faith

Faith and Meaning

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all that mattersI’ve had several things on mind for my first follow up post to “Why am I still a Christian?” Those several things were completely derailed by the school shooting in Florida. We must do more than pray, but that doesn’t mean we don’t pray. We must believe in more than the new status quo of gun violence, and that means we all need some time searching our souls, engaging in conversations and building stronger bridges between diverse communities in our society. Can our faith add meaning to this dialogue?

Let’s talk about some meaning in life. Growing up in church I remember the Beatitudes as regular Sunday School material, but somewhere along the way to adulthood we seemed to leave that section behind. Other than good material for kids to memorize, I can’t honestly say I recall our giving too much energy to this passage of Jesus stating some of his core values and beliefs about the world. His beliefs about what the world should be.

Blessed. Blessed are… In this short passage Jesus begins a sermon full of pretty radical content with a framework for what constitutes blessing, or what should constitute blessing. Jesus mentions eight things, eight conditions or states of life, which we should view as conditions of blessing. We know what blessing means, even if we don’t use the word except when someone sneezes. Blessing means gifted, having a reason to celebrate, happy, and it is well-wishing, empowering, a desire for someone’s good or betterment. So here they are, the states of life which constitute blessing, from Matthew’s Gospel: 1) the poor in spirit, 2) those in grief, 3) the humble, 4) all seeking justice and rightness, 5) those who show mercy, 6) those who work to keep their intentions pure, 7) all who work for peace, and 8) those who suffer for doing right in the world. There’s a ninth one at the end that usually stands alone in scholarship as it feels far more focused on the audience with Jesus that day than a broader universal blessing. We’ll stick with the generally accepted list of eight.

Can we hear these as value statements? Is this Jesus expressing a worldview? He seems to be reversing the way we think about getting ahead in life, what we want from life and how we share this life together. Too often we trade mercy and justice, peace and rightness for dominance, winning and revenge. Too often we avoid the hurting, close our ears to the grieving and make a wide detour around folks who need us most. These statements of blessing first and foremost call us to lift our eyes from our own small worlds and see more than just our own interests and pursuits. We must look to the people around us in mercy and with humility. We don’t turn away from people in grief or our hurting neighbors. We seek peace, for all people. We desire justice in the world, and we work to make that desire a reality.

Jesus has a clear message and meaning for our lives. His value statements in Matthew’s Gospel show us a picture of people trying to work with God to make a world that’s more livable, more fair and deeply healing. How would my daily decisions and life choices be different if guided by these values? And when I find myself grieving and in need of mercy, what a state of blessing I might be in if I’m surrounded by people who are following this vision of the world? The world will still have grief tomorrow, and human lives will need mercy, humility and justice. What Jesus offers us is a pattern of mind and belief which enables us, invites us, to co-create a world with God that heals and unifies. I want the world that Christ visions for us, wants for us and calls us to help realize.

“In great and small matters cause no harm,
and do not become an enemy instead of a friend.”

Yeshus Ben Sira, Ecclesiasticus 5:15-6:1

“For we are what he has made us,
created in Christ Jesus for good works,
which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

Paul, Ephesians 2:10

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Jesus, Matthew 5:43-48

AMDG, Todd

Why Am I Still A Christian?

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IMG_0243I’d like to start with a confession, and then an admission. First, I’d like to confess that 2017 was a tough year for me, and I often vacillated between feeling neglected by God and neglectful of God. I was riding the struggle bus, front row. In a tough year like that it’s hard to pray, and I didn’t pray like I wish I had. In a tough year like that it’s easy to let one’s emotional desolation color all things, even the blessings, in a shadowed undervalued light. My admission is that I am still devoted to my Christ, to the call that God placed upon me so many years ago to be a servant of the world and the church. I’m ready to get off that struggle bus and begin again to serve and share life in a close-knit community of faith. But as I started this new year a question occurred to me and continued to feel very relevant for this time in my life: Why am I still a Christian?

It’s not a bad question. I’ve been a follower of Jesus Christ, by conscious choice, since my baptism when I was fifteen years old. That’s almost 33 years… my 48th birthday is next month. For the vast majority of my adult life I have been employed by churches in different positions of ministry and service. I’ve studied Christianity and other religions, and I have had many deep and wonderful relationships in and outside of the church. I have left the church tradition of my youth, pastored outside of all the established denominations, and eventually landed a few years ago in the Episcopal Church. For the last three years I’ve worked for Apple (full-time for the last two years) as a retail  store technician, salesperson, trainer and most recently in store leadership. Two years out of ministry and after a rough year in 2017, I’ve been feeling very unemployable in ministry. At this moment I don’t have any firm path or prospect back into the religious vocational calling of my life.

