Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Mentor is Mentored

Today, I team mentored a couple of boys from our neighborhood -- boys we've baptized at Oaks.

I had a teaching task ahead of me today -- these kids, a few times, have barged in and out of the Eucharist, interrupted everyone else's worship, and demanded communion. So the mentoring goal today was to teach them that worship is about honoring God and being fed by Word and Sacrament -- not just about the bread and wine isolated from everything else.

I began by saying, "You guys are baptized. Why did you get baptized?" I steeled myself to hear, "So we can drink the wine" -- a common initial motivation for the kids who request baptism.

Instead, their responses humbled me. "To have God live in me." "To follow Jesus."

Then I asked them to describe what we do in worship. Their answers: Pray. Eat the bread and wine. Sing praise to Jesus (here they sang a spontaneous medley of about five worship songs we do, including the Sanctus). Hear the Bible stories.

And did they know the Bible story about the bread and wine? They did -- it's about when Jesus was about to die. "It's Jesus' blood, the wine." "The bread is his body." And they pulled out our comic book Bibles and opened right to the story of the crucifixion. We talked about what it meant to remember him. And the point I wanted to make? It was made.

But my little brothers in Christ taught me today. I learned another lesson in perseverance.

Discouragement is a constant temptation in the ministry at Oaks. We work very hard, and we don't often see what the Lord is doing in the hearts of our people. It is tempting to think we're not making a difference. But the Lord condescends to my weak faith, and he sometimes gives me a morning like this morning -- to show me he's done more in the hearts of these two boys than I could ask or imagine.

Who but God can say what's he's done in the hearts of his people?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Is Jesus glorified when we only seem to be making burritos?

Sometimes, Oaks Cafe is nearly empty. We'll have five adult volunteers hanging out with two kids. But those times are getting more and more rare.

Yesterday afternoon, we had the opposite scenario. A couple of adult volunteers and 45 people (mostly kids) coming through our little building in a 2 1/2 hour period.

It was pandemonium. Little kids racing around and playing with toys. Teens congregated on the window sills, playfully trash talking and flirting and occasionally picking a real fight. A cluster of kids around a table with coloring books. And a roving army of kids of all ages, following us around and firing off questions: Why isn't my burrito done yet? Where's my brownie? Why won't you move jobs back to Friday instead of Wednesday? Why isn't there a hip hop concert tonight? Why haven't you put out more apples yet? Can I play the guitar?

And so on.

On days like this, I feel like a mish-mash of a cop, a day care worker and a short order cook. One moment I'm in the back, mixing more burrito filling together. The next, I'm getting someone a glass of water or saying, "Please watch your language" or wedging myself onto the window sill in between the teens to keep a small riot from breaking out. Some of the time, in my better moments, I'm quietly praying under my breath.

And I'll admit, I find myself asking: Why am I doing this again? Is Jesus visible in the middle of this madness? Where is the gospel being seen or heard in this place?

Yesterday, a teen who isn't in much answered this question for me. She shook her head and said, "How on earth do you do this? I couldn't. These kids are rude. They never say please or thank you."

And I said, with all my heart, "Only by the grace of God."

She said, "I guess. You gotta know Jesus to be able to do this."

And there it was. Jesus getting the glory, in the middle of the crazy. Doesn't that make an entire day worth it? And weren't there other moments -- little stolen moments when I managed to pat a kid on the shoulder, call them by name, ask how their day was?

And then there was the 5-minute prayer service at the end of the day, when 8 of us stayed behind to sing and hear a Bible story on Jesus searching for the 1 sheep in 99.

"He would look for the 1," one of the kids said with confidence. "He counts all of them to make sure he doesn't lose any, and he looks for any that get lost."

That he does.

Saturday, November 9, 2013


Every teenager has moments of being a twerp, right? When they repeat every word you say in a mocking tone. Or say, "Can I have a dollar?" exactly 587 times. Or giggle because you're so uncool. (Can't say I blame them for that last one).

We have a small army of preteen and teen boys who cycle in and out of twerpitude. And in our less patient moments, we have to remind ourselves -- God is crazy in love with this twerp. Jesus died for these twerps.

So last Sunday, Hannah and I were beginning to worship. I'd just finished praying the Collect for Purity, and a big group of these boys come cantering into the Cafe, looking ornery. Hannah reflexively launched into a rousing guitar setting of the Te Deum, and we both sang our hearts out.

And something crazy happened. The boys got quiet, and they sat down. At the end of the song, improbably, they clapped.

I invited them to worship with us. And they did -- all of them! They listened intently to Hannah's sermon on Zacchaeus "the snitch" and thief, now redeemed by Jesus' kindness and his repentance. And you could see a new realization in their faces -- "I could be redeemed. I could be a saint like this short little snitch became a saint. I have a choice."

At the communion invitation, a few of the boys loudly proclaimed they'd been baptized and that they wanted the bread and wine. I paused, then explained what the Sacrament means. Taking Jesus' living presence inside of you. Living a totally new life for him -- and dying to the old one. The boys looked serious, whispered, and then admitted they weren't ready to receive. They had something I've never seen in their faces before -- reverence for the holy.

To top it off, after communion the boys began asking questions about God. For 15 minutes. What's heaven like? What about hell? Is it true the devil used to be an angel? A lady once told me I was going to hell because I'm Muslim -- is that true? And so forth. It was astounding.

