Love Wins, Rabbit Holes, and Swimming The Tiber

BROKEN THINKING

“I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit-hole—and yet—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!”
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Some time ago, when I first met Hugh Hollowell, he warned me that if I ever saw the poor, if I ever really saw the poor and marginalized, it would be like going down Alice’s rabbit hole. Once I did, he warned, I could never come back.

I had the great good fortune of having coffee with  Hugh while he was in town recently. Hugh is the founder and director for a ministry to the homeless, Love Wins. We spent a good hour together which, for me, seemed like five minutes.

Some years ago he was an anonymous voice on Twitter. A Mennonite pastor to a homeless congregation. I really couldn’t grasp how that worked, at first, and I read his tweets with great interest…

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Love Wins, Rabbit Holes, and Swimming The Tiber

by Ross Decker Sr

“I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit-hole—and yet—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!”
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Some time ago, when I first met Hugh Hollowell, he warned me that if I ever saw the poor, if I ever really saw the poor and marginalized, it would be like going down Alice’s rabbit hole. Once I did, he warned, I could never come back.

I had the great good fortune of having coffee with  Hugh while he was in town recently. Hugh is the founder and director for a ministry to the homeless, Love Wins. We spent a good hour together which, for me, seemed like five minutes.

Some years ago he was an anonymous voice on Twitter. A Mennonite pastor to a homeless congregation. I really couldn’t grasp how that worked, at first, and I read his tweets with great interest. So, when Hugh tweeted that he was coming to New York for a ministry conference and he needed a place to stay, Liz and I were in. We wanted him to stay with us. We made the offer, he strung us along until he realized no one else would offer and a friendship was born.

We were attending a pretty conservative Evangelical church and we met in a “small group” at the time. Small groups were valued in this church because of their obvious ability to provide pastoral care without the pastor having to care. (Just because I’m cynical it doesn’t mean I’m wrong). Not one of our church friends could believe that we would do such a “crazy” thing. But, we knew Hugh was liked by another person we knew only from Twitter, so what could go wrong? It would be like the Book of Acts, where you let people stay with you based solely on the promise they were preachers.

That short visit a few was an eye opener for us. The church we went to had no program for helping the poor. Andrew Olsen, my future son-in law was helping to run a food and clothing ministry with a pair of brothers and their mother and he pretty much funded a good portion of it by himself.  He invited us to come see it once. That was all it took. We were hooked. There was no church funding, no corporate donations. There was no writing a check to someone so that they could help someone you’d never have to see. It was all done person to person. Everything distributed came from pooling as much money as we could and buying what our new friends needed. It was my first sustained direct contact with the needy and marginalized.

This is what Hugh saw as our rabbit hole. One of the first things Hugh told us was that nothing, for us, would be the same again. He told us that regardless of how we tried, we would be unable to share what we saw with that church and small group. Unless they were also given a similar vision for the poor, they just would not be able to understand. And he was right.

Hugh is an advocate of working with his people in a lateral way. He maintains that when you gave food to the hungry there is a way to give food but keep power. He seeks to eat with the hungry, at the same table. It is important to give up power if you really want to serve. He feels that the American church tends to evangelize from an American perspective. It is only a first step to be saved. The full process includes the evangelized becoming more like the evangelist.

So, we looked for a church that cared about the poor in a way similar to how we did. We wanted to find a church that respected the poor for who they are. We wanted to find a church where being American middle class wasn’t the prime goal. And, we wanted to be in a church where serving the poor wasn’t this year’s trendy thing but was an integral part of who the church was. Hugh phrased it this way: “We don’t feed the poor in order to give them the Gospel. We feed the poor because feeding the poor IS the Gospel.”

We found that church in the Catholic Church. Feeding the poor and doing corporeal acts of mercy are a long time practice in the Roman Catholic Church.  The Catholic church gave me focus and purpose. It gave me the sense that God’s saving mercy didn’t end with me. It was extended to me so that I could extend it to others.

The American Catholic webpage tells this story of St. Lawrence of Rome which resonated with me. It takes place after the arrest of  Pope St. Sixtus II.

