Reframing Our Expectations for One Another

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all that matters

Did you see the prank video floating through our Facebook streams recently about who helps a nicely dressed business man who falls and who helps an apparently homeless man who falls? The video opens many questions for us and itself seems to focus mainly on the appearances of the two men… I immediately wanted to go deeper with the video. If you haven’t seen it, here it is…

Perhaps like me, you live in and among a homeless population. We have many homeless folks in downtown Bethesda and more and more you can’t catch a red light on many main streets without a homeless or needful person asking for help while you wait. Homeless neighbors sit by us at Starbucks, greet us at the Metro and some will come and sit in our church building during the day as a quiet respite from the street. For the most part I believe we have created a different set of rules for interacting with our homeless neighbors, and that is a large part of what is happening in the video.

I dug around to see if my thoughts were online anywhere, and I at least found this bit on social interactions that better defined the thing I think we’re talking about in this case of this video… (the bolded emphasis in mine)

In sociology, social interaction is a dynamic sequence of social actions between individuals (or groups) who modify their actions and reactions due to actions by their interaction partner(s). Social interactions can be differentiated into accidental, repeated, regular and regulated.

A social interaction is a social exchange between two or more individuals. These interactions form the basis for social structure and therefore are a key object of basic social inquiry and analysis. Social interaction can be studied between groups of two (dyads), three (triads) or larger social groups.

Social structures and cultures are founded upon social interactions. By interacting with one another, people design rules, institutions and systems within which they seek to live. Symbols are used to communicate the expectations of a given society to those new to it, either children or outsiders. Through this broad schema of social development, one sees how social interaction lies at its core.

Source: Boundless. “Understanding Social Interaction.” Boundless Sociology. Boundless, 03 Jul. 2014. Retrieved 06 Feb. 2015 from

I believe the business man in the video represents someone living by our social rules, within acceptable systems and institutions. So when he falls, there is an immediate need among others to restore him. He better represents what we have invested ourselves in, an acceptable life by normative social standards. The homeless man? He is presumed to be living outside those systems and institutions, and therefore his fall has less impact on the passersby. They are not invested in him already, and so his immediate predicament is less impactful for them. In fact, he represents a threat for many people, either an immediate threat to their safety or a more cosmic threat to our presumed rules for living.

Am I trying to explain away the video and lessen it’s moral message and impact? No way! I want to take it’s message and come up with a deeper message than just, “Yo, help a brother off the curb!” As a human, I need to intentionally invest in my neighbors, even when they are living and doing life outside of my normative bounds, rules and institutions. Otherwise, I risk developing the kinds of blinders that allow me to walk past a fallen person without helping.

As a human who tries to operate out of a specific faith orientation, I am further challenged by following a religious leader who personally rejected and moved outside of many normative societal rules and regulations of his time. Yes, Jesus.

I’ve grown up hearing sermon after sermon about Jesus touching the untouchable, but has sermon after sermon changed any of us? Have we been equipped with eyes and understanding that allow us to risk stepping into the lives of those outside the social norm? The answer is a qualified and limited yes… I know and have known many amazing human beings, inside and outside of faith communities, who routinely step over those social lines and engage neighbors living outside the bounds of social norms. The answer is also a qualified and limited no… because many of us still operate almost exclusively inside the norms, some even religion’izing the social norms to become matters of faith. Don’t know what that means? Try to find the verse in the Bible that says, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” (Hint: It ain’t there.)

If I’m being a bit too esoteric for you here, think of it this way… when a clean-cut businessman falls, there is very little cost to helping him… his clothes are less likely to stink or to get me dirty, he probably won’t ask me for money, and after a nice verbal gesture of appreciation we’ll both go on about our day with very little time lost. However, operating on our usual assumptions about people who live outside our normative rules and systems, I wonder if helping a homeless man will get me dirty, if he’ll smell bad, if he’ll ask me for money, if he’ll have a mental illness and hurt me, if he’ll want to talk and take up a bunch of my time… the assumptions go on, and those assumptions increase my projected cost to any social engagement with that person. Seriously, it takes a while to say it, but I think we routinely make these mental and spiritual calculations in a nanosecond.

Let’s pay up. Let’s intentionally reframe some of our social rules so that we are prepared to pay the cost of stepping outside the easy social norms and engage people less like us. It makes us more human. It makes us more faithful.