We ate dinner afterward with the boys, trash talking each other's NFL teams and generally bantering. And when they left, Hannah and I looked at one another in amazement and gratitude.

The Lord did it again -- overwhelming us with doing miraculous work in the hearts of the people around us. And he was good enough to let a couple of twerpy priests see him do it.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Reflections from the Defendant's Chair

Today, I accompanied one of my parishioners to court for an eviction hearing. Wore full black clericals and my collar and Franciscan crucifix. Got lots of stares.

My parishioner wasn't especially upset about going to court. She wanted to be evicted -- in the dizzying world of social services, she said eviction is one of the most effective methods to bring about a move to a different part of town that isn't an emergency. She went to court today quite willing to meet her landlord's request to get out -- she just asked to stay where she was for two weeks.

For her and her three kids, two weeks would make the difference between moving straight into her new place or moving temporarily into a shelter. She wanted to spare her kids that. So did I, so I went with her.

The landlord, who eyed me somewhat nervously, seemed like a decent guy who had no problems helping my parishioner out. He simply wanted legal backing to protect himself in case she stuck around past her grace period. I can't blame him.

Sitting in court today, watching case after case go before a straight-shooting, wise-cracking judge, several things occurred to me:

First, most of the folks sitting in the defendants' chairs were black, and most of the folks in the plaintiffs' chairs were white. At least half of those white people were attorneys.

Second, it was clear from the way the cases proceeded that some of the tenants were taking advantage of their landlords. In other cases, it seemed likely the landlords were allowing their tenants to live in lousy conditions. Some landlords extended a great deal of grace. Some wanted their tenants tossed out by the city marshal asap.

Third, as I anticipated sitting beside my parishioner in a defendant's chair, it occurred to me that I didn't want to. I even felt scared and embarrassed to sit there, although neither my comfort nor my good name were at stake. Why? Because the defendant's chair had a strong aura of guilt and powerlessness. And, I didn't want to sit in a seat with no power.

Fourth, I noticed, in a different way than I ever have, that my collar gave me a weird kind of power. The landlord was intimidated by me. The judge greeted me. People stared at me. And, my parishioner assured me, my silent presence helped make it possible for her kids to avoid the homeless shelter.

So, when the case was called, I marched my pious-looking self over to the seat with no power. And I thought, "This is the seat you deserved years ago, Christina. You drove drunk so many times in the past. You deserve the worst this seat can throw at you, and sheer mercy saved you."

And then I thought about Jesus. Sitting in the defendant's seat. Sitting in the seat with no power. Taking the worst it could throw at him.

The judge greeted me. "What church are you with, Reverend?"

"Jesus' church, sir."

"Well, yes. Which one?"

"The Episcopal Church, sir."

"One of many."

"Yes, your honor."

The thing a priest can't escape is -- no matter where we go -- we represent the church. And today, I got to represent the church by sitting in the seat with no power, and that was used for good. That gives me joy and satisfaction.

But -- more than anything -- sitting in that seat today made me love Jesus more.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

"I'm scared to have God inside me"

Last Sunday as I read from Colossians, one of our Baptismal candidates (a 9-year-old boy) sidled up to Hannah and whispered that he might not get baptized that afternoon after all.

After some questions from Hannah, he admitted, "I'm scared to have God inside me."

So, he got it. Hannah explained that's not a bad thing.

On July 28, two kids died with Christ in the waters of the Hudson River, just a block and a half from Oaks Cafe, and arose to new life as children of the Father Almighty, filled with the Holy Spirit.

One of them, the boy, has been passionately drawn to the person and story of Jesus ever since I introduced them back in 2011 in Ingalls Park (see blog entry:

The other new child of God, a girl, has dozens of questions and a hunger to learn. During the Baptismal vows, in response to the question, "Do you promise to follow and obey (Jesus) as your Lord?", she smiled with a quiet peace beyond her years and said, "I promise."

Now these two young people belong forever to Jesus. But Sunday's baptisms did more than that. Here are two things we witnessed:

1. The Baptisms exposed and confronted a hatred between families.

Ironically, the family of one of the baptismal candidates has a strong dislike of the other family. Let's just say the word "dirty" was being thrown around as everyone sat down for worship. So, we bluntly told the offenders that they'd be asked to leave for the day if they couldn't keep their mouths shut.

And then, there was Hannah's sermon. She pointed out that Baptism is death -- death with Jesus in the waters, death to our sins -- and rising to life with Jesus and freedom. And it's adoption -- to be God's sons and daughters. And that means....

"You," she said, pointing at the boy, "and you," she said, pointing at the girl, "are going to be brother and sister."

There was a small uproar of protest. And Hannah continued, firmly, to insist upon this truth. When the kids pointed to a family member we'd baptized months back, Hannah smiled a little impishy and said, "Oh, he's already part of the family."

2. The Baptisms are a sign that God is making all things new in our city.

When Hannah and I first came to Troy, we walked around and prayed a lot. During our walks, we happened by the Hudson River and the little gravel beach littered with broken beer bottles and scraps of clothing.

We sat by the water and sang worship songs to God. We asked him to cleanse the beach spiritually of things that had gone before. We touched the water and asked him to cleanse it. We asked God to make it holy. And we prayed and believed that, one day, we'd baptize someone on that beach.

And we waited.

