Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Tales From the River #3: Without Hope

How do you give hope when by all appearances there is no reason for it? When to offer hope seems somehow cruel?  I can hear the "pat" answers right now in my head, because many of them were or are mine.

"There's always reason for hope.  You don't know what tomorrow holds."

"Don't quit before the miracle happens."

"God has a plan."

I have a feeling that this is about to get deeper than I want it to go at present, so I'm going to pull it back up a little.  I'm trying to keep these "Tales From the River" short(er).  But ultimately, what do you do when the best, non-fake, most authentic prayer you have to offer with someone is for protection, comfort, and peace in situations, environments, and lives where such prayers answered would border on miraculous?  I'm a big believer in giving thanks in all prayer, but what happens when it seems cruel to do so?  When to give thanks for the day is to give thanks for a day not deserving of thanks in the minds of those you pray with?

Tough questions to be sure and questions I find myself wrestling with far more frequently than I ever dreamed I would.

I got a phone call today as I had just sat down for a staff meeting.  It was from a very good friend who is homeless.  He called with desperation in his voice that I have only ever heard in his voice one other time; a blisteringly hot Sunday afternoon when he called to tell me that he was going to take his life.  (His is a story for another day, Tales From the River #0: Providence)

"Corey, you're the only one that can help."  (You want to send a cold chill down my spine and cause my stomach to sink to my toes; start off a conversation like that.)

"What's going on 'Fred'?"

"There's this guy down here, a really good guy, that says he's going to kill himself.  I don't know what to do and I knew you would.  Can you come down?"

I excused myself from the staff meeting and headed straight "downtown".  On the way, I texted one of the members at Grace who is a police officer, letting him know where I was going, and asking if he could send a squad car if I texted him again.  If the man was truly suicidal, I didn't want him to know that I had called the authorities.  If you spook someone "down there", they can disappear in an instant.  My fear was that if he knew that I had called he would run off and kill himself.  I had prepared the text to send just in case it became necessary.

Upon arrival, I was immediately led to the gentleman.  He was lucid and very matter of fact about things.  He was pleasant, but chillingly calm.  This was a man who had by all appearances come to terms with the hand that he was dealt and surveying the situation determined that it was a losing hand.  In these situations, I think I would much rather see tears and histrionics, than calm.  At least with tears and histrionics, it seems there is usually something to work with.

He shared his story with me, a story which involved drugs, alcohol, arrests, anger issues, and a shattered family.  He had just run out of time at the shelter and was told he no longer would have a bed.

"Pastor, I've been on the streets off and on for a long time.  I'm diabetic, I'm sick, and I just cannot stay out in the cold one more night.  I won't do it.  There is no other way out of this."

"Do you have a plan?"

"I'm going to throw myself in front of the TARC bus."  He was so calm and peaceful; the release that this scenario promised him was real and palpable.

At this point, I have a legal, pastoral, and moral obligation to involve the authorities; I begin to slide my phone out of my pocket to send the prepared text to the police officer.

"I called my brother today to tell him," he continued, staring off in the distance.  I slid my hand off the phone.


"Yeah." He replied solemnly.  This was the first hint of emotion I'd seen from him.  "I told him my situation, that I didn't know what to do and that I planned to kill myself."

"What was his response?"

The man smiled, "Oh, he said that I should call the United Way or the Coalition.  He said short of that, he'd bring me the knife.  I have no one."

He was right.  All the while talking with him, I am literally screaming at God in my head, "Help me!  Give me the words!  Show me what I'm supposed to do!"  As I sat with him, a homeless man with a life of profound pain, I had nothing to offer him.  How do you tell someone in that situation, "It'll get better" and keep any modicum of your integrity?  It won't get better.  The street is unforgiving, it is frightening, and it is far more miserable than most of us can imagine.  He was right...only he was wasn't.

In a moment of what seemed wildly inappropriate levity, I nodded and smiled at our mutual friend sitting just out of ear shot on his walker, picking his nose.

"You know, I know it might not seem like much at the moment, but he cared enough to use his dwindling minutes to call me because he was worried about you.  And I, who don't even know you, I left a meeting and raced down here for a total stranger because if you meant that much to him, then you mean that much to me.  Look man, there's not much I can offer you.  I don't have any resources at my disposal, my church is poor; but I can offer you is friendship.  If you let me get you help, I will do my very best to walk along this path with you and we'll see where it goes.  I will be your friend, it's a start."

His entire countenance changed with those words, "I will be your friend."  Within a few minutes I had him in my vehicle and we were on our way for an emergency psych evaluation.  (The adventure that ensued upon arrival is one of those crazy stories that always seem to spring up around me; but it had nothing to do with my new friend.)