Just the other day I tried to give a friendly greeting to a certain local homeless man I often see at my favorite Starbucks. It’s one of the things I do, with homeless or well-off-seeming locals… I say hi and introduce myself. We’re neighbors after all. This particular homeless man wanted nothing to do with me. He rudely rebuffed me, loudly proclaiming that he didn’t want to talk to me, see me or shake my extended hand. And, it was a little embarrassing for me.

Now, at that moment of rebuff, I have a choice: 1) I can narrow my social rules and interactions, letting that experience confirm assumptions and stereotypes about “certain people,” and I can be very less inclined to try again to greet someone who is doing life outside my norms, or 2) I can pay the cost of that interaction, a blush and a rebuff, and offering a prayer for the pain and hurt this man is obviously carrying, I can prepare myself for loving the next neighbor to come along in my little sphere of life.

You see, Jesus did not touch the untouchable. Please, hear that… Jesus did not touch the untouchable. For Jesus all people were touchable, worthy of touch, deserving of touch and imminently desirable to touch. He wanted to engage them and was willing to pay the price, which could sometimes be high. He was whispered about, condemned and made fun of for engaging some folks, and in one memorable event he helps ten people, with only a single person taking the time to thank him.

Now, if you don’t live in a place with a present homeless population, I bet there still people not like you… I bet there are people who seem to live outside your rules and norms. Can you pay the cost of loving them? Can you move outside the norms of what you are most comfortable with and find them touchable? Can I? Or as our more grammatical gifted friends would correct me, “Will I?”

AMDG, Todd

Why I’m Not Judging Anyone for Ebola Anxiety

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Worried about Ebola? I’m not judging you for that, and I’m happy to explain why I’m not judging you. But before going into detail on that, let me say that not judging you for your anxiety about Ebola is not saying it’s ok to freak out of your brainpan and act like the world is ending. There are, as many people are pointing out, horrendous things that are statistically more likely to happen to us before catching Ebola, and we still power on through life. Is it rational to be debilitatingly afraid of catching Ebola in our country? Nope. But is it kinda rational to be concerned about Ebola and the way it seems be popping up here and there? I think so.

And here’s my thinking on it:

ebola1) Ebola is freakin’ scary. Each time I see a news story and the accompanying image is that shot of a viral strain I flash back to every zombie massacre I’ve seen in the movies. I mean, that image is “T-Cell mutants chewing on my leg” kinda freaky. It’s the same feeling I get in the pit of my stomach when I hear another story about that flesh-eating bacteria that someone occasionally picks up here in America… sometimes, there’s just a lot sarcasm and not much comfort in those statistics, ya know?

2) For us in the States, Ebola is largely an unknown thing and definitely a new thing to worry about. It’s true that we normal folks don’t know a lot about Ebola; it’s not something we’ve thought about and dealt with in our lives. There seem to be worse ways to die, but none of them makes Ebola any more palatable as an potential illness in my life. We’ll have a learning curve as a society as we get more acquainted with Ebola, and we’ll calm down as we’re more knowledgable. Until then, let’s cut each other some slack.

3) When we’re dealing with things like Ebola, screw the point game. I’m not interested in what person “slammed” another or what commentator “schooled” someone on Ebola. Acting like this is a game of one-ups is not responsible or constructive. I’m all for facts, really. But when heath care workers are getting sick, and traveling, and we begin to see the stories unfold, it can be troubling and justifiably worrisome. Should we get hysterical? Of course not. Am I an idiot for having a concern about a seriously bad disease popping up around us? Sorta seems sensible to me. Will we sometimes see the authorities taking some strong steps to stay ahead of this? I hope so. We’d rip them apart if they didn’t and Ebola spread even more. I’m glad we are taking strong steps to contain this and working hard to identify Ebola cases. I’m glad we have an Ebola Czar.

tin-foil-hatSo, am I ready to slip on my tin foil hat and go hide in the closet? Nope. Did I freak out and leave town when they brought an Ebola infected patient to a hospital A MILE from my house yesterday? Nope. (I mean, we already figured out years ago that the zombie-apocalypse would probably start from NIH.) But, am I going to laugh at people’s fears and concerns? Nope to that one, too. Again, no fear should be debilitating and no fear should cause us to lose hope. We should be wise and watchful, prayerful and engaged.