During Easter Vigil 2012, a group of about 20 Christians from different denominations marched to that same beach. We renewed our baptismal vows. We felt the spray of water from the river, flung by an aspergillum. We remembered our own baptisms.

And we waited.

The wait is over. We have seen, yet again, God bring his promises to pass.

And we wait. There is more to come.

Monday, July 8, 2013

God Answers Prayer

Yes, I know. God answers prayer. You would think that I should have caught on to this little fact by now. But sometimes you just forget, in the general persevering of life, that when you ask for a miracle, you get one.

There is a kid (one of the first kids we met down there a few years ago) who is very, very angry. In the past year, a lot of things have happened in his life to make him even more angry and very hardened. Very grown up and business-like. With a shell around him that seems rather like a petrified dinosaur egg. I've been praying for this kid, trying to get through to him however I can, but he is just resistant to anything having to do with God. And yet, he is hurting so badly, and God is the only one who can help.

Christina said something on Wednesday that made me pray for him differently. (It really had very little to do with the matter at hand, but that is irrelevant.) Thursday, Friday, and Saturday I prayed that God would remove whatever spiritual components or interference was keeping him from seeking Jesus, or hearing about Him. Just three days of brief prayers when I thought of it.

Saturday, he sits down across the counter from me and starts talking about how all he can see playing over and over in his head was the night his dad was arrested. It never stops.

I told him, "You may not like what I'm going to say, but God can help you with that. But you need to ask him for help."

He put his professional face on and said, "Thanks very much for your advice."

I sorta grinned at him and replied, "Meaning, you're not planning on taking it at all."

Noncommittal grunt.

Ten minutes later..."Pastor Hannah, would you baptize me?"

Pastor Hannah: "Whhaaa? .....Do you know what being baptized means?"


"Okay. It means that you're going to follow Jesus, and you're adopted into God's family. You also have to do a bunch of classes so you can learn about who Jesus is and what all that means."


"Why do you want to be baptized?"

"I would do anything to not feel like this. That might help."

That was one of the miracles for the day. God cracking the hardened shell on a very needy little boy. Now I'm asking you all to join in my prayers for a miracle. Pray that he follows through and that he meets Jesus and that nothing will get in the way of that. Pray that he finds the Prince of Peace.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Holy Week at Oaks 2013, Part 1: Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday

Note: We have a backlog of stories from Oaks of Righteousness that we wanted to share with you. This story is from a couple of months ago.

The Lord met our people during Holy Week this year. On each day, we watched him reach out to different people in different ways. Here are the highlights:

Palm Sunday: For those of you not accustomed to liturgical worship, this service can give you whiplash. It goes from joyful singing and palm branch waving to the bloody horror of the cross.

We began our worship with the blessing of palm fronds and a rowdy rendition of "Blessed is He who Comes in the Name of the Lord" that included ukulele, an African drum, an Peruvian drum box, and miniature tamborines, wood blocks and a triangle. And frantic palm-waving.

Then, we flipped our white stoles to red, and the story of Jesus' suffering began. One of the most wonderful things about ministering at Oaks is seeing many of our people hear the great story of the Bible for the first time. The kids sat, remarkably silent, and heard details of our Lord's sacrifice. It was, simply put, holy.

Maundy Thursday: Our plan -- which seemed a bit ambitious -- was to do a Christian Seder Dinner, followed by Eucharist with foot washing and stripping of the altar.

To be honest, we didn't have high hopes that anyone would come to either dinner or worship. We had commitments from no one, though we mentioned it to several folks. So we baked chicken and bought grape juice and matzo and asked God to send who He pleased.

The time came, and our little Passover table suddenly filled to capacity. Out of nowhere, a dozen kids showed up and crowded around the table -- kids who don't normally get along. We solemnly warned them that dinner would be long, and they had to stay for the whole thing. They stayed.

And? They LOVED it. The four cups. The hand washing. The different foods and symbols associated with each. Especially memorable was the stampede of grossed-out kids who bolted for the bathroom to spit out horseradish.

"Why would you make us eat that?" one of the boys asked, his face contorting in disgust.

"Because slavery tastes bad." It was obvious he agreed.

I'm also guessing most Christian Haggadahs don't include the afikomen being hidden in a foosball table. It wasn't traditional or even dignified. But we watched the Lord bring a group of kids who curse and punch one another on the playground to one table. And they tasted his story of liberation from slavery -- the slavery of Egypt, and the slavery of sin.

When the meal ended, there was another stampede out the door. Suddenly, Hannah and I were sitting there at an empty and catastrophically messy table. After a moment of savoring the silence, we stood up. It was time for worship.

No one returned for the Maundy Thursday service. And both of us commented afterward, that seemed to be the Lord's doing. It was a gift of himself, to us. A time of holy intimacy. And we felt him in the foot washing. Heard him in the Word. Took his name upon our lips in the Taize music. Tasted him in the bread and cup. And felt our hearts ache and burn as we stripped the glory and beauty of the altar away.

It was all love. And, a great preparation for the days to come.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Doing Life Together

Today, I taught a 7-year-old that Mary is Jesus' mom and that God is Jesus' dad.

We sat on tall stools in the Cafe on either side of the long counter, doodling stick figures of all the characters in the story. We drew an impressive winged Gabriel and a smiling, bearded Joseph. We drew a family tree with lots of arrows pointed from "God the Father" to "God the Holy Spirit," across to "Mary" and down to "Jesus, Son of God."