Sometimes there is no clear/clean pay off to stories of life and ministry.  As a matter of fact, I would say that more times than not; there isn't.  However, in this case I think there is; no matter the outcome.  I found myself amazed and humbled at the sheer power of unexpected kindness, empathy, and a hand extended in friendship.  A person in a truly desperate situation, without legitimate reason or cause for hope, found hope simply because he realized that he mattered.  I didn't have to have an answer, I didn't have to lie to him, and I didn't have to put off the inevitable by calling the police the moment that it became clear it was my obligation.  I simply offered the only thing that I knew I could offer and truly mean in that situation; my hand.  It was enough for today and it insured a tomorrow.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Tales From the River #2: The Thief

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!" But the other criminal rebuked him. "Don't you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." Luke 23:39-43

This morning as I came into my office prior to church, I noticed that the answering machine was flashing.  Typically if it is flashing on Sunday morning, it is one of my elderly members letting me know that they won't be able to make it to church.  This wasn't typical.  When the message began to play I instantly recognized the voice.

"Uh yes, Pastor Corey this is "Dismas", I am the one who took the hot dogs without asking and you gave me your card.  I was wanting to know if I could come to church there.  Again, this is "Dismas", the man that took the hot dogs without asking and I would like to come to church.  Please call me."

I immediately called him back and didn't get an answer.  I called later in the afternoon and I didn't get an answer.  I called him again this evening.

"Oh thank God.  Pastor, this is "Dismas", the one who took the hot dogs without asking and I was wanting to come to church to give my testimony and to repent.  You took me in the sanctuary and you prayed with me.  I want to come there, would that be okay?"

"Absolutely; you are welcome here."

We made arrangements to meet tomorrow.

"You forgave me and I love you for it."

"I love you too man."


We have been robbed twice during my tenure.  Twice the thieves were forgiven.  Twice we fed the thieves.  Twice the thieves have reached back out to the church.  Never have they asked us for a thing.  One attends regularly and will chase my vehicle through the neighborhood on his bike (50 something year old man) just to say hi.  The other?  We'll find out tomorrow.

Welcome to Grace.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Tales from the River #1

"Jesus answered, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." John 4:13-14

"There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells."  Psalm 46:4

Building upon yesterday's post, I've decided to chronicle some of the encounters that take place in, around, and through Grace.  These probably won't be especially long posts (after this one), but I want a venue to be able to share.  I keep telling people, "There's something crazy going on here!"  Supernatural, Biblical kind of crazy lol.  No, seriously.  My usual response to these events is, "I have no idea what God is doing; I'm just glad to be along for the ride."  I realized this morning that this is no longer true and probably never was.  I do know what God is doing.  God is being God.  We have flung open our doors and our hearts; crying out, "Come what may!"  We meant it and God has been faithful.

Early on at Grace, I spoke of Grace being a light in the dark, of being a beacon in the darkness.  As things have progressed, as we've pushed the darkness back from our doors, I've found myself speaking and praying more of God pouring from Grace, seeping into the neighborhood, into the city.  Living water.  I can be pretty dense sometimes :)  It's funny how writing the piece yesterday seemed to bring all of this imagery together in my mind and heart.


I'd be lying if I said I don't go to the office on Saturdays.  I try not to, but it happens.  There's no discernible pattern to my appearances; I just show up, if I show up, as needed.  This morning was no different.  I had actually promised my team last night that I would spend today in bed.  I've got herniated discs in my lower back that have had me hobbling around like a really old man the past few days.  However, my wife was scheduled to "shoot" at Keeneland today.  We haven't gotten to see each other much this week and I miss her, so I decided I'd drive her so we could at least have some time together in the car.  While she's at the track, I decided I'd go hang out at my Alma mater and catch up on some work.  However, to do that, I needed to run by Grace before leaving town to get the song list for the bulletins.

We weren't in there more than five minutes and when we came back out, I flung the door open and nearly scared some poor soul to death out in the street.  He stood frozen staring at me, like he wanted to say something, but didn't know how.  I spoke, "How's it going?"  He looked down at my right hand which carried the Bible I nearly wore out at the aforementioned Alma mater.  His eyes instantly moistened.

"I wish I had one of those in my hand." He said quietly.

"You want a Bible?"

He nodded.

"Come with me."

I took him back in the church where I have a small stash for moments such as this and handed him a Bible.  He said nothing, but upon his face was written some sort of deep despair.  A noise caught in his throat as he fought to keep tears in.

"You okay?"


I led him back outside when he began to speak, his voice cracking.

"It's been a rough couple of weeks."  I listened; usually in these situations those words are followed by tales of lost jobs, lost money, drugs, alcohol, etc, which usually precedes a request for financial or material help.  Never do they look me in the eyes; until today.  He looked me square in the eye,  "I lost my family.....my wife.....my kids.  I work every day, but I drink too much.  They couldn't take it anymore.  I need that man in there (nodding at the church); I need my family."  He spoke in little more than a whisper.

I continued to walk with him to the alley, talking with him.  This was not a long encounter.  He turned down the alley and I returned to my vehicle where my wife awaited, as teary eyed as my new friend.

"I couldn't hear what he said, but there was so much pain in his face."

