Social work and me

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social work monthShe was only nineteen, apparently old enough to experience homelessness, single motherhood, domestic violence and the judicial system. As she sat quietly in my cubicle, I tried to obtain some basic information, the colors of her designer handbag echoing louder than any voice in that cold, sterile building. My task: Help her find a job before her welfare benefits expired.

He was alert and oriented, standing at the sun-baked bus stop, blue eyes squinting through a shaggy, white beard. A Vietnam veteran with a history of traumatic brain injury and chronic homelessness, he answered my questions in a polite, friendly tone. My task: Help him find housing before his next visit to an emergency room.

Ah, social work, the profession of champions.

It’s been about two years since I “left” the field to pursue a calling in pastoral ministry, but social work has never really left me. My career changed not because I disliked social work, as much as it brought me to new places. If anything, I hope to bring it wherever I go. So in honor of National Social Work Month, here’s a brief word about the impact social work has left on me.

In short, social workers get it.

Forgive my bias, but I think social workers understand the real world better than most folks. They know the good, bad and ugly of how society operates. They deal with systems that chew people up and spit them out. They have an astute grasp of the powerful influences we don’t get to choose: our family history, culture, privilege, opportunity, discrimination, and access to resources, just to name a few. Ask any social worker, and they will tell you about the underlying causes of poverty, addiction, delinquency, violence, racism, homelessness and inequality. They are society’s unheralded custodians, cleaning up social messes made by others.

You would think all this would make social workers a cynical bunch, but they’re actually some of the most positive human beings I’ve ever worked with. They don’t just chatter about what’s wrong with the world, but demonstrate what can be done about it, step by daily step. Social workers ask the right questions, listening for untold stories. They link people with resources, advocating for our most vulnerable citizens. In the face of relentless bureaucracy, paperwork, politicking, program changes and budget cuts, social workers will stop at nothing to make a human connection, bringing hope and dignity to those our society has given up on.

Without social workers, we would see more people wandering the streets with untreated mental health issues, more children victimized in abusive homes, and more veterans committing suicide. There would be more people utilizing costly inpatient medical services instead of appropriate community-based care options. Without social workers, a greater burden would fall upon our schools, police, hospitals, prisons, employers and churches to pick up the pieces when someone’s life falls apart. By simply doing what they love to do, social workers help the rest of us flourish.

At its best, social work is about making connections and building bridges, not unlike the task of a pastor. It’s not about having a bleeding heart as much as dirty hands working to make a difference. It’s about entering deeply enough into someone’s life to understand their perspective and guide them forward, beginning at noisy bus stops and in frigid cubicles. 

So go ahead, thank a social worker today.

My word for the year

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stringer pianoHow are those new year’s resolutions going? Sticking to that diet, budget, fitness or reading plan? I was supposed to get back to blogging at least once a month in 2014, which obviously didn’t happen in January. But that doesn’t mean I can’t dust myself off and give it another try. So here goes.

Perspective. It’s my word for 2014. If you haven’t yet chosen a word for this year, it’s not too late. For some background, Carolyn Weyel has written a helpful introduction to the concept of choosing one word at the beginning of a new year.

My word for 2013 was simplify, as I sought to de-clutter my ambitions, possessions, schedule and obligations. As it turned out, our family relocated to a smaller living space closer to work, downsized our belongings, sold our beloved baby grand piano, cancelled many (though not all) of my precious magazine subscriptions, narrowed the focus of our charity giving, and said goodbye to our television and microwave in 2013. These simplifications didn’t all happen at once, but unfolded gradually during the year.

Lest I give the impression that this word was a silver bullet, it’s worth mentioning that I still drive too much, waste too much time on the “phone,” and have yet to finish that book on simplicity I pledged to read. Nonetheless, I’m grateful for each plodding step in simplicity’s direction. How incredible that a word can clarify a year.