Maybe we should start with a couple of reasons I don’t accept for why I’m still a Christian, after all these years and after so many recent disappointments. Reasons which are not accurate for why I’m still a Christian: 1) “I’m paid to be a Christian.” Nope. No one has paid me to be a professional religious person for over two years. I don’t think that was ever a reason why I was a Christian, but it’s worth mentioning that my paycheck does not depend on my faith. 2) “I have to be a Christian because all other religions are so wrong.” Nope. I’ve been leaning over the years toward something that many would call a form of universalism, though I would not say I’m a universalist. I’m not a Christian because I think that Jesus wins the grand cosmic religious competition, because I don’t think religions are intrinsically in competition.

Why still be a Christian? I’m going to be breaking this into several blogs for while, sort of a Lenten expedition for myself. Yes, next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day! In short I have been looking at a few ideas, answers to my question: journey, experience, meaning and witness. We won’t necessarily take them in that order or hesitate to add to the list. On April 8th I’ve been invited back to the pulpit at St. John’s Norwood to preach, and the Gospel passage that day is from John 20 when the Apostle Thomas touches the wounds of his resurrected Lord. He previously rejected the witness of the women and men who had seen Jesus and demanded his own evidence. In our passage Jesus graciously allows Thomas to feel his wounds and then gives a blessing for all who accept the witness in faith without demanding a touch of their own. Today, we have the question of what to do with this amazing witness. The graphic I chose to include with this blog post is an example of meaning, the meaning that faith can give to words and decisions, to life.

Why I’m still a Christian is also a great question in view of my coming pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine in April, just 65 days away! I will be walking where Jesus walked, and seeing places and landscapes central to the lives of those early witnesses who still speak to us, today. I’m going to blog my exploration of this question to help myself hear my own thoughts, to gain clarity and hopefully to hear from you as well. May God bless your 2018, and may all our efforts to be faithful and authentic be pleasing to God and enriching for us and the world around us.

AMDG, Todd

 

Blind Piety

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equals human first runPresident Trump’s America is looking less and less American, and totally un-Christian. With the flurry of controversial executive orders our new President has shown the effects of something with which many Christians in the West seem to suffer: blind piety. All in the name of morals and American values, with a strong dash of dishonesty and fear-mongering, our new President shreds the image of America around the world and moves us farther from the Christian values of justice, mercy and love for our neighbors. President Trump road a wave of this blind self-centered piety and unreasoning fear all the way to the White House. Now some of the most vulnerable people on the planet are beginning to pay the price.

What is blind piety? Piety is defined as a quality of being religious or reverent. Blind piety is a religiosity that ignores its negative and hurtful impact on the people around it. Jesus actually condemned it in his own day, and an apt name would also be shallow piety or even mean piety. Jesus condemned the religious leaders of his day who acted piously in vowing their income to the support of the Temple, but in doing so actually neglected their own aging parents who were in need. (Matthew 15) Now, I always wondered at that passage thinking, “How will something like that ever find a dynamic equivalent, today?” Well, ask and receive. It’s been played out on our national stage just this week. With an executive order that piously calls on abortion as a reason to cut our nation’s international help to some of the most needful and most defenseless women and families around the world our President has endangered lives, and many religious people are applauding and smiling. Blind piety. Mean religion. Just as in the day of Jesus, religion used to deny people our assistance is an affront to God.

sighing jesusAt another time (Luke 14) Jesus chastises the hypocrisy of the religious thinkers who would refuse to help a fellow human being because of the religious obligations of not working on the Sabbath, but of course they would rescue a child or an animal in sudden distress. The hypocrisy is staggering, and it’s playing out before our eyes in this day and age. Our leaders are turning away from the most needful and endangered children on the planet, and mantling themselves in faith and patriotism while doing it! The President continues to narrate his actions with the familiar and completely dishonest alternative facts about a lack of vetting and the danger represented by refugees. He targets Muslim nations and vilifies and criminalizes the most vulnerable people on the planet. He speaks of walling us off from others, as though we are not all connected human beings with a shared and mutual life on this planet. These actions are not Christian, American or moral.

Why did Jesus condemn those religious leaders of his day? It was for what they had neglected: people. People are at the core of religious law, as he named that core: justice and mercy and faith. (Matthew 23) Jesus will later sum up the Law in two expressions of love: love for God and love for neighbor. (Matthew 25) The problem is not that religion is against people, but these people were misunderstanding their religion. We are guilty in the same way today when we turn from justice, mercy and faith to hide behind fear, exclusion and dishonesty. Some have chosen a blind piety that neglects people.

imageThe sad truth is that these Christians in the West are turning from one of our oldest and deepest religious values: the heart of a stranger. Far back in our oldest Jewish religious roots as Christians is this amazing idea of identifying with the endangered. God gave Israel strict rules for protecting the alien and stranger among them, for blessing them and for serving them. The people of Israel were reminded of their own time as strangers in a strange land, and therefore they should hold to the heart of a stranger. (Exodus 22 & 23, Deuteronomy 24) That is an amazing statement and command of empathy and service. Until the incarnation of Christ into human flesh I cannot think of a more identificational statement in scripture.