Random, brief, unexpected trip to the church.  Chance encounter with a man walking down the street.....who needed a Bible.....who needed someone to talk to.....who needed to know that someone cared.

Welcome to Grace.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Gone Fishing

"As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. "Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men." At once they left their nets and followed him." Matthew 4:18-20

Growing up on the Mississippi River, I absolutely love fishing; especially river fishing.  Rarely does river fishing prove unfruitful; you almost always catch something.  However, what I really love about river fishing is that if you are fishing with a nightcrawler (everything eats nightcrawlers), you never know what you're going to pull from the muddy waters.  I've caught all manner of catfish, carp, perch, hackleback , bass, walleye, bluegill, crappie, gar, turtles, and even eels.  Sometimes you catch all or most of the above on an active afternoon.  A big chunk of the excitement of this kind of fishing is finally seeing what's at the other end of the line.


Grace/Heathen Church provides such an array of experiences, challenges, and characters.  We truly never know what the next phone call, knock at the door, or conversation on the street will hold...and we certainly never know where these adventures will lead.  We have started to refer to this simply as "river fishing".


I've had a very interesting past couple of weeks in my ministry.  Dealing with drug dealers, addicts, alcoholics, the occasional prostitute, and the depths of the human condition are nothing new in my ministry.  However, there are occasionally events that break from my norm, which is hardly normal to begin with.  Two weeks ago I witnessed a mugging while in the course of doing ministry.  A woman was shoved down and into a busy street while her assailant took off with her belongings.  As she started to rise from the street, screaming, the assailant doubled-back and shoved her down again.  This was in an especially bad part of the city and the assailant rather than running off, just kept walking down the street as if this was the most normal thing in the world.

I followed him in my vehicle while guiding the police via 911 to our location.  It took over twenty minutes for the police to arrive and to apprehend the man.  In that twenty minutes, the man charged my vehicle twice and made some very imaginative, impressive threats.  The 911 operator asked me at one point, "Are you actually talking to him!?"  My response, "Well, he came up to the window."  Each time I spoke to him, I gave him the opportunity to return what he had stolen and I would quit following him.  Needless to say, he didn't take advantage of my offer.


Last week in the darkened basement of the church I encountered a large man attempting to rob us.  Here are the excerpts from Facebook describing the encounter...

"We were robbed at Grace tonight and I came face to face with the robber in a darkened basement; he got way more than he bargained for. He got a heaping, helping of grace, the stuff that he robbed us of, and prayer time with the pastor."

 When asked what he was trying to steal...

"Two large packages of hot dogs from Sam's. He could have taken a whole lot more and this is what he chose. I thought grace was in order."

And finally a little more detail...

"He had quite the story. He started by trying to tell me he went to church there and I played along. He said he came every Sunday and attended church at 1pm in the basement and that he and the pastor were good friends. I asked what the pastor looked like and he said, "A big, fat white guy." And I was all like, "Drats!" And I asked, "Does he look kinda like me?" He replied, "No, much older." When I identified myself, he began to cry (this guy was bigger than me; big dude). I made him clear out the back pack and he pulled out a package of pictures; it was of his home that burned down and of his wife in a nursing home on life support (badly burned). The house is actually on the same block as Grace and burned down in the Spring."

When my wife and I were first married we lived way out in the country and had access to a handful of farm ponds to fish from.  Three of the ponds were out in the open, easy to get to, and heavily fished.  The fish rarely, if ever, bit in those ponds.  However, there was one that was a good distance into a cornfield.  It was hard to get to and if you've ever ventured deeply into a Iowa or Illinois cornfield, you know that it can be very disorienting and dangerous.  This is the pond that we liked to fish.  As quickly as you could cast and reel in, you'd have a nice sized channel catfish, the perfect size for eating.  These fish weren't used to seeing fisherman and they acted as if they were half starving, or perhaps they were just a little more aggressive.  (On an aside, if you threw bucket of dog food on the surface, the whole pond would boil with catfish attacking the surface...very cool to watch.)


I have been accused of being an adrenaline junkie and I can certainly understand why people might think that.  However, I don't think that is accurate.  I don't get a "rush" from from these events and I certainly don't go looking for trouble for the sake of trouble.  In those situations, I'm very calm, which is probably why they haven't gone "bad" yet; and hopefully never do.  I will admit though that part of why I love this appointment so much is that it is never boring and I never have to wonder what to do next even if I rarely ever know how things are going to play out.


A real part of the beauty of this place is that on a daily basis I get to do ministry in contexts that most pastors/churches will never have (or will take) an opportunity to minister in.  We spend so much wondering how to get people to our church without ever, you know, actually stepping outside of our walls to see what is out there.  We keep trying to do ministry in the same old, tired, and consumer driven models; and then we wonder why it doesn't work.  We refuse to go, to walk where the ministry is needed; we don't take the Gospel where it was intended to go.  To take the Gospel where it was intended to go is to invite a lifetime of "river fishing".