“As deacon in Rome, Lawrence was charged with the responsibility for the material goods of the Church, and the distribution of alms to the poor. When Lawrence knew he would be arrested like the pope, he sought out the poor, widows and orphans of Rome and gave them all the money he had on hand, selling even the sacred vessels to increase the sum. When the prefect of Rome heard of this, he imagined that the Christians must have considerable treasure. He sent for Lawrence and said, “You Christians say we are cruel to you, but that is not what I have in mind. I am told that your priests offer in gold, that the sacred blood is received in silver cups, that you have golden candlesticks at your evening services. Now, your doctrine says you must render to Caesar what is his. Bring these treasures—the emperor needs them to maintain his forces. God does not cause money to be counted: He brought none of it into the world with him—only words. Give me the money, therefore, and be rich in words.”

Lawrence replied that the Church was indeed rich. “I will show you a valuable part. But give me time to set everything in order and make an inventory.” After three days he gathered a great number of blind, lame, maimed, leprous, orphaned and widowed persons and put them in rows. When the prefect arrived, Lawrence simply said, “These are the treasure of the Church.”’

Since I’ve gone down the rabbit hole that quote has come alive to me. It’s a good thing it has. Because I can never go back.

You can learn more about the work Hugh does with the homeless by visiting the ministry website at www.lovewinsministries.org 

Bill Nighy, Yellow Boots and About Time

by Ross Decker  Sr 

I’d only give one piece of advice to anyone marrying. We’re all quite similar in the end. We all get old and tell the same tales too many times. But try and marry someone kind.”

Those are the wise words of advice that Bill Nighy’s character offers during a wedding toast in the splendid movie, About Time. About Time is a movie I’ve seen an awfully lot and I always maintain that, if I were to see it every day, I’d be a better person. I’d be a better man because I would appreciate each day for the sheer beauty of it. But more importantly, I’d be kinder.

Being kind is not something that comes naturally to me. Whenever you see kindness in me it’s because I’ve thought about it first and then gone ahead and acted kind. I’m pretty much a mean-spirited jerk otherwise. In my defense, anytime I actually do stop and think about what to do, I always choose kindness. It’s just that I don’t always think before I act. That’s where I benefit from About Time.

The movie tells the story a young man who learns that all the males in his family have the ability to travel backward in time. Throughout the movie, he continually returns to previous events and rights them. Eventually, and here’s the spoiler, he realizes that he can live every day as it occurs and enjoy every moment for the beauty it has.

My family was never kind. My grandmother wrote one of her sons out of her will, writing a cleverly stinging comment into it which was designed to humiliate him during what she thought would be a public reading in her lawyer’s office. One final spanking from the grave. My mother and her sister loved it. They each wanted to do that in their own will. My mother would do it to me, she thought. But my aunt Thelma, having two sons, would have the delicious opportunity to choose which son she would hurt deeply. She chose Gary. The irony of that is that Gary was her favorite during her lifetime and she turned on him to will everything to Joe. I suppose I’d like that to give me a pass on my own behavior but the reality is that I’m the one responsible for it. So, I could have been kinder. I just chose not to. Because I really am a mean-spirited jerk.

My son is kind, though. So, if I can ride his coattails a bit that would be just fine. The defining moment in his life was Superstorm Sandy. That storm tore through our Staten Island on October 29,2012. It was like nothing we’d seen before and like nothing we hope to see again. The damage and devastation it caused is with us today. Nearly three years later many Staten Islanders have not gotten back into their homes.

Ross Jr. was preparing to fly to Houston where he was to speak at a sales conference. With the airports closed because of the storm, that would not happen. We sat together on his living room couch and decided that, since he wasn’t leaving town, we should go to our old neighborhood, Tottenville, which had been hard hit, to see if we could help in any way.

The first person we saw was our Congressman, Michael Grimm. He was there on the first day and he never stopped helping each day that followed. He walked us on a quick tour, giving us an overview of what the needs were and how we could help. He was later to direct Ross Jr. to set up a relief hub in Midland Beach. It was that relief station that set the wheels in motion for what was to follow.

In Tottenville, in Great Kills and in Midland beach Ross brought his wife and children as he mucked out houses, distributed clothing and provided a shoulder to cry on. He started a GoFundMe account where people sent him money because he asked for it and was on the ground providing immediate help. Great people like Sarah and Tony Zolecki, Eric Worre, pitched in with generous donations to get some immediate supplies. The Higginson family from Agel USA flew out from Salt Lake City with a work crew and gave an astoundingly large donation. Many others joined in. It was a tremendous grass roots action built by people who trusted that Ross was the guy who could get money quickly where there was need.

