Thursday, August 16, 2018
Every week before I begin my message at Burlpres in Burlingame, California, I begin with the same sentence, "We welcome you to Burlpres this morning, and if you are here for the first time, we hope you find this to be a loving and a safe church, our goal is to be the most loving place in town, and a safe place to connect with God wherever you are coming from." Recently someone asked me what I meant by "a safe place to connect with God." This is a great question, and the focus of my blog this morning.
Safety is, of course, a relative term. What is safe for one person may not be safe for another. For example, a friend of mine likes to jump out of airplanes regularly, and finds that to be a safe experience. I would not find that to be safe at all (smile). When I say safe, I mean seven different kinds of safety for our church:
There are many kinds of spiritual experience that are not safe. When I was in Haiti once on a medical mission trip, I had the chance opportunity to meet some people who practiced the Voodoo religion. After speaking with them for a while, I realized that voodooism was a very different religious practice from my own, and quite unsafe for me or my group to be encountering. Not all spiritual experiences are the same. What we believe at Bulrpres is that Jesus Christ is a safe spiritual experience. Jesus said, "come to me all you who are weary and heavily laden, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28-30). What Jesus was saying is that He is a safe person to come to in our times of need.
Not long ago I was worshipping at a church whose pastor was extremely charismatic and dynamic. Going into the church, I realized that this pastor had belief systems that were very different from mine. And yet, not long into the message, I found myself strangely drawn to the lead speaker. He was, "literally pulling me in." At Burlpres we believe in a faith system that is not personality driven. The leaders of the church, the pastors, are all healthy people who live healthy lives. Worship should be a safe experience.
The Presbyterian Church prides itself in the amount of education that we require our pastors and leaders to have before they can provide consistent Biblical and theological leadership to our church. This is not to say that academia is always a preventative for erratic or non-consistent thinking or processing. However, it is to say that we value aspects of human thought like logic, rationality, cognitive reasoning, and ideas based in reality.
Safe For Children
One of the things we are working extremely hard on at our church is ramping up the level of safety that we are offering children on a regular basis. We have always valued the safety of children at Burlpres, and yet we need to do so much more. We have just implemented a series of background checks on all volunteers who work with children. We have a new check-in system that will be computerized and mechanized, a barr code for all kids. We will be implementing a new safe perimeter for children in our children's center. Starting this Fall, only those who are approved with background checks and pre-approval, can enter our Children's Facilities.
Safe for Adults
The news over the past few weeks involving major religious figures in our country and around the world has been extremely tragic and devastating. The number of children who have been impacted by the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal in Pennsylvania is deplorable and quite literally breaks the heart of God. A major religious leader in the Chicago area has been accused of unsafe boundary breaking with staff members. This simply cannot happen in church. One of the things going forward to insure safety is that we have put in glass doors on all of our staff doors. These glass doors present transparency for both what occurs in our office spaces, as well as what the outside perception is for what occurs there.
Many religious systems are not transparent in the way that money is used. This also does not honor God. Burlpres will be implementing several measures over the next year to continue to insure that the broader public is aware (or can be made aware) of any financial transaction that the church engages in. The stewardship of God's money in any community is so important and essential.
Safe Architecturally and Practically
Our current building project and projects have invested almost $1 million in insuring that our facilities and worship spaces are safe spaces for all people who attend the church. The new roof that is being installed is made of an extremely light material that is earthquake safe and hopefully (joke) safe from leaks. We are also cleaning up a lot of the "clutter" that can be found around the entrances of our doors, and in our classrooms, which also ensures safety. These are just a few of the things we are doing to make the church building more safe.
Ensuring safety in any system, in a world that is constantly changing, is not an easy thing to do. However, it is our pledge to our congregation and to our larger community that when I say from the front, "A Safe Place to Worship God," we mean that in every respect. And in the end, providing these safety measures, and others, are in themselves expressions of loving hospitality, which we pray will go a long ways towards also making our church, "the most loving place in town."
All For Now,
Friday, August 3, 2018
About fifteen years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to the country of Mozambique on the continent of Africa on a mission trip with Lifewater International for the purpose of helping to build a well for one of the rural tribal communities there. The mission trip was remarkable in so many ways, but what remained with me from that trip was an image of a little girl that I met there, beside a village well, with holes in her bucket. Her parents had both just died of the AIDS virus, and this little girl, with holes in her bucket, was effectively all on her own in the world. She didn't even have a bucket that would hold the water that she would desperately need to survive. A tragic metaphor of that mission field. The image remains imbedded in my cranial hard drive and implanted in my heart.
About two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to take a similar mission trip. This time the trip was to Mexico, the Baja peninsula with Burlpres in order to build a house for a local family who lived there. While there, our group got a chance to meet the family who would someday occupy that house, and to meet the neighborhood kids who lived on the street (I say street, but it was really just a dirt path deeply pocked with holes and boulders, reminiscent of a war zone).
One of those little children is the little girl you see in the picture above. I don't know her name, nor will I ever know it. Her sweet little face caught my attention one day as I was eating my lunch after a morning of work. She had no lunch. She did not ask for mine, though, when I offered her my sandwich, she gladly took it. And then sat, with her back to the simple house we had just built, savoring it, as if the sandwich were a Chateaubriand steak served in a Micheline be-starred restaurant. She will forever be for me, "The Girl With A Ham Sandwich".
Statistics for those who are poor, or "impoverished", in Mexico have become a sad platitude of daily news coverage. However, the Mexican government estimates that 33% of the population of that nation lives in moderate poverty (live with less than $2 a day), and 9% of the country lives in extreme poverty (live with less than $1 a day). This girl most likely meets that latter category. Like most third world countries, there is a massive gap between the "haves and have-nots".
What the statistics cannot tell you, and what I experienced, is the relative loneliness and isolation that accompanies extreme poverty. The children we met in the street seemed almost as happy for some company as they did to have a few sandwiches given to them on a hot summer day. One got the sense that when these children woke up each morning, the only thing that greeted many of them were the ubiquitous stray dogs that dotted the entire countryside, and the random chicken that might amble past.
And it...yes...broke my heart to leave. When will these children have a work caravan come through their little neighborhood (barrio) again? When will a house building party ever come to visit again? When will someone show some actual care to these, who Jesus called, "the least of these?". It boggles the heart and the mind to think about. But for me, this will be the new scene in my heart and mind that makes me want to do everything I can for those who are like her.
And, I should not close this blog without saying how beautiful she was. How dignified she was. How full of a sense of pride and strength she was. She was...at least for a fleeting moment...
The Girl With A Ham Sandwich.
All For Now,