I woke up this morning thinking about "river fishing" and the idea of both going where the fish are and where the fish are hungry.  Or in other words, daring to traverse the road less traveled, the places where the Church has little or no real presence in our own backyards. 

My mind then drifted to a picture of fishing in a pristine swimming pool.  Fish cannot survive in the pristine, chemically treated waters of a swimming pool; but swimming pools are safe, clean, comfortable and appealing.  Here's the thing about fishing in swimming pools; you can cast a line with the biggest, fattest, juicest nightcrawler you can find into a pool and all you're going to do is to expedite the death of your bait, as well as bleaching it out.  But goodness, do we ever love fishing in swimming pools in the hopes that a fish will simply appear because of our bait.  We're also really fond of fishing those heavily trafficked ponds with an ever changing array of baits that rarely result in a bite.

The flip side of course is that if you dare to take that same worm through a cornfield to a pond that no one bothers with...

To take the Gospel, to take Jesus; or rather, to follow Jesus where Jesus wants to go, it is an invitation to the stories like the two I shared above.  Doing ministry where ministry needs to be done, in the places that Jesus would have been hanging out, is messy, it is dirty, and yes, at times dangerous.  But above all that, it is wonderful.  
I love river fishing.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Pack the House: Aftermath

Before I get rolling, I just want to offer our most heartfelt thanks to all that came to see what we're about.  It was a great event and we were blessed to be able to share our ministry with so many friends and family.  You guys are amazing!


This is my second attempt at this today.  I wrote a rather lengthy, heartfelt piece earlier, but as I'm learning in my old age; there is a certain beauty and power in leaving some things left unsaid.  God knows.  I'm getting better at letting that be the defining factor in my actions and words; as well at times, of a lack of action and words.  This is actually something that has been on my mind and heart a lot as of late.  I share a lot of what goes on at Grace and Heathen Church.  I think I can say with confidence that it really isn't so much about, "Look at us!" as it is, "Look at what God is doing!"  There is also a desire to share simply because this place makes me so happy.  My calling, who I am, and who I hope to be have been realized in a place few others, if any, would have wanted.  Lastly, I do rather like sharing with distant family and friends what we're doing because I love the interaction that follows.  However, I am growing increasingly weary spiritually of my incessant Facebook updates about Grace, Heathen Church, and the adventures that come along with it.  I will have more to say on this later.

So what does this have to do with this particular piece?  Not much and everything all at once.  I shared it simply to show where my heart and head are at as I write what I am about to share; perhaps more for my benefit than others.  All I know is that I am in a very happy, very content place this morning.  God knows :)

I have seen a lot of bad stuff in churches; it comes with the territory.  We are a broken creation trying to "work out our faith with fear and trembling" in a broken world.  We make mistakes, we hurt people, we make asses of ourselves, and we generally have a tendency to look no different than the world outside that we proclaim needs us so badly.  But in all that, the heartaches, the disappointments, and the shame, I myself have only ever witnessed a single, catastrophic failure of the Church.  

This involved the treatment of a homeless man who dared to enter a sanctuary for worship during the Christmas season.  What I had written this morning was a more detailed account of that, but in the end it just wasn't right.  I feared that it came off as too much of a "look at us as compared to them", which was not what I had intended.  After all, I am a product of that church, so perhaps it is responsible for more than one catastrophic failure or victory, depending upon one's perspective (lol).  Besides victory or defeat, no matter how catastrophic or great, often proves fleeting.  I am also ever aware of that.

All of this to say, last night was a victory and not for the reasons you might expect.  It was wonderful to see so many new faces last night, folks that stepped out in faith and perhaps way outside their comfort zone to "Come and see."  Which is really what last night was about.  Heathen Church has to be experienced to be understood.  By all accounts; mission accomplished.

However, it was something else that put it all into perspective, something unexpected, but not unexpected.  (I seem to be a riddle wrapped inside an enigma today.  Or perhaps just simply contradictory in my contrarian-ness).  I wrote the other day about the metric, the visible indicator that would tell me that Heathen Church and Grace were working; patients becoming caregivers.  And while I continue to stand by and will certainly continue to work towards that standard; today, I think perhaps I was wrong.  It's certainly a part of it, but only a part of something far bigger.  As a matter of fact, I had my paradigm (hate the overuse of that word) entirely flipped.

In a place where people are incessantly asked, "Do you really believe in the things that we proclaim?", I had forgotten that in a faith and a life where we chase the unseen and immeasurable, that it would be the unseen and immeasurable that would define us in the words of a trembling, crying, homeless woman:

"I have never felt so loved."

God wins.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Pack the House #13: What To Expect

I'm going to go ahead and post this one tonight since tomorrow is going to be crazy busy.  Please come and see us.

What to expect at something called "Heathen Church"...