We were naive enough to think the Sandy Crisis would be handled quickly. Ross thought he was in for the short haul, just until the government and Red Cross released the money designated for Sandy relief. As it turned out, he was about to take more than six months off from work and plunge into volunteer relief work full time.

That was when an amazing thing happened. He met two other great men Farid Kader and Mike Hoffman. They were each working to help Sandy survivors and the three of them linked up. The synergy was outstanding. They formed a group called Yellow Boots Long Term Disaster Relief and were able to help rebuild homes to an extent they’d not foreseen. Congressman Grimm’s office was tremendously accessible to them and they got things done.

Three years later, the drive to help continues. This Friday Yellow Boots will host their third annual fundraiser. The money goes to the survivors. The overhead is smaller than minimal. The Yellow Boots board members take no salary. They continue to do great work, stepping into the gap where government red tape causes relief to come slowly.

In the movie About Time, Bill Nighy continues his toast. He says ” I’m not particularly proud of many things in my life, but I am very proud to be the father of my son.”

That’s a quote I can get behind.

If you’d like to know more about the work Yellow Boots does (or perhaps make a tax deductible donation), visit their site at www.yellowboots.org

Pentecost, Bill Gothard, and Raising a Daughter By The Rules

by Ross Decker Sr

It was Pentecost Sunday yesterday. The birthday of the Church. It was also the anniversary of the day when I dedicated my daughter to the Lord.

The church I was attending at the time was a small inter-denominational church. They didn’t believe in infant baptism so they substituted “baby dedications.” The thinking was that, since babies could not assent to Christianity, the weight of the decision would fall upon the parents. While the baby could not desire to live for Jesus, the parents would commit to raising her in such a way that the baby would have no other option. So, the baby dedication had very little to do with the baby and had quite a lot to do with the parents. It was their day. Like everyone else, we invited our closest friends. We invited friends from out of state. They were to be not only spectators but future finger pointers when we went wrong. In fact, part of the service was the pastor charging our friends to keep an eye on us.

Having our baby dedicated on Pentecost Sunday proved to be a mistake. The good part about this mistake was that we were not to blame. Like many independent churches, the pastoral staff was a family. The assistant pastor was the son. The administrative pastor was the brother-in-law. The facilities manager was the son-in-law. The church secretary was the pastor’s daughter. And, it was the pastor’s daughter/secretary through whom we scheduled the dedication.

Unfortunately for her, the Church planned a big day for Pentecost. It was, after all, the birthday of the Church! There were special songs. And more special songs. The service began to drag on. Kevin, one of the assistant pastors (not related) sensed that there was a problem. And, that’s when it got really wild. He whisked my daughter from my arms and held her up like the scene from the Lion King. He wanted to get the pastor’s attention. And, when he did, the problem became evident. The pastor had no idea why my daughter was dangling aloft. He wasn’t forgetting my daughter’s dedication. He hadn’t been informed. He had no idea. His own daughter had forgotten to add the dedication to the calendar.

Kevin acted swiftly. There was only one course of action. He dashed down the side aisle to the second row and spoke directly to the most powerful person in the church. My pastor’s wife! She walked immediately up to the pulpit, interrupting the Scripture reading, whispering into her husband’s ear. The dedication was back on.

Being a parent in that church was often nerve wracking. Being a father in that church was worse. The pastor taught that the full responsibility for child rearing was with the father. He stressed a complete patriarchal system. Bolstering this thought was a name we’ve seen lately in the news – Bill Gothard. Gothard devised a morality system from the patching together of scripture and seduced many conservative christians to follow his teachings. The Duggars did. He was their moral teacher when their son famously got into a bit of trouble. Never mind that rumors of inappropriate behavior dogged Gothard. My pastor followed him, taught from his material and continued until the evidence just overwhelmed. All church activities shut down for a week each summer when the Bill Gothard caravan rolled into Ocean Grove, NJ. The congregation was urged to take their family vacations at that time and go to Ocean grove to be at the “seminar”.  Often, my church congregation filled several Bed and Breakfast style hotels on in that Jersey shore town. We were totally insulated and quite happy about it.

