19 June 2015

The problem with the homeless

Several times in the last few weeks, I've felt like people around me have seen the homeless as a problem, and preferably a problem that can be fixed or gotten rid of. It disturbs me, and I'm not entirely sure how to respond.

When I told someone about the incident with Tarra, she mentioned that some people might respond by commenting on how I should move to a better neighbourhood. In other words, I should do my best to get away from the homeless or battered folks.

At my neighbourhood's last meeting we talked about the homeless. The neighbourhood (Eastside Lansing) is close to downtown Lansing and has a number of spaces like underpasses, parks, and trails where homeless folk tend to gather. We also have a hospital and a number of homeless shelters in our neighbourhood or on the border of it. There's also a couple of busier intersections where folks ask for money. It's thus hard to live in the neighbourhood and not notice that there are homeless folks here in Lansing. That's something to be thankful for – they are our neighbours, and we should see them. The challenge, however, is how one responds to the homeless.

When a bunch of homeless folks take over your shanty in the backyard and use it as a makeshift toilet, this is obviously disgusting and a problem. When people shoot up heroin in public bathrooms and leave dirty needles, this is unsafe and a problem. When people are running into the street to ask for money, this is dangerous and a problem. Perhaps giving to those at the corner would help, except those asking for money at a corner are not necessarily even homeless but instead might be begging for cash because it's easier and makes more money than a low-income job. One can see how it's easy to see how it's the homeless themselves who become the problem, a problem that needs to be gotten rid of. But I wonder if instead of the homeless being the problem, the problem is really how we treat them and the systems we have set up. Are there not things to do to make life better for those currently on the street and those with whom they interact?

I've been volunteering at a homeless shelter about once a month for awhile now. I'm not sure if it's part of the solution, but it's part of my trying to see and know the homeless for who they are. I'm not sure about the theological idea that God has a preference for the poor, but I do believe I have something to learn from these folks who understand what it's like to be truly needy. As I hand out food to the men at the shelter – food which they don't get to choose the quality of or even the quantity of – they are polite, gracious and thankful. On top of that, there are always guys who are willing to help out when we run short of volunteers – glad to help out whenever. Knowing my own selfishness and my annoyance for people who don't show up or do what they promised, I am challenged by their example.

It seems natural to me to try to converse with these men, trying to appreciate them for who they are, encourage them if I can, as well as to be encouraged and further challenged by them. You can imagine my surprise (and frustration) when the last time I was volunteering one of the homeless men helping out was reprimanded by the staff for talking to me, being told he's not to converse with the (real) volunteers. The reasoning was to discourage the men from getting the wrong idea about how a female volunteer might be interested in them or wanting some kind of relationship. Despite this being a Christian homeless shelter, it seemed like the homeless guy was pretty much blatantly told he was the problem. How do I fight against that? How do I tell them not to blame the guys at the shelter when such a situation, in my eyes, is more the fault of not training naive volunteers or on account of a neglecting to create and enforce healthy boundaries by both the volunteer and the staff all those noticing the conversations? And how do I say that I find it disturbingly unchristian to treat the homeless like a problem that needs fixing, whether by having them be kept in their place or having them be forced (before receiving dinner) to hear a sermon that often focuses on how they need to accept Jesus into their heart? As I jokingly told Matthijs, the homeless could probably use a lot less Jesus in their hearts and a lot more Jesus on the streets. And in this case, I'm not sure it's the homeless that need Jesus the most. Matthew 25 suggests that it is through helping the homeless that people help Jesus. I wonder how it'd change the conversation if we saw the homeless less as problems and more as Jesus.

17 June 2015

Strange chronology in the book of Judges

Although I've learned that the stories in Old Testament prophetic books aren't necessarily chronological, I remain a little surprised when things in the historical books seem out of order. Two incidents in the book of Judges jumped out at me.

The book begins with saying “after Joshua died, such and such happened.” Seeing as the book of Joshua ends with his death, this fits chronologically. The only problem is that Joshua appears in the book of Judges in chapter 2, alive and well enough to send out the tribes to their inheritance. He then dies and is buried. You can explain this by saying that chapter 2 is simply telling what had happened previously, but if that's true, why don't Bibles put the part about Joshua in chapter 2 in the past perfect, the verbal tense used for talking about things that had happened previously?

At the end of the book, amidst the horrible story about the concubine and murdering of all the Benjaminites, Phinehas the priest shows up. Phinehas is famous for stabbing the man who was flaunting the fact that he was with a Moabite woman, while all of Israel was weeping on account of God's punishment for their being led astray by the women (and gods) of Moab. The story is in Numbers 25, indicating that Phinehas was alive while the Israelites were wandering in the dessert. Even if Phinehas was a teenager in the dessert, he should have been long dead after all of the judges had ruled their respective 20 or so years. There are two explanations for this – either the book is not in chronological order or this is a different Phinehas, who is not the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron, but is instead a descendant of these men.

