This week for our Summer Faith Challenge at Decatur Presbyterian Church, we’re asked to choose an activity that honors God’s name. Many of the suggestions offered are to be of service to others in need, in keeping with Jesus’s teachings:
Matthew 25:34-36 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
For me, this is fairly straight-forward. My life’s work is in the service of offering healing and guidance to others. I also recently began volunteering at our church’s Threshold Ministry, which offers spiritual support and practical assistance to the poor and homeless in our community.
I do feel connected with God when being of service to others, and am grateful for the opportunity to offer my time and care. Yet, I’ve been challenged lately to go deeper in understanding how we recognize and honor God when we are presented with “the least of these brothers and sisters” (Matthew 40.)
I’ve noticed an increase in the number of mentally ill homeless people in our neighborhood. I grew up in New York City, and I also worked for over a decade in downtown Atlanta, so the homeless and mentally ill have always been a part of the urban landscape. However, there are more mentally ill homeless people wandering around the shops and restaurants in our residential enclave, and it creates tension and anxiety for people trying to shop or enjoy a meal with family or friends out on a restaurant patio.
Begging is one thing, but when confronted with a schizophrenic shouting obscenities (and in our case, a drunken mentally ill man urinating and exposing himself in front of our child), there’s a real sense of fear of the other. Our desire is to make that go away, to avoid witnessing the darkest places the mind can potentially go. Where is God in those who seem the most far gone?
Last night, I was finishing up reading Drawn In: A Creative Process for Artists, Activists, and Jesus Followers, written by my friend Rev. Troy Bronsink. The Henri Nouwen quote he presented toward the end has really stayed with me in thinking about the process of letting go of our fixed beliefs and prejudices – ones that keep us from seeing God within ourselves and others.
If we do not know we are the beloved sons and daughters of God, we’re going to expect someone else in the community to make us feel that way. They cannot. We’ll expect someone else to give us that perfect, unconditional love. But community is not loneliness grabbing onto loneliness: ‘I’m so lonely, and you’re so lonely.’ It’s solitude grabbing onto solitude: ‘I am the beloved; you are the beloved; together we can build a home.’ Sometimes you are so close, and that’s wonderful. Sometimes you don’t feel much love, and that’s hard. But we can be faithful. We can build a home together and create space for God and for the children of God. Within the discipline of community are the disciplines of forgiveness and celebration.
Honoring God’s name means seeing everyone, even a difficult family member, the people we dislike at work or the random mentally ill person shouting obscenities, as a child of God. We recognize and honor the belief that they deserve the same compassion, forgiveness and unconditional love from us that we receive from God.
Putting this into practice can be tough, especially if a situation feels uncomfortable, toxic, or potentially unsafe. We can simply stop for a moment, allow ourselves to feel the discomfort, anxiety or fear in our body, and say to ourselves, “I am a child of God.” Then, we can look at the person in question and silently acknowledge, “You are a child of God too.” By doing so we are acting on faith. We are creating energetic space for God to be present and offer healing and comfort.
Another method I like comes from Buddhist spiritual practice, of offering metta, or lovingkindness. The heart of the technique works by mentally repeating the phrases, “May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be peaceful and at ease” to offer metta to oneself, and then repeating the phrases while thinking of others: “May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful and at ease.” (See here for specific instructions on the technique.)
My activity this week, and going forward, is to work with these two practices as a way of honoring God’s name – at home, during volunteer work, and while out in public.
I am a child of God. You are a child of God. May we be happy, well, safe, peaceful and at ease in the unconditional love of the Holy Spirit.