First off, for the uninitiated you can expect the noise of life.  Heathen Church is a noisy place because on average half of our attendance is unattended children.  Let's state that again, in a different way, half of our attendance are kids who show up without parents because they want to be there.  These are kids who come from chaos, who do not know how to be in church, but for whatever reason, they feel a need to be there.  Now, do not misunderstand me, Heathen Church IS NOT CHAOS.  The kids for all intents and purposes are well behaved, but they do come and go, and they do sometimes speak or laugh louder than they should.  But you know what?  I think the noise of our children in worship pleases God far more than the most polished choir.  With that said, do know that we use our Friday Night event to teach the kids how to be in church.  This is a process and we are patient.  We have a sanctuary half filled with children...tell me what church wouldn't love to have what we have.

Secondly, you can expect to be loved.  We are very proud of our "community moment" and you will see why.  We are all about fostering not only community, but especially family.  You will hear me talk about the idea that we are truly all in this together; you will see why.  This isn't church as usual.

Thirdly, you can expect to encounter a community that wants to believe so badly in what we are doing.  They've been hurt, their lives are tough, they've seen and heard it all...and they are beginning to believe.  But it is not just belief in us (which is vital in our context), but they are beginning to believe that there really is something more to God, Church, faith, and this freedom we're always harping on.  We are a church that is truly beginning to model what it means to live what we believe.

Fourthly (is that a word???),  you will be challenged.  We are all about edification and lifting up, but this place has a very real tendency to confront your faith and what it means to be a Christ follower.  Tonight will be no different. 

Fifthly (almost positive that isn't a word), you will find a team that has completely sold out for the Kingdom.  These are hard working people, sacrificing their time, resources, and at times I'm sure, their sanity to be the hands and feet of Christ.  Our leadership team represents five different churches, across two denominations, with four clergy.  The work that these folks put into this and our people is truly amazing.  You will find sacrificial love in motion.

Sixthly (this is getting out of hand), if you have not been here before you can expect to have your expectations challenged.  I've never heard anyone say, "Exactly what I expected."  You'll see.

Seventhly (I just can't help myself at this point) and lastly, this one is up to you.  Come expecting to encounter the risen Christ.  We don't pay lip service to these high ideals we have a tendency to spout in Church all the time; it truly is our identity and lifeblood.  If we don't live it; we fail.  Come expecting to encounter Christ; you won't be disappointed.

Come and see.

Pack the House #12: How Do You Know If It's Succeeding?

The analogy of a church as a hospital has been one that has stuck with me for a long time.  I actually wrote about it six years ago, predating seminary (Hospital).  I think sometimes that analogy gets used and abused to create the idea that the hospital is about housing and collecting the sick, rather than fulfilling the true purpose of a hospital; healing and restoration.  Come as you are, but there is no way you can stay as you are.  We expect healing and restoration that leads to a far different life.

I was asked some time ago in a meeting, "How will you know if it's succeeding?"  It was one of those moments where I hadn't really thought about it, but the answer just kind of fell out of my mouth,  And it was good, real good.  Sometimes I get lucky like that :)

"Success is when the patients become caregivers."  Boom.  Drop the mic.  Walk out.

My dislike of being caught without an answer (lol) led to something off the cuff that was accidentally good, but that also really identified who we have been striving to become at Heathen Church.  Maybe it was a God thing because goodness, I'm rarely that eloquent.

Grace and Heathen Church could collapse in the coming weeks or months and I don't think anyone could or would try to take away the crazy successes of that place.  We could stop today and still feel pretty good about things.  God has done things through our little motley crew that no one would have thought possible including myself.  We've fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the thief, the addict, the drunk, and the dealer.  We've stood in the divide, often, where few would dare to go.  We've baptized and we've heard professions of faith.  Yesterday I wrote that by the world's metrics we were a "losing proposition".  By Church and Kingdom Metrics (you know the ones where we succeed in not confusing world metrics and church metrics), we have been a rousing success.  But it feels incomplete, as if we are really just getting started.  We have reclaimed and restored the building for ministry.  We have opened the doors.  We have put together a small, but awesome rag-tag bunch with a real heart for this type of ministry.

But success?  The type that we're seeking, the type that we are working towards?  We're beginning to see it.  We've seen the lives of some pretty hard cases among the children transformed, they are beginning to help others.  We've seen folks strive to make their lives better, staying away from drugs, alcohol, and crime.  We've seen folks get jobs where previously they had been homeless.  These are wonderful things to be sure, but...

We want to see disciples that make disciples for Jesus Christ.  We want to see indigenous leadership on the team (we're getting so close!).  We want to see people set on fire, who truly know what it means to have been freed by the Gospel, who were received in love; we want to see them unleashed on the world.  I want to see the pastor disappear quietly into the background.  We want to see the promise of the Church, the authentic Church, realized.  Sound hyperbolic?  Too good to be true?  Come and see.  It's happening.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Pack the House #11: An Embarrassment of Riches

It is a struggle sometimes to keep the lights on.  This winter I will spend far more time working from home and on the street than I will in my church because we cannot afford to heat my office.  We operate on a tattered and worn shoestring budget.  Only half of my salary is paid by the church, the rest comes from the District, while my insurance and retirement (I don't intend to ever retire) are provided by another church.  I worry about what happens in less than two years when District funding runs out for this appointment.  Our church is growing exponentially with those that WE ALL CLAIM to have a heart for, but they are not the type that can "support" a church.