As both the first chapter and the last chapter seem to be out of chronological order, this makes an interesting pattern. It suggests that even might be intentionality to things being out of order. When I was trying to solve the mystery of Phinehas, I checked out the Anchor commentary, and it suggested that the first and last chapters present a theological argument for the book. I found that a helpful way of looking at the text, especially because it's effective: I find the last story in the book to be shocking and disturbing. The reader is pushed to the conclusion that this is a people in desperate need of being saved – and the system of the judges obviously didn't really work.  

15 June 2015

Reading Joshua together

Matthijs and I have been reading through Joshua. It's not exactly the obvious choice of a Bible book to read through as a couple, but reading it together helps me catch up on my reading so that I might get through the Bible this year.

It's been a surprising adventure. As Matthijs reads, one of us sometimes stops and says, “what was that?” One obvious place was the story of Rahab (Joshua 2). After spending time with prostitutes in Amsterdam, the story has a few more layers. Like the fact that most prostitutes are very good at telling people what they want to hear. “Why yes, those Israelite men have already left.” “And certainly everyone in Jericho is afraid of all the Israelites.” I find it interesting that the spies report to Joshua that everyone is afraid of them when the only place the Bible reports them visiting is the prostitute Rahab's house. And it's on the basis of her word that they report this information. The only other proof the Bible gives is that they were being sought out by the king's men, but this might be standard procedure when foreigners sneak in to spy.

The long lists of people conquered, kings killed, and land divided is another aspect of Joshua I'd managed to forget. About a week of listening to names of people I don't know and places I've almost never heard of is more than enough (unfortunately, it's definitely more than a week's worth of reading).

At the same time, in the midst of the lists are some surprising moments. End of chapter 10 says that Joshua defeated the whole land and all their kings, he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the LORD God of Israel had commanded. Yet, at the end of chapter 15 it says “but the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalm, the people of Judah could not drive out; so the Jebusites dwell with the people of Judah at Jerusalem to this day.” End of chapter 16 notes how they did not drive out the Canaanites that dwelt in Gezer. How can there be no one remaining in the land while there are Jebusites and Canaanites still in the land? Can both statements be true?

To me this is one of the joys of reading the Bible together: to have those “wait a minute, what did it say?” moments. And then to wonder what's going on. I think most of us hear the book of Joshua saying that all the peoples in the land were conquered - because that's part of the theological message of the book: God is with them and is faithful to his promise of the land. So how then could there be people still remaining in the land? Yet, I think we miss something when we ignore what the text itself is saying, especially when it doesn't fit our own preconceived ideas of how it should be.

Alongside the strong theological message in Joshua of God's faithfulness, there's another undercurrent in the book of theological significance: the people are not entirely faithful (Achan's sins in chapter 7 being evidence of that). Saying that there were people Israel could not drive out seems to me to be another way of pointing to the people's lack of faithfulness. In the book of Judges, the theological undercurrent is exactly the opposite. The dominant theological message presented in Judges is that the people did what was right in their own eyes. Yet, alongside the unfaithfulness of the people, the book of Judges also has a theological undercurrent: God is faithful in delivering them.  

14 June 2015

A visit to St. Gregory's Abbey

This past week I visited St. Gregory's Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan. The following gives an idea of what that looked like this time:

Over the two days I was there, I spent at least three hours in the woods. I saw 3 deer, 1 raccoon, 1 large rabbit and 4 wild turkeys, plus numerous birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and 3 cats :)

I slept at least 6 hours every night and took an extra nap each day. I would have slept longer each night, except that first service starts at 4 a.m. The first service has about 15 Psalms, so I really like that one. And I go back to bed (and sleep) after it until the next service at 6. I spend almost 3 hours in church each day when I'm at the monastery. It's not that I have to. It's more that being in church is my way of remembering and re-learning how things can and should be. The many prayers that have been offered in this place, and the beautiful woods, help me further to be still and turn towards God to listen and ponder.

Besides walking and church, I tend to read and write when I'm there. This time it was Rachel Held Evans' Searching for Sunday, which I appreciated (it's actually the next book the monks will be reading at meal time). I also looked through Ruth Tucker's Walking Away from Faith, read 2 articles for my dissertation, and read the books of Judges, Ruth, and most of Acts. I wrote some emails, blog posts, and even a bit on the dissertation.

It was a wonderful break. A bit more energy spent on my dissertation might have been nice, but it felt good to catch up on other things, as it gives space in my head to work on the dissertation. The only thing lacking was Matthijs's company, but that's now resolved as he's back from the class he was taking. I feel refreshed and hopefully ready for the next adventure(s) and challenge(s).