their-rope part of themselves, and have us sit with that, acknowledge it.
It helps that we believe that what they share is true, that we don't downplay it, or ask that they return to the cheery outward part of themselves. We let the whole person exist, and suggest that the whole person, the up-one and the down-one, too, is loved by God.
Andrew gave up and died about a month later. I didn't know the depth of longing and shadow within Andrew, but Georgeanne did, and I know she sat with him in those down places. I know Worcester Fellowship made a difference in Andrew's life. I know that Georgeanne made a difference by accepting Andrew's down side as a real part of him. I know that I made a difference by accepting his cheery upside as a real part of him.
As is the case with every one of our parishioners that have died, I wish, more than anything, that we could have done more. But I know, too, that we did something, and that doing something, in love, matters.
(From March 2008)
I'm praying for Serena. I miss her when she doesn't stop by for Church.
Serena is among the most helpful of our volunteers. She will hand out bulletins or read one of the readings, she preaches during our open sermon, and prays during prayers of the people, she makes sure everyone gets a sandwich before she takes extra, and looks for gloves for people who don't have them.
Serena and her husband have housing: a rented room in one of Worcester's walk-up apartments. They've been homeless in the past and pray for people who are homeless every week.
A middle aged hispanic woman, her husband looks on adoringly as she goes on and on about how well she is doing staying sober this time. Serena tells us about her collection of figurines, about her job, about the church she attends Sunday mornings, about what she is reading, about her roommates, and who she talked to yesterday, and the day before. She takes one of everything we offer, and returns the favor by bringing us gifts--tracts and pamphlets from other churches, crosses, greeting cards, pens and the advertising tokens. In the year we have known her, Serena has gotten sober 4 or 5 times, the last time for almost 3 months.
Early on she only came to church if she was sober. She'd miss a week and then explain the next that she had had a little problem. We always respond: you are always welcome, no matter what. She smiles, and misses church again two weeks later.
Serena prays for sobriety, for a recovery program that will take someone with mental illness, for something to do at night when her brain is racing, for a re-connection with her 20 year old daughter. She gives praise for a landlord who lets her do chores for pay, for a good afternoon singing, for how wonderful her daughter is, and her husband, and for the leaders of Worcester Fellowship. She preaches on the how wonderful Jesus is, and comes each week with new news about learning to read the bible.
A few weeks ago I met her before worship. She was hollering words I couldn't understand.
"What is it?" I finally interjected in a way she could hear me.
"The police", she sobbed, "they are after me. They just keep threatening me." She could barely stand up and her breath was strong with alcohol.
I hugged her as she sobbed. "They took my husband. He's no good. They took him and now I'm homeless. Can you believe it? I'm homeless and the police want me."
"I'm heading up to worship, come on up."
"I'm drinking. I can't."
"You are always welcome at worship, Serena."
She continued non-stop until we got up the table, already set-up for worship. She turned to share her story with another frequent participant, and I turned to help Bill practice his reading. When worship started, I looked around and once again, she was gone.
Last Sunday Serena came to worship late, disheveled, and drunk. I came around and hugged her, and she sobbed.
"I'm glad you came," I tell her. "You are always welcome here, even when you are drinking."
She cries some more.
But she was there. She was there at worship. I'm praying for Serena.