Back to perspective. How did I select this word? My thoughts were initially drawn to a different word: priorities. After all, my new year’s resolutions were loaded with priorities in areas like health, family, schedule, career and study. With such a long list, I had to prioritize. And what better way to increase my chances of accomplishing these goals than to select “priorities” as my word for the year? Focus on priorities, accomplish priorities, right?

But something was missing.

Shortly before year’s end, a friend introduced me to Good Dirt, a resource helping families journey together through the church year: Advent, Christmastide, Epiphany, and so on. Naturally, I discovered Carolyn Weyel’s piece on choosing a word for the year, in which she stresses the importance of allowing God to choose the word for you. I realized it wasn’t about accomplishing my wish list in 2014, but attending to what God wanted to grow in me. I took Carolyn’s advice and prayed about it.

As it turns out, I had everything wrong but the first letter. I was missing perspective. Good things happen when we slow down, pause, pray. We gain perspective. We experience the present moment. We actually notice our planet. We think differently about the people who make life difficult. We consider viewpoints beyond our biases. We release our to-do lists to God.  We receive new eyes, open to the unseen.

You can be sure I’m still working on my list of priorities (like trying to finish this blog post). But what happens when I fail to prioritize my own priorities—like when I don’t exercise or read or save money or get to bed on time? What can unaccomplished priorities offer me when all I can think about is how different I wish things were? How will I respond when I let myself down?

Only a supreme grace can help me slow down, pause, and be present with God, whose desire is not that I get what I want, but that I see as he sees. When my efforts fail to produce their intended results, I need his perspective on those efforts (and results). When my kids frustrate me, I need divine perspective. When people repeatedly annoy me, I need supernatural perspective. When my goals remain elusive, I need the perspective of other travelers along the path. 

I still miss our piano. But this year, I’m getting new eyes.

What is your word for 2014? How was it chosen?

Grief journal (3 years)

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Three years sounds like a long while, but it’s really not. Time can do many things, but healing all wounds isn’t one of them. The pain of losing Vincent hasn’t subsided, yet the rhythms of grief have changed, at least for me.

Generally speaking, daily functioning has gradually grown easier, but anniversaries and birthdays seem increasingly difficult. Each anniversary is like an ominous semester deadline, when your list of unfinished assignments can no longer be ignored. Grief will let you procrastinate, but only for so long.

My tears are due today.

Vincent

With the help of Holy Scripture and the Book of Common Prayer, I’ve drawn up a short liturgy in memory of Vincent. Our family will be using it when we visit the cemetery today. You are welcome to pray along with us, or adapt it for someone you have lost.

A Liturgy in Memory of Vincent 

Leader: Today, we remember the life of our beloved son, brother, grandson, and nephew, Vincent Wing Seun Stringer. On the third anniversary of his passing, let us pray to our Lord Jesus Christ who said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Reader 1: Lord, you consoled Mary and Martha in their distress. Draw near to us who mourn for Vincent, and dry the tears of all who weep.

All: Hear us, Lord.

Reader 2: You wept at the grave of your close friend, Lazarus. Bring comfort to our family, and shepherd all who grieve in sorrow.

All: Hear us, Lord.

Reader 3: You welcomed and blessed the little children. Vincent is now victorious and safe in your arms. Fill us with the hope of reunification.

All: Hear us, Lord.

Reader 1: The Lord has come to comfort all who mourn, to provide for all those who grieve in Zion, to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.

All: Thanks be to God.

Reader 2: The Lord Almighty will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth.

All: Thanks be to God.

Reader 3: When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

All: Thanks be to God.

Leader: Most generous and loving God, we give you thanks for Vincent’s life. Give us grace to treasure Vincent’s memory and help us bring comfort to others. Grant us faith in your goodness and strength to meet the days to come, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

All: Hear us, Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Is there hope for apologetics?

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HardwiredI remember attending a debate in college between a Christian and an atheist.