And the bottom of the page were the words, "Jesus is God. Jesus is Human." By the end of the doodling session, this 7-year-old could explain why both statements about Jesus were true.

On the other side of the room, another adult discipler, Joe, was telling an age-appropriate version of the story of King David's affair with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah. He was using a Manga comic rendering of the story. The kid he was mentoring agreed the murder was "messed up."

Afterward? We went to the mall, ate soft pretzels, looked at video games and talked to the mannequins inside Old Navy. Then we took the kids home, dropping them off with a simple prayer for their protection and blessing.

We usually call this "mentoring" at Oaks. Two adults, two kids. Christian teaching along with doing life together -- going to the mall, planting flowers, playing Frisbee, baking cupcakes, looking at a waterfall, doing a Dunkin Donuts run.

We have seven kids in mentoring partnerships now, and 17 are on our waiting list for mentors. And although the kids don't understand this, we're not mentoring. We're discipling.

Of all the things our Risen Lord is working through at Oaks -- wonderfully and invisibly -- I often wonder how he's using these times of doing life together to establish eternity in the lives of these children.

One day, we'll know.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

What's the point of being here?

Note: We have a backlog of stories from Oaks of Righteousness that we wanted to share with you. This story is from a couple of months ago.

Why did God call us to North Troy? What's he doing at Oaks? Is he doing anything?

All of the volunteers at Oaks Cafe reach a point where we begin to ask questions like these. We wonder if telling the kids in the Cafe "no" roughly every two minutes does anything for their spiritual lives. We recoil at the names people call one another and the celebration of violence. And we begin to wonder -- in our more cynical moments -- if all we're doing at Oaks is handing out brownies.

Months ago, I was asking God these questions in a rather angry tone. I was about to do a Bible study with Hannah, a few of our girls, and kids from another church. But when we arrived at the other church, no one was there. They'd canceled and hadn't told us.

So we decided to have the Bible study anyway with the people we had. Angry at being forgotten by the hosting church, I went out to my car to get my Bible and took the opportunity to fume at God. I asked whether any of my work had made any difference. Looking back, it seems I'd gotten it into my head that "my work" was what mattered instead of the transformative work God was doing, steadily and invisibly, in the hearts around me.

At any rate, I went back inside. We sat in a circle and Hannah gave the girls a challenge: tell us a Bible story, and then we'll tell you a story. And then it happened.

The girls told three stories. One described Jesus' crucifixion. The other described Jesus calming the storm and feeding the thousands. And, I knew where they'd heard those stories -- they'd learned them from me and from Hannah.

Tears filled my eyes, and I knew God was gently answering my angry diatribe. He was showing me that the kids really don't know anything about the Scriptures, and they won't know unless someone tells them. They won't know about a powerful, beautiful, joy-filled, holy God unless someone tells them.

Then it was our turn to tell a story. I'd thought of telling about Jesus raising Lazarus from death, but I felt strongly I was supposed to tell the story of him forgiving the woman caught in adultery. I told the story. The girls listened. Then it was Hannah's turn.

"What story are you going to tell?" I asked.

"The story you just told," she replied.

So there was the Holy Spirit again. Guiding us, steadily and humbly, right down to our story choice. Apparently, of all stories in the entire Bible, that was the story the girls needed to hear. The Lord put it in both my and Hannah's minds just to make sure we got it right.

Is God doing anything? More than I can see. More than I can ask or imagine. Apart from him, I can do nothing. And with him, nothing is impossible.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Prayer Does Stuff

Last Sunday, I spent about an hour praying outside Oaks Cafe for the neighborhood. A few of the local boys were bored, so they hung out with me. They talked to me about scary movies. Then, as I continued to pray silently, they talked to one another about sports. At one point, I turned to one of the kids and asked, "You know why I pray?"


"Because it actually does stuff. If it didn't, I wouldn't waste my time."

That's the Bible answer, right? God actually listens to us when we talk to him -- divine-human communication being the first thing that happens in prayer. Abiding in the divine presence through Jesus' intercession. That's the first flabbergasting miracle.

But there's even more to prayer than that. Sometimes, God tells you to pray stuff and you can't really see much happening. On Sunday, I felt called to walk around North Troy for another hour. My mission: to softly say Jeremiah 29:11-13 over and over and over again as I walked to prophetically speak the heavenly reality of God's agenda into the place he's redeeming.

I know that probably sounds pretty weird to some of you. And I didn't see anything dramatic happen with my eyes. Just tried to be obedient because being obedient is never a waste of time. It's a way to show the Lord I love him.

Then, other times, you pray and you see God do stuff.

Yesterday was one of those days. I went on a prayer walk -- a stroll around the neighborhood, praying however I felt the Holy Spirit led me. I ended up beside an apartment where I heard a horrible, profanity-peppered screaming fight taking place. I stood there and prayed softly in my prayer language (because I wasn't sure how to pray). After perhaps five minutes, the screaming gave way to civil tones.

Then I heard someone say, "Excuse me. Are you waiting for someone?" It was a woman peering down at me from the second floor of the apartment building. I told her I was praying for the neighborhood and that I'd move on shortly.

"Could you pray for me?" she asked. "I've been through a lot."

I said I would. She gave me her name and said she was grieving the death of a friend -- that very day was the 5-year anniversary of the death. She smiled at me.