The pastor in me wants to remind you that fear is never the best motivation for anything. Even in life’s most difficult times our hope and our joy remain anchored in the love and goodness of God. Yes, life has its anxieties, its moments of terror and exquisite joy, the ups and the downs. Ebola is one of those anxieties, a terror and a down. Let us allow our own anxiety over Ebola to be a poignant reminder to pray for those in communities across West Africa ravaged by the disease. Let’s allow our own awakening to the seriousness of Ebola to be something that moves us to find ways to help and serve those far away neighbors.

Let’s allow one another to be concerned and maybe even a bit fearful about something as horrible as Ebola, and use that concern to become better servants to one another and the world.

AMDG, Todd


Reflections: Blessing Pets and a Collar

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Me in Clerical Collar 2So, yeah. That’s me in a clerical collar. I didn’t grow up in churches that used collars. In fact, we didn’t have robes for preachers or choirs either. We did have zippered robe-like things for baptisms, but I guess we didn’t find the clerical clothing awfully palatable. Last Sunday, as we set up a booth at the local farmers market to offer a blessing of the pets for all our neighbors, I wore a collar for the first time in my life.

Please don’t call me Father Todd or Padre. If you know me, then you know that I have a deep respect and sincere affection for priests of many orders whether Catholic, Orthodox or Episcopal. I also have an abiding respect for other traditions of Christianity that use the collar in various forms and ways. You can call me Vicar Todd… I kinda dig on that one.

In recent conversations and readings I have been introduced to the idea of the clerical collar as an invitation to speak with me about things spiritual. It has been regarded by some as a means by which others found them approachable and open for prayer or conversation. I’d like to think that a collar could do that for me, too.

Thinking about our Sunday morning of offering blessings for pets I must admit that I found people’s reactions as either very happy to see us or distinctly not interested in our blessing. There was very little ambivalence. We were all smiles and not at all intrusive. And we had many fun conversations with some of our Jewish neighbors at the market. I was asked twice if I was OK with blessing “Jewish dogs” and I was more than happy to bless them. Heck, I’m pretty sure I blessed at least one agnostic dog. It’s good stuff. More than one person got all smiley and affirmed the movie line/title, “All dogs go to heaven.”

Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 9.37.01 AMI believe the blessing of the pets was a beautiful thing to do, and I’m glad we did it. I hope we do it again next year to celebrate St. Francis’ feast day and to serve our community. Not everyone wanted their pet blessed by us, and that’s OK. We were a blessing to many pets and their owners, and asked nothing in return. Good stuff.

And I didn’t feel like the fraud I feared I would see myself as when wearing the collar. That came as a bit of a surprise to me. I did my studies ahead of time and learned that many churches and traditions use the collar in many ways, so I wouldn’t be “stealing” from anyone’s rich (exclusive) claim on the collar. I’m also a very informal guy, and I wondered if the formality of a collar would seem ridiculous on me. It felt pretty OK.

I’m not sure what future the clerical collar has in my ministry and life. We’ll see how the Spirit leads. For now, I’m happy to have blessed some pets, and in the process, their humans. I’m so proud of and personally blessed by our faith community at Church in Bethesda who rallied and came together to help bless the doggies, keep the water bowl filled, over-indulge some furry friends with treats, and to offer smiles and hand shakes to our neighbors. It was a community event in every way.

AMDG, Todd

A Gift from a Homeless Brother

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One of the joys for me living and working in downtown Bethesda has been knowing such a diverse group of people on a daily basis. From my wonderful Muslim neighbors to the greater Jewish community of Bethesda, to the many homeless friends I have made and the chances of running into folks from Church in Bethesda or other local groups I’m active with; any given day is filled with such deep relational potential.

a gift watchIt was not a surprise to chat with and share some mutual encouragement with a homeless brother of mine at La Madeleine this morning in Bethesda while having breakfast. It was however not expected that he would follow me out to the parking lot to give me a piece of jewelry, a very nice BORA watch and say, “God laid it on my heart to give this to you.”