Before it started, the room was abuzz with anticipation, like a stadium before kickoff. After the competitors were introduced to applause and scattered boos, they each proceeded to argue forcefully for their belief system, trading punch lines and other rhetorical jabs. Along the way, they interrupted, misquoted and belittled each other’s views. They called each other names and triumphantly scoffed at how misguided the other person was. In their concluding remarks, both sides claimed to have scored the most points, which was curious given the absence of a scoreboard.

I don’t recall anyone being officially declared the winner that night, or if anyone left the room with different beliefs than when they entered. I wonder if the real losers were members of the audience, or at least those of us who had hoped for better.

Over a decade later, I now find myself as a pastor, a vocation predicated on the existence of God. Yet I still have mixed feelings when the subject of apologetics arises. Perhaps I’ve seen it done poorly too many times. Or maybe I’m turned off by the defensive, almost desperate, salesmanship that belittles opposing viewpoints. Or it could be that I can’t stomach the dissonance between apologists’ typical form (rhetorical flourishes and deductive “proofs” designed to score points for God) and their content (the message of God’s love, grace and hope for the world).

Apparently, my friend Jim Miller, also a pastor, has a few mixed feelings about apologetics too. In the opening chapter of his new book Hardwired: Finding the God You Already Know (Abingdon), Jim writes:

Most people who believe in anything, religious or otherwise, did not get there by listening to a debate, and meaningful beliefs do not often rest on academic research. That isn’t to suggest faith and reason are unrelated. There are those who think that God gave reason to humanity the way a father gives a BB gun to his son, telling him, “You can play with that thing all you want. Just don’t point it at me.” To the contrary. In fact, the Scriptures say that God intends for people to come looking for him. He isn’t afraid of our reasoning.

If God isn’t afraid of our reasoning, perhaps he intends for us to search without fear of what we might find (Matthew 7:7-11). While I’m generally not a huge fan of apologetics, I look forward to reading the rest of Jim’s book because he understands that a rational, academic case for God’s presence can only take you so far, especially when everyone uses a different scoreboard. A philosophy buff with an eye for the accessible, Jim doesn’t blast his readers with data and argumentation, but instead helps us catch glimpses of God in our everyday assumptions.

So maybe it’s not a stretch to hope for a better, redeemed approach to apologetics. Rather than trying to dissolve the conversation with a litany of airtight rebuttals to all possible objections, we can set our sights on becoming a different kind of people, the kind of faith community with a capacity to offer helpful responses in the context of authentic relationships when the big questions hit.

Who knows? We might even keep the conversation going.

Loon’s linkage (May/June ’13)

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Happy 4th Birthday Vincent!

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Today is your day, Vincent. Happy birthday! We’ve got cake, presents, and a song for you. Your mom, brothers and I are ready to celebrate.

For the past two and a half years, your memory has been mostly about me. It’s been about my loss, my sorrow, my questions, and my feelings. My thoughts about you often became more about my own grieving process, which isn’t always a bad thing.

But today is different, Vincent.

You are the star of the show today. You are a special kid, not because of how we felt when you got cancer and had to leave us, or because of how much we’ve missed you since, but simply because you are a gift. Always were and still are. We didn’t make you or give you breath. You were given to us. All we did was receive you and pick your name.

So today is not about me, Vincent. This birthday celebration is all yours. Four years ago, we welcomed you into our family. You were incredibly perceptive from the beginning, recognizing faces and knowing exactly what you could get from each one. You were an inquisitive learner, always studying your surroundings with intense wonder. You were joyful and relational, eager to pull Theo’s hair or hand your magnetic letters to anyone nearby.

Special thanks to our church friends for the cake!

It’s incredible how much Andre resembles you, your face, your voice, your lack of hairnot unlike the way you resemble Theo. We can only speculate on what you would look like at age four, but it’s not super hard to guess.

Forever the middle brother, you are today’s center of attention.

Happy birthday, kiddo.

Loon’s linkage (March/April ’13)

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