These current events call for our silence to be broken and our voices raised. This political landscape suddenly shifts to assault our deepest religious values and we cannot withhold our condemnation of these executive actions. Let us be courageous and true. Let us be vocal and honest. Let us speak against these executive actions and their false religiouslity, blind piety and alternative facts. Let us be as courageous as Jesus to speak for justice, mercy and faith. That courage got him ridiculed, cast out and killed, but most of us face far less danger in our privileged status here in our own country. Privilege is never a license to ignore injustice, forget mercy or live faithlessly in our own time.

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, Todd
(to the greater glory of God)

My Brother Kurt

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Rainbow ButtonI had a message pop up in Facebook the other day, my friend Kurt from St John’s had been poking around my blog and reading some of the things I have written on LGBTQ inclusion and acceptance. He correctly pointed out that I was a little out of date… he didn’t say “dude, you’re slacking off,” but he should have. He would have been right.

He also graciously offered me permission to share a short article he wrote this past year for St John’s on what it meant to be asked to help our parish organize a group to march in the annual Pride Parade in DC. He did a great job organizing, by the way… it was my first Pride Parade and I’m hooked.

Here’s the text of his article, and a few Parade photos… please receive it as a gift from Kurt, a brother in Christ, a humble man and a deeply good soul.

AMDG, Todd


Pride Parade Story by Kurt Ellison

It wasn’t long ago that someone stopped me and said, “So what’s the deal with the Pride Parade? Why is St. John’s marching?”

That is no small answer!

As a teenager that grew up at St. John’s, I could tell that we were definitely a church that was not of one mind about the whole gay issue. We had gay clergy, but when it came to choosing a new rector in 1997, St. John’s said overwhelmingly (in its profile survey) that it did not want a gay rector. (Yes, it’s true!)

As St. John’s wrestled with where it was and searched for a new rector, so I was wrestling with who I was – a gay kid who loved my church (and I still do). Living in Chicago as an adult, I found myself at the annual pride parade, and fascinated by the churches that were marching in the parade, and thinking, “Wow, my home church (St. John’s) would never do this!”

Years later, I moved back to the area to look after my ailing parents, I eventually came back to St. John’s and was curious to see how things had changed. Imagine my surprise when Susan Pizza and Sari Ateek eventually asked if I would write a grant for the Norwood Parish Fund to get us to participate in Pride.

I had to think for a while, and pray seriously about it. I was the type of person to watch a parade, not necessarily march in one, much less write a grant proposal, or organize a contingent. In my prayers, I could picture God having a good laugh saying, “HA HA, Kurt! You thought St. John’s would never do this! Now you have to man up!” How could I say no?

I wrote the proposal to the NPF. It got approved (kudos to the NPF folks!). We bought frisbees with the church logo, a banner, and advertised in Crossroads. 25 people showed up to march. We had a blast!

The gay community does not always receive a welcoming message from churches (understatement!). Other churches, while supportive and inclusive are not necessarily putting their message of welcome out there. Marching in the parade tells a whole community that they are welcome at St. John’s. It is a positive risk for the Gospel.

What amazes me still after three years of marching is how grateful people are to see the churches marching in the Pride Parade. All along the parade route we hear time and again, “Thank you for coming!”, and “Thank you, St. John’s!” In 2015 it is no small thing to say, “ALL ARE WELCOME HERE!”

Our pastor, Rev. Sari!

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…and the man of the hour, Kurt!

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Below is one I took at the Parade in 2016!

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I Am An Episcopalian

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confirmation selfieLife is a journey and our spiritual life mirrors this with twists and turns and fun developments… a recent fun event in my journey was being confirmed in the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion on Saturday, November 14th, 2015 at the National Cathedral in Washington DC. In the picture with me is Reverend Sari and my new friend Anne, both from St. John’s Norwood Parish.

It was also an intentional move, not an accident. I’ve been looking for a Christian faith tradition for the second half of my life, even making a short-list of fellowships to explore and question, and we ended up choosing the Episcopal Church for many reasons. I’ll describe three of those reasons here, things that the Episcopal Church stands for and some deep blessings of being around this tradition.