"Having you show up here today to pray is a real blessing," she said.

"I guess God's looking out for you," I said and smiled back.

Sometimes I see it. Sometimes I don't. But prayer does stuff.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Small Explosions of Beauty and Flame

"Do you want to see Jesus' crown of thorns? Come with me. I'll show you."

The kid asking this question isn't the most pious of our crew -- rarely wants to read Bible stories or pray. So, I was curious as to what he wanted to show us.

He lead a group of people outside the Cafe, turned right, and walked to the neighborhood park. He pointed to the fence. The top of it was laced with barbed wire. Jesus' crown of thorns, hidden in plain sight in North Central Troy.

Jesus' transfiguration was in a mountaintop blaze of glory, but his transfiguration of our hearts often seems visible only in a flash -- like lighting a match. If you look away at the right moment, you could miss it. If you're looking at the right moment, it is a small explosion of beauty and flame.

Last week, we were playing some baseball. One of our kids suddenly bounced onto his knees and dropped his head low. Then he looked up at me and half-asked, half-declared, "This is how God prays."

I thought for a moment, then remembered he'd watched a film version of Jesus' passion on Good Friday with us. "You mean the way Jesus prayed in the garden?" I asked. He nodded, looking at me with an indulgent expression that said, "Well, obviously."

Somehow, in the middle of the chaos of the ministry going on at Oaks, Jesus is becoming a reality in our peoples' lives. They are beginning to see Him in everyday things, amid the yelling and dog crap on the sidewalk and blowing potato chip bags and broken beer bottles and cop cars screaming past. They're seeing Jesus. They're thinking of Jesus.

The other day, a kid was being careless and hit one of our volunteers in the mouth -- not enough to draw blood, but enough to really hurt.

Now, full stop. The norm when you hit an adult: you run away. Why? The adult could scream at you. The adult could hit you. The adult may tell your parents, who could scream at you or hit you.

Instead, the kid immediately and sincerely said, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry." And the adult, being a Christian, chided the boy for being careless and then forgave him.

Don't look away, because this is a moment of beauty and flame. Because a boy who hurt someone didn't run. He's been around enough to know he can ask for forgiveness. And, it was granted.

Lord Jesus, only you can light these fires of transfiguration that I can see beginning to burn around me. May the grow ever brighter with your glory -- the Pascal glory of life coming out of death. Alleluia.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Prodigal update

A week ago, we asked you to pray for the young fella who broke our window at the Cafe -- that he'd own up to what he'd done and accept our forgiveness and invitation to get ice cream (see "The True Prodigal Son" entry below for more details).

Wanted to report back on the Lord's wonderful answer to your prayers. On Saturday, Hannah and I had a great talk with the young man in question. He owned up to what he'd done, we reconciled, and we shook hands.

On Sunday, we went out for pizza and ice cream with him and another one of his friends. We had a good chat -- just got to know one another better. The boys talked about typical stuff a lot of the time ... sports matches they've won or lost, gross-out injury stories, video games they've played, what girls are nice and/or cute.

And, they talked about shootings. One of the boys saw the body of a cousin immediately after he'd been shot to death over a rap video war on youtube. The other boy's father survived being shot nine times and killed his attackers in self-defense.

This violence is part of the fabric of our peoples' lives. In many ways, these kids understand the uncertainty and danger faced by people in much of the world better than I do -- including the uncertainty and danger that the people of God faced in Biblical times, throughout church history, and now. May the gospel of Christ speak into their lives as blazingly and hopefully today as it always has.

"O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom: Defend us, your humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in your defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The True Prodigal Son

This is a version of a sermon that I preached on Sunday. It draws heavily on something that happened at Oaks the previous week.

For those of you who don't know, I'm a missionary priest in Troy. We work in the inner city, mostly with children, in a pretty rough neighborhood. A lot of the ministry is done out of a diner that we reopened as a cafe and ministry center.

Last Friday, a group of boys got rowdy and very profane. They were throwing around racist and vulgar language, and a few of them began fighting in the street outside. My colleague, Mother Hannah, told the kids they weren't allowed in for the rest of the day.

To retaliate, they began throwing big chunks of ice at our windows, and one of them cracked. This is the same window we'd shelled out maybe $100 to fix very recently (it had a bullet hole in it previously, leftover from before we'd taken over the building).

Well, I was angry. I put on my big black coat and marched to the boys' parents' house, having two goals in mind. First, I was going to tell the exactly what their kids had done. Second, I was hoping to talk them into paying for part of the window replacement. Their mom wasn't home, so I left a note for her to call me.

So, here's the question: was there a problem with what I did? Wasn't I within my rights? Didn't I need to teach those boys that there are consequences for their actions? Don't I have a responsibility to be a good steward of the money entrusted to this ministry? Can I just let them walk all over me?

That night and the next day, I prayed about what to do. And I heard the Lord say this, "Christina, do you care about that window and your hurt pride, or do you care more about those boys?"

Because the boys live in the world of reaping what you sow. But, our Father doesn't play by those rules. His rules aren't fair. They're Kingdom rules -- overflowing with grace and mercy.