By all of the metrics of the world, we are a losing proposition.  This is not a place or a work that any sane pastor would desire; it is hard, the hours are long, it is at times dangerous, it is not glamorous, and it is not the type of place that is a considered "a good career move."  This place will break your heart, it sticks with you, and it seems to make your phone ring incessantly at the most inopportune times.  Days off are moving targets and tend to be short bursts of quiet...and I honestly could not happier, more fulfilled, or more content.

We get to love people and children who have forgotten or have never known what it means to be loved.  We get to see firsthand the power of that love and the power of God to transform lives; it happens right before your eyes.  We are free to live out our faith in authentic, transformative ways that are organic and natural; the Gospel comes to life because it is who we are.  How many churches get to say that!?!?  It is amazing what God will do when you simply throw open your doors and you receive whoever comes.

We don't have programs or fancy facilities to offer.  We simply have God to offer and it is working; imagine that.  We never have to wonder what to do next; we simply show up.  As a church, as a Christ follower, I can think of nothing greater or more comforting.  We are indeed the most fortunate church I know; swimming in an embarrassment of riches.

Being a former Marine, there is a quote by Ronald Reagan that I absolutely love...

“Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference in the world. But, the Marines don't have that problem."

I have taken it to phrasing it a different way at Heathen Church and Grace...

“Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference in the world. But, at Grace, we don't have that problem."

We aren't necessarily looking for new members, we aren't interested in "sheep stealing"; what we are desperately trying to do is to foster ministry partners and to provide churches and individuals the opportunity to live out their faith; to share in our riches.  Come and see.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Pack the House #10: Transition

I left things in a place yesterday that I hope compelled some to consider their faith, their relationship with God, and whether or not such things are where you'd like them to be.  The passage yesterday is challenging and if we're being honest with ourselves in light of it, we really ought to be wrestling with such questions, individually and collectively as the Church.

There is another passage that deals with judgment that we have used as a means to define a transition from our identity in Matthew 9:9-13 and Mark 2:13-17 to moving ourselves as well as those we serve into a life of discipleship, and into a life of encountering God on a daily basis.  Don't let that last part slip past you, ENCOUNTERING GOD ON A DAILY BASIS.  I said yesterday that I didn't have an authoritative take Matthew 7: 21-23, but that we had some good ideas in addressing it that we were confident with.  I also listed the things that those crying out to the Lord claimed to have done in His name, "prophesying, casting out demons, and performing miracles," and that I myself have done none of the above.  Despite that, there is this passage that we have or are working to embrace wholeheartedly (Matthew 25:31-46).  It is the working out and living out of our faith...

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' "The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.' "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,  I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' "They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'  "He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'  "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

Prophesying?  Casting out demons?  Performing miracles?  Not this week.  Literally feeding, watering, inviting, clothing, visiting the sick, the prisoner....the widow, the orphan, the destitute, the drunk, the drugged, the abused...that is a near daily occurrence here.  Before most of you had your mid morning coffee yesterday, almost all of these things were done.  When is the last time you have been able to say this?  And I'm not talking about writing a check to a charitable cause, but rather getting your hands dirty with "the least of these".  This is what Jesus is using as His measuring stick at judgment in this passage.  As a matter of fact, I would argue that the fulfillment of the Greatest Commandment can be found in living this out.

Do I tell you these things to boast?  Absolutely not, but rather to illustrate that we have hit on something pretty spectacular and special here.  We have found a place where you can come and live out your faith, a place where it is the norm for the served and server to be transformed.  Our faith is not a once a week thing, occasionally lived out in short bursts beyond Sunday morning; this is a place where the rubber meets the road; it is our identity.  We aren't necessarily looking for new members (although we'd certainly take you lol), but rather folks to share in these opportunities with us.  We want to share our embarrassment of riches.  We have seen it time and time again...people come here to serve others and they in turn are the ones that are served.

You want to see God?  To experience God?  Do you want Jesus to proclaim on the day of your judgement, "I know you, we've spent a lot of time together."?  You will truly find Him in the least among us, whether it is here or elsewhere. This is a lesson that I have had to learn, of learning to truly take God at His word, that if you want to hang out with Him, your best, most reliable bet is to find Him with the people He likes to hang out with.  Strange concept, huh?  We tend to find God amongst those who need Him the most.  If His followers want to find Him, well, He's already told us where He'll be.  It is a lesson that I am truly thankful and joyous to have learned.  

We truly are one of the most fortunate Churches you will ever see.