The Middle Way. In my life as a Christian and a Pastor I have often found myself holding the center among a variety of people and viewpoints. I have pastored a community for many years that included conservatives and progressives, Republicans and Democrats, many ethnicities, differing sexualities, beautiful colors, varied traditions and diverse backgrounds. I was intentional about trying to make all welcome and keeping them respected and I called it a sacred tension of doing life together in our diversity. I’ve found the Anglican Communion to have already named this: the middle way. With a foot in both the Catholic and Protestant traditions, and a diverse family of people, the middle way is that path of unity and shared dignity without a forced conformity or loss of vital historicity.

confirmation ceremonyTribal Without Tribalism. Our family has been blessed to find a balance of openness and identity in the Episcopal Church that I describe as being tribal without the tribalism. We have an identity as a group, a faith family, without needing to judge or exclude others. We have a belonging system, which is important, without needing to also draw bold lines of division and keep others from our Table or our full welcome in worship. As a guest dropping in often over the last decade I was able to find solace in the Rites and share the Eucharist with this communion of faith long before my confirmation. I am so thankful for that gift through the years.

Living As A Communion. I’ve been a prayer book collector for many years, and the Book of Common Prayer has been one of my favorites. I didn’t know that it’s existence represents one of the central ideas of the Anglican Communion, that instead of being in joined in fellowship because we all think and believe exactly alike, we are one because we pray together. This resonates with me as both a foundation of unity and peace in our life as a communion and in my daily devotional practice. We are one in our mutual reaching out to God.

I’m not here asserting that the Episcopal Church is the best faith family for everyone, and I have no interest in any my church is better than your church competition. I just want to share what a blessing it has been to find my tribe and be welcomed therein. It’s been an interesting journey for our whole family and we are excited about the coming years with the church. And yes, the cool Episcopal shield is probably going to be my next tattoo, but we’ll see. =)

AMDG, Todd

Praying With Christopher

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IMG_1342This morning I am tired, and in my fatigue I turn to prayer with one of my favorite saints: Christopher. His name means Christ-Bearer. As the stories of saints go, his is an ancient and beautiful story of finding the will, the strength and the opportunity to serve.

Christopher sought the greatest King to whom he might pledge his strength and battle valor… he found instead a gentle King who called him to serve the weak and the needful. I begin my prayers today with the hope that I could be deeply reminded that my strength, when spent, belongs to the needful around me. I pray that my will is brought together with opportunity to be a servant like Christopher.

Christopher was a convert to Christianity in the 3rd century; he was a violent warrior who wanted to serve the mightiest leader he could find. When he discovered that others pointed to Christ as such a leader he went in search of more knowledge about Jesus. A gentle hermit taught him of Christ and set him on a path of dangerous service to local villagers, not a service of killing or violence, but a service of strength and protection. He would carry them across a river that was to strong for them to cross on their own. He did this service faithfully, and one day is said to have carried Christ himself across the river.

It would be a terrible loss to get too caught up in only trying to find the historical Christopher. You will have to sort thru various names, traditions and stories. He has interesting iconography, almost always holding a staff, most often carrying a child, and even sometimes having the head of a dog. (Say what? That would be just my luck if I have have an icon, lol.) Who martyred him? Where did it happen? Why did it happen? These are probably not going to be discovered to an historian’s satisfaction. You’ll also discover that he’s been dropped from many calendars of saints, mostly because of the lack of concrete evidence for his story. But an ancient story of faith leading to service instead of fighting? An ancient story of faith leading to the strength to serve instead of seeking to dominate and to make demands? It’s a needed story for our times.

St. Christopher is often considered the patron of travelers, and the prayers around him reflect that affinity to travel. I’ll end with a prayer that invokes Christopher’s strength and dedicated service, a prayer for the day…

Grant me, O my God, a watchful eye and willing heart.
I would be a willing servant to all and an enemy to none.
You give all people the gift of life, and I pray my actions and words honor that gift.
May all who share this day with me receive only blessings for our time together.
Teach me to use my strength, my will, and every opportunity, to serve others;
help me to slow down and to turn from myself to see their beauty and value. 

Give me the strength, the will and a calling to serve, such as you gave to St. Christopher,
and therein help me to follow this epic example of a living and a serving faith
which uses each day to protect and enrich this world for others by sharing your peace.
I beg these things through the graces of Christ, our Gentle King. Amen.

Peace y’all.
AMDG, Todd

Links about St. Christopher:

Wikipedia
Catholic Online
Catholic Encyclopedia

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 https://www.boundless.com/sociology/textbooks/boundless-sociology-textbook/social-interaction-5/understanding-social-interaction-50/understanding-social-interaction-314-5912/

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