During the year, the men of the church were expected to attend the twice monthly “Men’s Institute.” The pastor facilitated it using Gothard materials. Even older teenage boys and college age single men were expected to attend this teaching in order to learn God’s way for men to lead their families. Often, on Sundays, parents were cautioned to not let their daughters marry a man who had not been a faithful attender of this Men’s Institute.

So, with that responsibility upon my shoulders, there were few things as scary as raising a daughter. The message I absorbed was that it would be my fault if my daughter “slipped.” What if she kissed a boy? What if a boy “touched” her before marriage.  What if they held hands? What  if, what if, what if? It would be on me if she did. Not the boy. Maybe his parents, but not the boy. He could repent and be “restored.” If my daughter slipped she would be “that girl” for the rest of her time in that church.

That whole church identity was built on that. Fathers protected their daughters from the sons of fathers who shirked their duty. Fathers steered their families. Wives humbly obeyed. So, is it any surprise that Bill Gothard, the architect of the pure family, tumbled from his perch amid rumors of his own sexual abuse? Is it shocking that he felt he could counsel young Josh Duggar?

Here comes the spoiler alert. My daughter grew up as a princess. Yes, she made it to the altar pure. She’s a great mom to two children. She picked a fantastic husband. But, the irony of it is that she did it on her own. Turns out that her values were inborn. They were her own, not mine. And she fashioned the life and value system that worked for her.

Looking back, I’d have it no other way.

Spanky Bit Me

by Ross Decker Sr

I love Spanky. He is my Chihuahua. I admit to being a bit over the top in my affection for him, but who could blame me? Spanky is the greatest dog I’ve ever known. He’s the best dog I’ve ever heard of. In fact, I’m pretty sure he’s the best dog who has ever lived.

Despite all that, every now and then Spanky bites me. Once he was sleeping under the covers near my feet. I called to him and patted the mattress. I wanted him to come up closer so that I could pet him. He just looked at me for a moment and then stood up. I took that to mean that he was coming up to lay down next to me and I reached for him. That was when, much to my surprise, he bit me. Hard! He snarled and growled and drew blood. I yelled “no” and flipped him onto his back. That’s what I was taught to do when I took him to the obedience class he flunked. I locked eyes with him until he looked away in submission. Then, I got up and got the Band-Aids.

While I was putting the Band Aid on I started to think about what had just happened. I love that dog and I know he loves me. But he bit me. He can’t even feed himself. He needs me to do it for him. And he bit me. I buy the food, open the bag and put it into the bowl. He sees me do it. And he bit me. I bought the bowl too. And, still, he bit me.

He is incapable of letting himself out to go for a walk. I have to take him. But he bit me.

The reality of this is simple. I have committed myself to caring for that little dog no matter what. I love him. A commissioned silhouette of him hangs on my office wall next to a clock made from his photo. Yes, I’m obsessed. I suppose that there is some number of bites that might get me to change my mind about that, but I know for certain we are nowhere near that number.

It reminds me about something my friend Glenn said to me. He’s a pastor. And, a pretty smart guy. And, a realist. He said that one of the certainties in ministry is that sheep will bite the shepherd. The shepherd, if he is truly a shepherd, gives his all for the sheep. He lives with them, feeds them, waters them, and protects them. And, instead of steadfast devotion to him, they repay him by biting him. They, like Spanky bite the hand that feeds them.

Yesterday was Good Shepherd Sunday on the Church calendar. My pastor gave a fantastic homily about the calling of a true shepherd. He spoke of the joy he felt in baptizing, in performing weddings and, yes, hearing confessions. Especially long overdue confessions. He said that the most joyous confessions he hears are the ones that begin, “Bless me father for I have sinned. It’s been 25 years since my last confession.” Reconciling after a 25 year absence! He loves being part of the lifting of the sin burden. He spoke of the honor of “doing what I was ordained to do,” celebrate Mass. He spoke of his sadder responsibilities, performing funerals and visiting the sick. But he never once complained about being bitten. He has been, of course. But the joys of his vocation outweigh the occasional nip.