Tomorrow I will tell you why :)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Pack the House #9: What Keeps Me Up at Night

I've kind of wrestled with the title of this one; as if there is just one thing. (lol)  Now don’t get me wrong, I'm not some poor, abused soul trapped in a never ending crush of heartbreak and heartache that leave me sleep deprived; it's not like that at all.  I love what I'm doing and I love where we're at, I am completely energized by it despite heartbreak and heartache being a significant part of it.  But theologically speaking, even professionally speaking (On an aside, I'm REALLY beginning to question the very concept of "professional ministry") there are numerous passages in scripture that influence who I am and how I lead; they shape who we are as a church.  

However, there are a handful that seem to float to the top, one in particular is the impetus for this piece, which in turn leads directly into tomorrow's piece.  It is a passage that I think fueled, in part, a lot of the "discomfort" and spiritual restlessness I wrote about earlier in this series; that sense that there just had to be something more to this "faith" and "church" thing.  It is a passage that has cost me sleep.

It was also a passage that came to the forefront in seminary during a conversation with a friend about nominal Christianity, where we both came to the chilling and heartbreaking conclusion that perhaps the Body of Christ is not as big as we think that it is.  This caused me to wonder, if that is the case, then what responsibilities do those not only in the pulpits, but also those who call on the name of Christ bear?

The passage comes as Jesus is wrapping up the Sermon on Mount (Matthew 7); He is talking about the narrow and wide gates, true and false prophets, and then He comes to true and false disciples:

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

A few points about this passage.  The first is the very idea that not everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will enter the kingdom of Heaven; that alone ought to grab hold of us all.  But isn't that in essence the rule of contemporary Christendom?  "Just call on the name of Geee-zus!"  We've collectively sold people a bill of goods wrapped simply in reciting the "sinners prayer" and we leave them entirely undiscipled and alone with the idea that they have somehow come to the "end" of religion, they have conquered, their “prize” awaits in the great beyond.  But here's the thing...the people that Jesus is speaking of are calling out His name because they BELIEVE that they know Him.

But it doesn't end there.  Not only do they believe they know the Lord and call out His name, but they are also doing some pretty remarkable things in His name; prophesying, driving out demons, and performing MANY miracles.  You know, I know the week is only half over, and, well, as I look back over the week…..I haven't done any of those things; and these folks have!  Jesus’ response to this?  Harsh.  Very harsh.  What hope is there for any of us!?

They don't understand what’s going on and my heart breaks for them.  How terrifying a thought to  come confidently to judgment only to be denied.  As a pastor, as a Christ follower, I NEVER want my flock, my friends, and my family to endure such a thing.  With that said, I'm not going to claim a complete, authoritative understanding of it either, but I think we’ve got a pretty good idea.  It is what ultimately allows me to sleep.  As a matter of fact, it influences everything that we do, are, and aim to be at Heathen Church.  As a church, we are not comfortable with leaving your salvation to chance.  Once again, not that we have all the answers…goodness.   However, we are confident in the answers and understanding we do have.

More to come tomorrow…

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Pack the House #8: What is a Miracle?

Before we get rolling today, I want to make something very clear.  I don't like hyperbole, especially when it comes to faith and church.  It can be dishonest, damaging, and frankly at least just a little bit icky.  I post a lot on Facebook about Heathen Church and Grace UMC, but I'm always very mindful not to make more or less of what is going on down there.  I also have made it a practice not to share everything that happens; there are some things that are just too sacred for social media (more on this later; it's already written).

Yesterday I invoked a word that I am very protective of (more on that some other time; which is not written lol) and a word that by its very nature can reek of hyperbole; that word is "miracle".  We have this crazy tendency to dismiss or to overlook the miraculous that happens right under our nose.  We go looking for the seas to be parted, for columns of smoke and fire, of multitudes fed with an impossibly miniscule amount, and the dead being raised.  The flip side is that we also have a tendency to attribute the word to all manner of things that are hardly miraculous.

With this in mind, let me ask you to consider a few points.  Has there ever been a time in your life where you felt unloved, unwanted, and entirely isolated?  Have you ever prayed for a relationship to be restored that you thought irrevocably broken?  Have you ever dared to hope when there was absolutely no good reason for it to exist?  Have you been without?  Have you and or your children ever sat in the dark?  Without heat?  Or water?

Now let me ask to consider some other scenarios...

A little church left for dead in a bad neighborhood has served over 5000 meals to underprivileged children and hungry adults in a little over a year.

A man generally viewed as a "worthless parasite" (how I've heard him described) did not die alone and unknown on a 100 degree afternoon in a city park from suicide because someone dared to love him and found him valuable enough to abandon a church service for.

Children find abundant food, love, patience, and yes, candy.  (My office features a wall of candy lol)

Jobs are found for the desperate and hopeless.

Utilities are restored for families in dire need.

Children, youth, and adults are changing their lives and being transformed in an environment where these things frankly shouldn't happen.  It's too counter-cultural.

Within mere minutes of posting to Facebook that a family was in dire need, my phone exploded with pledges of financial support and clothes from all over the country.