So the Lord told me, "Child, find a way to seek after those boys, not your own desire for payback." And Mother Hannah and I talked, and we figured out a way to approach the situation. We'll tell the boys next time we see them, "Whichever one of you who broke the window has to admit that you did it." (Because denial of wrongdoing -- absolute, unwavering denial despite the evidence -- is the norm in our community). "Until you admit what you did, you will not be allowed in the Cafe. And the moment you admit what you did, you'll be allowed back inside and completely forgiven -- not reparations or recriminations. In other words, your punishment lasts as long as you say it does. There's one condition of your being allowed back in -- you have to come out for ice cream with Mother Hannah and I so we can get to know you better."

So first, I'd ask that you pray for those kids and for that conversation, that they'd taste grace.

Secondly, why have I told all of you this story? It may be obvious that I was meditating on the gospel reading of the Prodigal Son as I was figuring out how to handle that pastorally. This gospel story is one of the most beloved in Scripture -- a moving account of the younger son falling away and his restoration by his gracious, loving father. I've heard a lot of commentators in recent years say this should be called the parable of the Gracious Father because it's all about him, and that's certainly true.

But here's the thing -- we all want to be the younger son in this story. And we are, in truth. We have all fallen away, and we need to feel our Father's embrace.

But despite what we want, I think we are more often the older son. That's us. Because who's the true prodigal by the end of this story? The older son -- standing in the dark, angry, refusing to enter into the celebration of his brother's new life.

And this is the good kid. The church kid. The kid who never did anything wrong. Who played by the rules.

That's who I was on Friday. I was just looking for what was due to me. But, that's not how the Father works.

And this begs the question: how often do good church people miss a chance -- as they're looking for something good and right that's due them -- to stop and say, "Father, what would you have me do? Can I set aside the broken window or whatever is fixating me and see a chance to pour your kingdom grace into a broken life?"

How many tax collectors and sinners to we put in second place behind our own agendas?

I've compiled a list of people I've heard Christians criticize over the years. This list is not exhaustive: black people, Roman Catholics, gay rights parade marchers, Tea Party members, environmentalists, atheists, Mormons, Jews, the media, Muslims, welfare moms, gun owners, drug addicts, politicians, conservatives, Mexicans and sex offenders.

Which of these people would Jesus refuse to sit and eat with? Which of these does the Father not look down the road for, long for, day after day?

The world should look at Christians and say, "Those Christians? They're crazy. They'll love anyone. They'll speak to anyone. They'll pray for anyone." We should be known for brave, reckless, extravagant love.

Do they say these things about us? They do not. And I'm not suggesting we compromise holiness or the truth revealed in Scripture. But, why do they not know we're Christians by our love?

I think we've failed. But this is Lent, a season of repentance, of turning toward new life.

And what will God do to us for our failure? He'll look into our eyes, with infinite love, and say, "Child, come inside. Rejoice with us."

St. Francis of Assisi tells a story that was important in his walk with the Lord. He used to hate lepers. Hated how they smelled. Hated how they looked. And God began to work on his heart and work on his heart. And, one day, he embraced and kissed a leper -- just as the Father embraced the younger son. And Francis found it was Jesus who he embraced.

What shall we do? Let us embrace the lepers in our lives, whoever they are.

And, when we come in from the fields doing what we hope is the Father's will, let us stop. Because the Father isn't in the house. He's outside, on the edge of the fields, gazing down the road. Let's stop, and stand by his side, and try to look where he's looking. Let's ask him, "Father, give me more of your heart to love and better eyes to see."

And let's watch with him and pray until every one of our brothers and sisters comes home.

In the name of God: the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

"A Crown of Beauty"

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair...."

So many girls and women in our culture struggle with beauty. They measure their worth according to the world's standards, and they find themselves lacking. They begin to get a warped picture of themselves, seeing internal and external ugliness instead of the glory and beauty God has given them.

And I'm no exception. I've struggled to see beauty in myself, physically, mentally and spiritually. Jesus has done a great deal of healing in me in this area, and I know he will do more.

Some time back, I hit a wall when it came to ministering in Troy. I thought of Isaiah 61 -- the Scripture God used to call Hannah and I to this city (and part of which is quoted above). And I said, "Lord, this Scripture speaks of you restoring hope and beauty to your people. And I don't have hope for my future. I don't believe I have any beauty. How can you use a person like me to do your work in this city? Why have you called a despairing, broken woman to be your priest in this despairing, broken city? I'm just like Troy."

And then Jesus began to heal me. And give me hope for the future. And place a crown of beauty upon my head.

So I was right. I had nothing -- absolutely nothing -- to offer my people here. But Jesus is healing me. And, he will heal my city.

I look in the faces of the girls and women, the boys and men, as they walk the trash-strewn sidewalks. And I know they cannot see their God-created beauty. They don't know yet, but their days of ashes, mourning and despair are coming to an end.

A crown of beauty awaits them.

Thursday, February 21, 2013


Things are rough in North Troy. For several months, I have been pondering and praying about how to be a peacemaker in the constant fighting and chaos. Yesterday, I saw it. It was beautiful.

First of all, there is Boy 1 who we've been working with for close to a year now. He had anger management problems, demon problems, family craziness - you name it, he had it. A week and a half ago, I baptized this kid. It was a beautiful, miraculous thing. And he changed.

So, phase two of working with this kid is: how to love your neighbor and live like Jesus wants us to. He's not so sure about this bit. In his baptismal vows, this was the question that he answered, "Well, sometimes. Okay, yeah." But I think that yesterday, he had a taste of how that can be really good. He had an experience of peace instead of the war he expected.