Yes, I’m that guy. I’ll let a homeless friend give me a gift. I told him it wasn’t necessary to give me anything, but I did accept the gift when he insisted I have it. I have certainly never helped him, or my family done anything for him, with the intention that I or we would get anything from him in return. We help him because we love him. And he felt the tug to lay a gift on me for the same reason. He said that he felt it was right to give me something for all I do and try to do for him. He also explained that he has connections to get jewelry, so I shouldn’t worry about it setting him back too much. <insert my nervous chuckle here>

I first experienced this kind of humbling when I lived in Kenya way back in 1989 and 1990, and later in Tanzania… people would give us gifts of food and drink when we visited their villages and homes, gifts they could not always afford. We would be presented with a soda, a luxury they often would never have bought themselves. And we learned not to say no to the gifts that were presented to us. It is affirming of a person’s dignity and an act of gratefulness to receive a gift well.

I’m not saying I would ever allow a person to do injury to themselves or their family for the sake of my comfort, but I am willing to be humble enough to receive a gift, even when it makes me feel kinda funny to do so. I think it’s part of being a whole healthy person that one gives and receives. Giving a gift is a great feeling. It empowers the one doing the giving. Giving enriches the gifter as much as the gifted. Giving is healthy. And the dignity of my friend is important to me, so I would never want to injure him by saying no to such a proffered gift.

It’s too easy to judge our homeless brothers and sisters as “other” and not “us.” It’s too easy to forget that they were born with the same factory wire harness that we were, and though we may have walked diverse roads, we are still so deeply similar and connected. My heart hurts when I see someone post a meme on Facebook or hear them make a comment about things like homeless people who have cell phones not having the right priorities in life. You don’t want to be connected with the world? With support structures? With friends?

Keeping a cell phone going is often a major ordeal for a homeless person who has to prepay for minutes and has no “grace period” when cash is short. You ever paid your cell phone bill late? I think mine is late right now. A cell phone is a “little home” when you have no street address, land line or contant place to belong. Homeless or not, we yearn to participate with life, with those around us. I don’t bat an eye at a homeless person having a cell phone, an iPod, or even a notebook computer. Good grief, considering their anxieties and stresses, why would I begrudge a homeless friend a little chance to enjoy life? Why would I begrudge him or her the chance to joyfully give a gift?

At the end of the day I think I accepted a gift from my friend today for two reasons: 1) giving gifts it is way that people share life and love, and he and I are on a two-way street that I would never want to trade for a one-way street where I’m always the giver and he’s always the taker, and 2) receiving a gift from him renews my hope. I hope that there is good stuff in store for my brother. I trust that there is good stuff in store for him. And as I continue to pray and share life with him, his giving a gift bolsters my excitement and expectation that he is going to be on a good road, seeing better days and knowing joy on joy on joy. Oh God, let it be so.

Practicing Ministry During Worship Services…

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I have meant to write something about practicing acts of ministry during worship for a while now. At CiB we like to often use our time together in worship services to bless others… usually we choose the children and families at The Children’s Inn located at the National Institutes for Health. We incorporate two things: 1) our use of prayer stations, and 2) their practice of “thoughtful treasures.”

We always have prayer stations set up during our communion (eucharist) celebration and our folks move around through them after receiving the bread and the cup. These stations are meant to facilitate prayer and action, often helping make the things we are talking about a little more tangible and present.

The Inn has a program called “Thoughtful Treasures” wherein each child gets to open a personal mailbox each morning and starts that day with a special treat before all the routine and often painful medical appointments and regimens of the day get going. Many folks and organizations in our area help supply those treasures.

So this last week we prayerfully put notes of encouragement on candy canes, about 90 in all, at a prayer station. Next week we’ll be assembling jingle bell necklaces while we pray for the kids and their families. The candy canes were simply decorated with a mailing label wrapping around the stem which read, “We’re praying for your holiday!” and included our church family’s logo. Often our efforts are “small,” but intentional and uplifting for the recipient.

Other ministry activities we’ve practiced have included letters to encourage orphans in Sudan and letters and cards to our sick members or friends. We’ve also written notes of appreciation to one another, or maybe a coworker or a family member. Ideas for what we do flow from the pastoral staff as well as others in the congregation. The practice fits with our desire to begin enacting the grace of God in tangible ways at all times. And I’ll tell you from experience… this is not a put-off for visitors! Typically, they join in and love it!

I’m sharing all this because I’d love to know what you folks are doing out there… let’s share ideas and inspirations. I’m only positive of three things: 1) we’re not the first folks to do this, 2) we’re not the only folks doing this, and 3) we won’t be the last folks to do this. Share some ideas and practices you are loving to be a part of!