If you’re in a calling that demands you give your all to others you might do well to remember that. Teachers – sheep bite the shepherd. Your students will act out. Parents – sheep bite the shepherd. Your children will call you mean. Pastors – sheep bite the shepherd. Despite all your care and counseling, your congregants will turn on you. But if you are true to your calling pastors, parents and teachers, it can’t be about how those you love and serve treat you. It’s about how you love and serve. You will continue to give your all and be repaid with bites. No matter how dearly you love them, sheep bite the shepherd. After all, Spanky bit me.

GRAM PARSONS AND THE LORD’S FIERY RAIN

Churchinwinter

by Ross Decker Sr

I was flipping around channels on Sirius recently when a song that I’d not heard in ages came on. It was Sin City by the Flying Burrito Brothers. The words really inspired me. I immediately went and bought a notebook.” I’m blogging, I told myself, I’m blogging!” I wanted to say something about the song.

For me, the song invokes bleak imagery of a desolate, downtrodden town. Perhaps it’s a mining town. Certainly, it’s a “company” town. It has the same lonely feel of a beach town in winter.

The theme is that of a person struggling to be good. Try as he may, he repeatedly loses his struggle against sin and finds himself straying. The songwriters, Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons, address the power and inevitability of sin with the lines “This old town’s full of sin, it’ll swallow you in..” and see the only just fate to be  “the Lord’s fiery rain.”

There, you find the struggle.

This isn’t a new theme. Like sin itself, it’s common to man. One of my favorite hymns, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, explored that theme long ago. Robert Robinson penned the words, “prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the Lord I love.” It is a theme though that is expressed often  in country music, both in the songs and in the lifestyle.

There was a time when other folks’ struggles were so simple to me. I thought that you could judge the wanderer by the wandering. His sin defined him.

Now, I see it differently. The agonizing over his sin is how I define the man. It’s his desire to return, no matter how unsuccessful it appears in his life, that is the true measure of a person. He’s defined by the grace of God within him that stirs in him the desire to come home.

He needn’t face the Lord’s fiery rain

MOTHERS’ DAY 2015

Churchinwinter

by Ross Decker Sr 

Yesterday was Mothers’ Day. Earlier in the week was my mother’s birthday. And, while rummaging through some all photos, I found her confirmation certificate. My mother passed away several years ago.

This is usually the set up for a piece on how much I miss her and how dearly I’d want her back. But, that would require me to be a better person than I am. I had none of those feelings, although seeing the confirmation certificate made me think of her life in a way I never did before.

She spent all of her childhood in a Lutheran orphanage here on Staten Island, as did her twin sister. And, although that’s pretty sad, the story immediately gets even sadder. Both their parents were living. When they were brought to the orphanage, the person doing the bringing was her mother. No one was dead. It was just that The Great Depression was just ending and the two girls were too expensive to keep. Her brothers stayed at home with their mom but the twin girls were brought to the orphanage where their father worked as the custodian. Her mother and father were separated. Her mother came to visit occasionally but her father, although working there, never made an effort to see her.

She grew up with no one fussing over her hair. She never had someone who would buy her favorite color socks. Her shoes and clothes were the same as all the other girls’. She spent every day wearing the uniform of an orphan. No one took her picture. There were no family events to commemorate. No one had a tea party with her. No one brought home a teddy bear. She had birthday acknowledgements, of course. The home gave the girls birthday berets and oranges. But, she knew that she was not getting a birthday party given by someone who loved her. They weren’t proud of her. They didn’t get excited over her graduations or her first teenage birthday. They had no hopes or expectations for her.  No one did.

She couldn’t be adopted because both her parents were living. So, barring a change of heart from her mother she and her sister would be there until they were eighteen.  And,that is what happened. She stayed in that orphanage with her sister, knowing her brothers were with their mother. Feeling that her brothers were more loved and more valuable to her parents.

My mother never had any example of how a caring mother might act. I know she was truly doing her best. But, the job of motherhood was outside of her skillset. She was always cold to me. Or mean. She beat me with belts whenever I would misbehave. And she would threaten to send me to the local orphanage.

Somehow, I knew even then that she was doing her best. SChurchinwinterhe did good things, too. Every day she sang hymns to me. Whenever I left the house, she would send me off with a Scripture verse. So, I choose to remember the mother who, like Fanny Crosby, “did what she could.”