He messes with other kids. He starts things, he insults people; he's a fighter. So Boy 2 is a new boy in the cafe recently, who is really sweet; his mother is a pastor somewhere. Incidentally she is also REALLY tall. She makes Christina look like a midget. I didn't know that Boy 1 had been messing with the new kid - I was busy stopping riots on the other side of the room and I can only assume that he was swearing at him or something. I didn't know anything about it until Boy 2 and his mother and a whole posse of other people came in. She is imposing, and everything went dead quiet. She asked who had been fighting with her boy. Boy 1 suddenly disappeared into the bathroom.

The room was full of Boy 1's cousins and siblings who immediately all started yelling about how Boy 2 had sworn at Boy 1 and he started it. His mom very firmly told them all that she didn't raise her son that way and that she is a pastor. Realizing that this tactic wasn't going to work, Boy 1's family turned on him, started yelling at him, and tried to drag him out to meet his doom - not unlike a lynch mob.

The way things work in our neighborhood is: if you mess with a kid enough to get his mother involved, it's BAD. She will chew you up one side and down the other, make sure you get whupped, and possibly get your mother involved, where you'll get it again. Or the mothers will go at it. I don't blame Boy 1 for hiding in the bathroom. Seems like appropriate personal safety protocol to me. However, this woman was just trying to teach her son about reconciliation - making peace while sticking up for him.

I made Boy 1 come out of the bathroom and he hid behind the little partition we have in front of the bathrooms. I told him over and over, "She's not mad. She just wants to talk to you." Finally, when Christina came over and said exactly what I had said, he agreed to a private meeting in the kitchen. So the four of us went back in the kitchen. Boy 2's mother told him she wasn't going to do anything to him and gave them both a little talk about how things happen, and we can agree to disagree and be civil to one another even if we're mad at each other.

Then she told her son to shake hands with Boy 1. I have never seen anyone so taken aback as Boy 1. It was an absolutely beautiful moment. He shook hands, and I suggested that he apologize to Boy 2 for their "misunderstanding." Without hesitation or irony (which is definitely a first), he said, "Sorry." And so did Boy 2.

I think he understood grace.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"Have patience with me, and I will pay you."

Note: We have a backlog of stories from Oaks of Righteousness that we wanted to share with you. This story is from a couple of months ago.

Friday nights in Advent took a turn for the crazy at Oaks. A rowdy group of boys began visiting. Their signature behavior included bullying girls and little kids, using profanity and vulgar language and throwing food around.

Eventually, we had to ask them to leave. They responded by going nuts. First they ran inside repeatedly and flicked the lights off. Next, they banged loudly on the windows. Finally, they began jumping up and down on parked cars. So, we called the cops. I saw one of the kids -- a 10-year-old -- on my trusty 2001 Honda Civic. He was standing on the roof and swinging around a tree branch like Conan the Barbarian.

Anyway, my hood was dented in. I prayed that night about how to reconcile with this kid when he came into Oaks the next day. He was often very hungry.

The morning before going in, the Lord convicted me of some heart issues. I was deeply humbled by the ugliness of my sin, and I was moved to repent and receive his forgiveness. And, through that, I knew how to talk to little Conan that afternoon.

When he came in, I explained I'd seen him on my car, and he'd damaged it. He looked utterly panicked. Then, I told him I wasn't going to press charges, but I needed to tell him why.

And I told the parable of the unforgiving servant from Matthew 18 -- the guy who owed a crippling debt and was forgiven by his merciful king. How that same guy failed to extend that mercy to a guy who owed him a comparative pittance. How the king heard of his cruelty and demanded payment of the debt after all.

So I told this kid I'm the guy who owes a crippling debt. I've done horrible things in my life, and Jesus is my king. He's forgiven it all. And if I don't forgive a little minor vandalism to my car, I am a very poor servant of my king, whom I love and serve and who commanded me to forgive.

This kid just stared at me. I wonder if he'd ever experienced grace before that. But I'd seen that look before at Oaks, and I will see it again.

It's the look of someone who, for an instant, tastes the Kingdom of Heaven.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Accept our repentance, Lord.

Today, we ask your prayers for our people.

Last week, a 21-year-old man named Takim Smith was stabbed to death in Troy. We know his mother and little sisters, and we also know the family of one of the suspects.

As we remember our own sinfulness and mortality this Ash Wednesday -- while trusting the mercy and love of God -- let us plead for that grace to be poured out in the lives of those who grieve.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The one who humbles himself will be exalted

"But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’" -- Luke 18:13

We did Bible study last week with a friend who used to -- as recently as last winter -- live on the streets in Troy. He gets 16 dollars each month for food, so he spends the rest of his time looking for odd jobs and collecting cans to try to get some extra money to eat. When I see men and woman walking in the bitter cold and fishing through our recycling bins, I cannot help but think of the poor who gleaned the fields.

This friend admitted he doesn't pray for himself anymore. He prays for young people because he says there's hope for them -- their lives are ahead of them. He doesn't pretend to have many answers. He said that he doesn't know a lot about God ("I never met him"), but he knows Jesus -- the savior, the crucified one, the carpenter who worked with his hands.