OK, I wish this dude a very Merry Christmas!

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Normally, I’m all about people’s privacy, but this fella came by my coffee shop this morning pushing the most impressively loaded grocery cart I have ever seen in my life. I mean, he chugged this monster up hill, against the on coming, one-way traffic. So, today I wish this dude a very Merry Christmas! He’s in my prayers, wherever he’s going with that massive cart.


Sorry for the low pic quality, it’s a cropped phone shot! 

the table is coming along…

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ok, i’m dumb. i forgot to take a picture of the table today before i left the house. i put two coats of stain on it, and we saw right away that there are weird  places in the wood…  some harsh  weather spots, places where a tiny bit of the old finish still existed and some sweet, natural defects and spots around knots. a serious dude would have spent a couple of days sanding first, but not me, baby!

next i put on two coats of polyurethane finish. i bought a semi-gloss and figured we’d work our way to the finish we wanted instead of trying to go high-gloss in one or two coats alone. i think after applying the second coat this morning that we already have the finish we want… not too shiny and evened out from a more spotty first coat.

the second coat will be dry to the touch by tomorrow morning, if it takes 24hrs to dry like the first did. hang this humidity! then, i’ll have to do some minor work on the legs: lots of wood screws, etc.

of course, the weather’s going to pot and it’s supposed to snow on saturday after a couple of days of nasty rain. sheesh. the party might not even happen now, but we’ll have food on the table!

some new very admirable friends… “A Wider Circle”

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Folks often ask me where they can plug into community volunteering and find good things happening in the area. With that in mind I asked Brooke a while back to help me dig up the local groups that are helping folks, and last week the convergence of two conversations, one with Brooke and one with Gloria at the Chamber of Commerce, brought me to the doorstep of A Wider Circle yesterday morning.

This organization collects household goods and distributes them to families who find themselves without many of the essentials that make a home: beds, tables, appliances, etc. Of course, the group does much more than that, but you can dig thru their website to learn more. Yesterday I was able to pitch in by driving their truck on some morning donation pickups and then loading the truck with throw-away junk and taking it to the dump in Rockville. Seriously, I slept hard last night. They worked me good.

The folks at A Wider Circle are in the process of organizing help for under-funded families to have good thanksgiving meals and joyful holidays in the next two months. Check out their website with the link in their name if you’d like to pitch in as well. At the moment, they could really use help driving that 16′ moving truck on Wednesdays and Saturdays, roughly 10am to 3pm. If you’re blessed with the experience and fortitude to handle such a truck, give’em a call!

Peace, Todd

What does it mean to be a good neighbor?

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Oh, man. I should’ve known that if I preached three weeks on what it means to be a good neighbor that a test my authenticity might be arranged. The photo above is what I woke up to on Saturday. My neighbor, who is building a new home next door, needed to pump out his flooded basement. So he removed a piece of fence between our yards and piped the water into my backyard… that’s what the photo is, his pipe that emptied his basement into my yard. All I know is that the words popping into my head weren’t learned in seminary.

That pipe has to be chalked up to “bad neighborliness.” The question for me is, “What is my response? What is my responsibility as a neighbor, regardless of his?” Believe me, I thought about tearing the pipe up and throwing it in his yard. I thought about calling County offices. I wondered what exciting things I could pipe from my house over to his.

I’m hoping that may not be exactly what he told his construction crew to do. I don’t know because there wasn’t anyone around yesterday or today to ask. I’ll be watching tomorrow. I did find out that one of the church office assistants told him he could do something, but she didn’t think he was planning to pipe into my backyard. So he probably acted with something he felt was akin to permission.

So, I’ve been cool… no graffiti next door, no hexes or curses on anyone’s holiday shopping. I’m trying to find that happy place, that place and time of contented cool out of which I can express my extreme distaste for that pipe, a sincere hope it will leave and never return, and a real conviction that I will use County authorities to make sure it doesn’t, but only if I am forced to it.

So, here’s hoping…

Home at last…

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We are in our new home, at last. After three days of driving and lots of yelling from both offspring and parental units, we are here in Bethesda. The church family plans to welcome us in a special way during the service tomorrow, and that’s very cool. I wanted to write a note tonight just to say a special word of thanks to God for answering our heart-felt prayers. We have safely made it to Bethesda, with good measures of joy and peace.

God is good, all the time… God is good.