Lives, families, and a community are being redeemed, reconciled, and restored.

Love, mercy, and grace are beginning to reign where they shouldn't.

Miraculous?  In the truest sense of the word; no.  All of these things are easily explained.  To those on the receiving end of such things?  Different story altogether.  Come and see.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Pack the House #7...Faith, Hearing, and Seeing

Heathen Church has been an exercise in a lot of things for the team; endurance, perseverance, patience, courage, fearlessness, love, and faith.  Of those it is faith that I want to talk about right now.  Faith is a really wonderful thing to talk about in Christian and secular circles alike.

“You gotta have faith.”

“I have faith.”

We throw around stuff like that in church all of the time and my question to “stuff” like that, more times than not is, “What does that even mean?”

I think more times than not we simply treat having "faith" as the epitome of the pie in the sky, it’s gonna work out for the best, eternal optimist statement.  Faith at Heathen Church isn’t just about “hoping for the best”, but rather trust in survival, that by taking this crazy leap of faith we’re going to be caught…or at least picked up off the pavement when we fall.  We are striving to share in God's desire for all to realize His saving grace; not just those that we choose.

There are so many examples in scripture of leaps of faith, as well as actions and ideals contrary to the social and religious norms.  I mean goodness folks, Jesus was far more contrarian than we often give Him credit for.  So many examples not only in scripture, but in history involved radical leaps of faith, of going against the grain when the norms were no longer cutting it.  I think about God and the risk that He took by sending His son to die for creatures that might not ever even accept or acknowledge the sacrifice.  I also think of the desperation, the weight of such a sacrifice.  God must have REALLY wanted a relationship with us to sacrifice for our mistakes.

And yet, we keep trying newer and newer tactics to halt the exodus from Church or to draw new people, while drifting ever farther away from the very basic, central tenets of our faith.  God wants the sinners/heathens.  Jesus hung out with them, broke bread with them, and even called them to serve alongside Him.  If we trim all of the fluff, the programs, and handwringing away, we’re left with a pretty simple, basic, and most important of all, effective road map to this thing called Church.  In so many ways Heathen Church is considered outside the box, brazen, edgy, misguided, and maybe even dangerous.  And yet what we are doing there is Biblical and life transforming.  Let me rephrase that; Heathen Church is in essence considered all of those things for effectively and simply being the Church.  We as a team have wrestled often with changing the name, I myself wrestle with it constantly (you have no idea), and yet I keep discerning this simple sentiment, “It’s not yours to change.”  Fair enough.  Besides, if I renamed it, “Happy Action Fuzzy Hug Prayer and Song Hour”, I might make the Big “C” Church happy, but we’d be empty.  If only people would come and see.


I’ve already exceeded my self imposed word count for these pieces, but bear with me for just a bit longer.  Jesus spoke an awful lot about having eyes to see, ears to hear, and then still refusing to use those very basic abilities.  I certainly recognize that if Jesus faced such issues, then we are bound to face them at an exponential level; and I also know that what we are doing isn't "for everybody"...even though we are in fact for everybody.  Despite everything that has gone on at Heathen Church (baptisms, 50+ new professions of faith, measurable and visible life changes, half of the attendance being made up of unattended children, etc.) I still hear, "Is that even Christian?" when people learn what we call ourselves.

I have a friend that I have a great deal of respect for, that I spent a year with in a pastoral leadership group of sorts.  This year included the birthing, building, and launching of Heathen Church, so obviously I spoke of and explained Heathen Church often.  Sometime after the group had completed the prescribed time together, I got a message from him that he was going to bring his young adult group to Heathen Church.

After the service ended and the sanctuary had cleared for dinner, he came up to me somewhat wide eyed.  What he had to say gave me a lot of hope and validation, but it also perfectly illustrated our challenge.

“Corey, I’ve heard you talk about this for a year, but having seen it, now I get it.  I get it, I understand what you guys are doing, and I love it.”

Another friend from that group came a few weeks later and instantly became one of our biggest supporters and cheerleaders.  As a matter of fact, he and his church will be providing the food for "Pack the House" this weekend.

So why keep trying, especially in this format?  Why attempt something like "Pack the House" when it has great potential for disappointment?  We believe in what we're doing and we also believe that something is happening at 900 Denmark St. that is incredibly unique and powerful.  It sounds so clich├ęd to say, "If we just get one…"  But here's the thing.  This place has the tendency to catch the wettest wood on fire; it has the ability to open eyes and ears.  If we have to build this with one person who catches fire at a time; I like our chances.

I don't know who the next person is who will "get it", who will catch fire, but we're going to keep on telling the world what is going on, we're going to keep rolling out the welcome mat, and we're going to keep on being faithful in the hopes that “one more person will come and see.”  Heathen Church is growing rapidly, but we're not done.  There is more ministry to be done, there are more lives to impact, partnerships to be formed, and miracles to be witnessed.  Come and see.