I listened to my friend, who has lived in terrible cold and heat, who wants very little, and who has experienced great kindness and great cruelty from many people in many places. And I couldn't help but wonder -- with my seminary degree and my gifts, with my comfortable house and full refrigerator, am I perhaps not still the poorer? Don't I sometimes slide into the smug lie that trusts that I'm righteous?

Lord Jesus, who knew terrible cold and heat, who wanted little, and who experienced great kindness and great cruelty from many people in many places...give me just a fragment of the simple faith of your servant in Troy. And Lord, meet him where he needs you most. Amen.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Troy's Hidden Woman of Prayer

Note: We have a backlog of stories from Oaks of Righteousness that we wanted to share with you. This story is from a couple of months ago.

I feel like my life is becoming a collection of "crazy God stories." This is certainly one of them.

This story falls into the category of a "God gives us what we need" story. When we first opened Oaks Cafe, we collected a lot of these. For instance, we wanted a foosball table. We prayed, "God, if this isn't too dumb of a request, could you give us a foosball table for the Cafe so the kids can play?" Within two days, we had two offers of foosball tables from two sources who knew nothing about what we'd prayed.

All that to say, God keeps giving us what we need. So, getting on to the main story....

Hannah and I decided it was time for me to implement the missionary strategy of walking around our neighborhood, talking to people, praying for them, and basically acting like their pastor until they accept me as such. (It works better than you might think). Troy has some rough parts, and we discussed who might be a good person to walk with me in those areas. We both thought of a warm, no-nonsense friend of ours who's done street ministry for years and decided to ask her when we had a chance.

The next day -- as I was getting ready to make my rounds -- this friend spontaneously showed up to help out. Figuring God was giving us who we needed for the day, she and I set out for the rough neighborhood.

As we journeyed along, we encountered a middle-aged woman with a sweet face who was picking up cans to trade in for cash. We walked over to talk to her and realized she only spoke French (not a language one normally expects to encounter in Troy).

I don't speak French. But my friend, it turns out, used French years ago and was able to talk a little with  this woman. A smile spread across our new friend's face as she heard her native language. She said her name is Rosalee, she is from the Ivory Coast, and she is Catholic. As she'd been walking and picking up cans, she was "Praying to God."

All this to say two things:

First is that my God is the father of orphans, the defender of widows, and the lover of immigrants and outcasts. In his incredible love for Rosalee, my Lord set up a dizzying set of circumstances so that she'd encounter two sisters in Christ in a foreign -- and probably often unkind -- land. And for just a few moments, she'd hear words of love and kinship in her own tongue.

Second is that my God allowed me the humble honor of meeting one of Troy's hidden women of prayer, who speaks to the lover of her soul and mine -- hidden in plain sight.

Lord Jesus, you said, "For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light." Lord, how beautiful is just a glimpse of what you have hidden in this world! Give us hunger for the wonders to be revealed, along with the trust to wait on you. Amen.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Two girls, St. Agnes and Dr. King

On Monday, we embarked on a new adventure in discipleship at Oaks of Righteousness. We went to the mall.

Let me back up a little bit and explain. We've been operating Oaks Cafe & Ministry Center now since March. It's become a regular hangout place, by God's grace, for dozens of children and teens. We've served hundreds of meals, hundreds of snacks. We've played roughly 80,000 games of Uno (maybe not quite that many), and we've shared the gospel with dozens of people.

But, we've gotten restless. Most of our regular volunteers -- including Hannah and myself -- have begun to wonder "What's next?" We have a hunger to disciple -- not just to evangelize. And the Cafe, while a haven compared to the street outside, is still a lively and sometimes chaotic place where it's difficult to disciple with depth.

It is terribly hard living in North Central Troy. Just last week, a few adults from the neighborhood talked about being able to feel the anger and the hopelessness in the air, like a heavy cloud. I find it tough to be at Oaks for the roughly 15 hours the building is open each week. But, I can leave. Most of the people who live there, especially the children, can't.

Enter the mall. We realized that, to disciple with depth and express love to our young people, we need to take them out of the neighborhood on field trips. So, we began weekly mentoring this week with two of our girls. Each week, we go somewhere for a couple of hours to have fun, and we talk about God.

This week, we went to the mall, ate cupcakes, ran up the down escalator and spent a good chunk of time in the pet store. And, we talked about the Christian witness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., since it was his day.

As we sat in the food court -- two Euro-mutt pastors, an African American kid and a Puerto Rican kid, we talked about the fact that, not so long ago, our meeting wouldn't have been possible in public. One of the kids was shocked -- different dining spaces, different water fountains, different schools, different bathrooms? "That's just rude!" she exclaimed.

We talked about the bravery of those in the Civil Rights movement. And, we talked about the fact that, for Dr. King, his love of Jesus Christ was what compelled him to join in the fight. And, to give his life. "Greater love has no man...."

We also talked about the scandalous fact that, if he repented and asked forgiveness, even Dr. King's murderer may be singing the praises of God with us in heaven someday. Scandalous mercy and amazing grace.

Finally, we talked about St. Agnes, whose feast day was also Monday. She was a teenage girl -- perhaps a year older than our kids -- who died rather than abandon her love of Jesus.

It was "mad fun," as our kids like to say, and a good beginning. Only the Lord knows where it all will lead.

"Almighty and Everlasting God, you choose those whom the world deems powerless to put the powerful to shame: Grant us so to cherish the memory of your youthful martyr Agnes, that we may share her pure and steadfast faith in you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen."