Who Are You Talking To?
The Rev. Erika Takacs
It’s amazing what you can get used to. An example: last week I was on my way home, walking down Broad Street, lost in my own musings and enjoying the crisp fall weather. As I crossed South Street, I looked up to see a man about halfway down the block, walking in my direction. Immediately the great question that haunts all city-dwellers popped into my mind: do I make eye contact and smile, or do I pretend like I don’t see him at all? I usually opt for the former, even if it makes me seem less cosmopolitan and chic. So as the gentleman and I approach one another, I look up, ready to smile, and suddenly he says, “Right…right. That’s exactly what I said. What in the world is she thinking?” At which point, I realized that he was, in fact, on the phone, and I laughed to myself and continued on my way.
These kinds of surprise outbursts are so common anymore that I barely even notice them. Remember the good old days, when to talk on your cell phone, you had to actually, you know, talk on your cell phone? Remember how strange it was at first to hear these one-sided conversations in public, as you sat in the train station or did your grocery shopping? But by now we’ve been through the era giant blue-blinking earpieces and the speakerphone, where people just kind of yelled in the general direction of their phone and moved on to the era of the headphones with the attached microphone. The man I saw had no visible communication device at all – no earpiece, no headphones, no phone to be seen. For all I could tell he’d had a microphone surgically implanted in his face. Nonetheless, I didn’t think a thing of it. That man who appears to be talking to himself as he walks alone down the street? Why, of course, he must be on the phone. Amazing what we can get used to.
That man who appears to be talking to himself as he stands in the midst of the temple compound? Why, of course, he must be praying. We are, of course, completely used to the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. We have heard this story so many times that the behavior of the Pharisee hardly strikes us as odd. The fact that he stands alone in the middle of a crowd and talks out loud is no surprise to us, because we have long ago realized that he is really talking to God, trying to pray. He gets it wrong, we know this; we’re used to watching him boast about his piety, his holiness, about how much he tithes and fasts. We’re also used to the actions of his foil, the tax collector, who stands far off and cannot even lift his eyes for shame. And, of course, we’re used to Jesus’ punchline: “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other….” These two men, who appear to be talking to themselves in the courts of the temple? Why, of course, they must be praying – one of them well, and one of them not-so-well. We’re used to it.
This is, of course, dangerous. Whenever we find ourselves thinking that we “get” a parable, we should take a breath, take a step back, and sit at Jesus’ feet once more. Because we know that the parables of Jesus were intended to be shocking, to describe a world that was unlike anything his listeners were used to. Those to whom Jesus told this tale would have never seen this punchline coming in a million years. It would have seemed to them entirely outlandish, nonsensical. They would have walked away shaking their heads, wondering what color the sky was in Jesus’ world, this world where a lowlife like a tax collector, a corrupt, abusive, puppet of Rome, is held up as a model over and above a Pharisee, a faithful, righteous, strict keeper of the law.
And why is it so dangerous for us to think that we know better? After all, we have the gift of hindsight; we see the whole story, and we know how it ends. We see the color of the sky in Jesus’ world because we’re trying to live in that world, too. We know a bit better, don’t we? Ah, dangerous thinking. The risk here is two-fold: first, that we might get so used to this story, so comfortable with the caricature of Pharisee as fool and tax collector as diamond in the rough, that we will fall headlong into the parable’s trap by saying something like, “God, I thank you that I am not like this Pharisee.” Dangerous.
But the second risk here, if we are too quick to get used to this parable, is that we might miss the fact this Pharisee is not, actually, like the man I saw walking down Broad Street. That man looked like he was talking to himself but was actually talking to someone else. The Pharisee in this story looks like he’s talking to God but is actually talking to himself. He doesn’t speak as if God is actually listening; he’s just thinking out loud, talking to himself about what he’s done, and how he feels about it. God doesn’t have much to do with it. Even the text itself is unclear here. The Greek phrase which describes his prayer translates to something like, “he prayed thus to himself.” Does this mean he prayed under his breath so that no one else could year? Or does it literally mean that he was praying to himself? Or, perhaps, does the ambiguity simply lie there, challenging us to think differently, about him and about ourselves?
There are times in all of our lives when we find ourselves praying thus to us? It’s an easy trap to fall into. It’s easy to get so used to our prayers that we are blinded to the fact that they actually do ascend to heaven like incense. We pray without actually praying, start a conversation with the expectation that no one is really listening. An example: we confess our sins often in this place – every Sunday, every day, in fact. We offer a weekly opportunity for private confession. But do we say those words as if God is actually listening? When we say, “Most merciful Father,” do we feel, in the speaking of those words, that we are demanding the attention of Almighty God? When we pray, “we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed,” are we just talking to ourselves, going over a list in our own heads and for our own sakes, waiting for the priest to turn around with words of absolution, waiting to get up off our knees? Are we talking to God, or to ourselves?
This parable reminds us that whether we recognize it or not, God is listening. God is always listening. God does hear us talking. This confession that we make week after week, day after day, can never be an empty gesture, because it’s real. It’s efficacious. It matters. We have really sinned, you and I have sinned, the Church has sinned, the country has sinned, our forebears have sinned. And God knows it, knows all of our sins already, even those that we are too afraid to bring to mind. God listens. If we were able to really grasp this, if we were to feel the sharp reality of this conversation, to acknowledge God’s Almighty, Omnipotent presence, our regular confessions would feel far different. We might even find ourselves beating our breasts, kneeling with heads bowed low, foreheads on the ground, unable to speak at all. We might find ourselves echoing the words of God’s people in Jeremiah, praying that God will not completely reject us, hoping that God does not loathe us, longing for peace and healing, hoping against all hope that God will continue to be righteous, that God will continue to forgive.
But this is not meant to scare us. Because the truth is that if we let ourselves become so used to speech of our confession that we are only really giving it lip service, we miss out. We miss out on the opportunity to feel the transformational grace of God’s mercy, the unearned and unmerited gift that God gives us when he says to us again and again, yes, I hear you, yes, you are mine, and yes, I forgive you, I cherish you, I see you and seek you out, and yes, through the merits of my only son, your beloved Savior, Jesus Christ, I even exalt you.
So go ahead. Make your humble confession before Almighty God, devoutly kneeling. Pray as if he is listening, talk not to yourself but to him, and know his infinite mercy and love. Speak, you humble, beautiful sinners, speak you servants, for your God is listening.
Mother Takacs is Associate Rector at Saint Mark's Church and serves as Servant Year's Chaplain.
An Answer to Prayers
By The Rev. Dr. Scott Albergate
When I was called to serve St. John’s, Norristown in November 2012, I was struck by how richly blessed we are in resources for ministry: a small but strong parishioner base, excellent buildings, and the well-known feeding ministry of St. John’s Soup Kitchen that has served the hungry and homeless of Norristown for over 30 years.
Nonetheless, it had been years since St. John’s had taken a fresh look at developing new urban ministries to serve a changing Norristown, where the Hispanic population has grown to 30%, and the poverty level is now 76% greater than the Pennsylvania average.
At a vestry meeting last spring, we prayed for guidance on how we could better engage God’s mission imperatives for Norristown right now. Not long after that I happened to receive a newsletter from ECS that featured our Diocese’s Servant Year program. As I read the article, it struck me that having someone serve full-time as an urban missioner could help jump start St. John’s to strategically build upon our current ministries and serve our community in new ways. Our Servant Year Member, Karitsa, has perfectly fit this role as a collaborator in mission with our parishioners.
A richly gifted and energetic graduate of the University of Maryland, Karitsa spends half her time working in direct service to our neediest citizens – those suffering the effects of homelessness, impoverishment, and mental illness – through Norristown Ministries, one of St. John’s community partner organizations that operates on our campus to provide case management, counseling, meals, and respite from life on the streets. This work also enables Karitsa to help St. John’s better understand our community today and strategically plan new avenues of service.
Karitsa is also engaged in a wide variety of urban mission initiatives, including: serving on the Diocese’s Latino Hispano Ministry Task Force to start an outreach ministry to Hispanics at St. John’s; developing a partnership with a local psychiatric emergency services hospital to address the mental health needs of our community; and preparing to serve as the site director of Camp St. John’s, a partnership with Diocesan Youth Ministry office to reach out to children in our neighborhood through a camp on the grounds of our church this July.
Speaking for all of us at St. John’s, we are grateful for Karitsa’s presence as a force for renewal among us. None of this would be possible, however, without the foresight of the Diocese in supporting urban ministry initiatives, the support of Canon Andrew Kellner and the Office of Youth Ministry and, most especially, the Director of our Servant Year program, Lindsay Barrett-Adler. It was Lindsay who responded to my request to consider a Servant Year intern for Norristown. Lindsay believed in the vision for ministry that we presented and made all the rest happen.
My hope in sharing these thoughts with leaders of congregations and future Servant Year members is that you, too, will consider the creative possibilities for mission and ministry that the Servant Year program offers.
Father Albergate is Rector at St. John's Episcopal Church in Norristown.
If there is one thing that Servant Year does well, it is the amount of support we have in our placements, in our house and just in life in general. Between prayer partners, the wonderful people with whom we get to live in intentional community, the loving and always available Mother Erika (our chaplain and the Assistant Rector at Saint Mark’s), and our ever-faithful leader, Lindsay, we are surrounded by people who desire the best for us and would come running at the drop of a hat.
To top it all off, Servant Year also requires that its members meet regularly with a mentor; someone who is older and wiser than us. Several weeks ago I met with mine for the first time. She asked me what some of my goals were for the year and I mentioned one of them was getting better at working with and engaging teenage boys.
A large part of my job is interacting with at-risk youth who have come from a variety of difficult homes and have varying struggles such as mental illness, substance abuse and truancy. I have found working with the boys particularly difficult because some of them remind me a lot of some other boys I encountered when I was younger. I won’t go into detail, but those other boys hurt me very deeply and I am finding it hard not transferring my feelings towards those boys onto these new boys.
After having explained this to my mentor, she wasted no time. Earlier I mentioned to her that I find writing very therapeutic, so she asked me to write down my story. She wanted me to verbalize what happened and to work on forgiving the past, so I could move forward and work with these boys in the present. Writing about the past hurt more than I expected. In fact, I still don’t feel completely satisfied with what I have written, but I am thankful. It is a wonderful thing to have someone come alongside me in this struggle and push me to do the hard things that will make me better.
Hm… “Push me to do the hard that things that will make me better,” that is what this year is all about, isn’t it? A year of servanthood. A year of humility. A year of coming up against the dirt inside ourselves. A year of learning to turn that weakness into strength as we lean into God and the support with which he provides us. I am so thankful for all of the support that is intentionally built into this program.
I love y’all, for real.
Tamarah's ministry placement is as a Case Manager at Diversified Community Services.
I hate brokenness. I hate brokenness and I really, really hate seeing people in pain. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), my days are spent surrounded by both. My 45-minute commute takes me from my home in Germantown, smack through the middle of North Philly, to my workplace-- situated between Chinatown and Kensington. It would be so much easier if I could hide from all of this, right? Maybe I could take a job or live in a neighborhood where I don’t have to encounter these realities daily. Like the Jars of Clay song says, “If I don’t want to, I can drown this out.”
Welp, I’m not doing a very good job of that this year. My placement is at a men’s homeless shelter. My time is mostly spent coordinating volunteers and donations, but I also get to spend time with the guests who live there. Each guy has their own story of how they ended up at the shelter, and each has their own (very) unique personality. There is a lot of brokenness, but also a lot of hope and joy. In addition, I facilitate a group of residents that meet once a month. It’s a loosely structured group that gives the members a chance to address things that are on their mind. This could be anything from a vent session about chores not getting done, to telling the group their life story. These stories are often brutally, painfully honest. I’ve noticed a common theme in many of their stories is how important their faith is to them. Because of their faith--many of these guys would say-- they are able to stay in recovery or begin to mend broken relationships.
So what’s my point? Actually I have two. First of all, brokenness is a part of life, and hiding from it isn’t going to make it go away. We are not called to put our headphones on, and “drown this out” (Jars of Clay, again). We’re called to be with the poor, and do something about the brokenness around us.
Second point: Jesus is really good at showing us that our social structure is all messed up. The fact that I went to college, have a supportive family, and am privileged in so many other ways, means that society sticks me higher on the social ladder than many of the residents. But. But. But. Jesus does this crazy thing where he places the same value on everyone. No matter what. He sometimes even flips the social ladder around. That man who is telling me his story of addiction and recovery probably has a better understanding of just how gracious and loving our God is. His faith could be stronger than mine, which, in that crazy role-reversal thing that Jesus is so good at doing, means I should take notes from him.
So maybe being surrounded by pain and brokenness 'ain't so cray' after all.
* I give credit where credit is due. Thanks, Kanye. This title is totally a riff off your lyrics.
Emily's ministry placement is as the Community Life Assistant at Bethesda Project.
Poverty and Human Development
Growing up in the United States can be harsh. Growing up in Philadelphia can be debilitatingly harsh. The United States and Somalia, that bastion of human rights, share the dubious distinction of being the only countries not to have ratified the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child, a commitment to a child’s access to the necessities of healthy development—a name, food, physical, social, and spiritual safety, play spaces, housing, medical attention, “an atmosphere of affection,” and education (1). Among developed countries, the US is second only to Romania in prevalence of childhood poverty (2). In Philadelphia, supposedly over 40% of children experience or witness violence (e.g., gunshots, stabbings, rape) before their eighteenth birthday. The youth we work with, at Covenant House, an adolescent crisis center for homeless and marginalized youth, have experienced many forms of pain and become stuck.
Many costly and painful conditions and major causes of death vary along racial and socioeconomic lines—diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, obesity, cancer, mental illness, etc. A growing literature on Adverse Childhood Experiences has linked childhood exposure to stressors to most major health disparities in the US. These stressors include sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional neglect, parental illness, among several others, and affect a whopping 60+% of the population (3). Stressful experiences disrupt the normal development of critical brain structures, including the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex. Mismodeled brains become less able to regulate emotions, control anxiety and aggression, think creatively, learn, and remember. These physiological and behavioral challenges often lead to unhealthy behaviors (e.g., unhealthy diets, substance abuse, risky sex), costly chronic diseases, and physical and psychic suffering. Among the gloomy data, one fact shines. The aforementioned negative outcomes of childhood stress are significantly buffered when the child has a stable, supportive, unconditionally loving relationship with an adult (4).
Given the developing understanding of the profoundly negative impact of unhealthy developmental contexts on health outcomes, we will hopefully begin seeing increased funding and attention for childhood programs. The American Academy of Pediatrics has proposed preventing toxic childhood stress as a primary concern of pediatric care and policy in upcoming decades (5). Healthy childhood environments, especially during the critical developmental period of the first three years of life when the brain matures rapidly, are critical in ensuring the future economic and social stability of the country. However, what about the many, many adolescents who have already experienced a traumatic childhood and developed the physiology and behaviors that result from it? The youth whose 0-3 critical developmental periods did not nurture them sufficiently? The youth who have been removed from abusive families, locked up, sold drugs or their body to survive, and tried to survive on the streets? The youth we work with at Covenant House, 24/7/365?
Fortunately, adolescence provides another critical developmental period, when the brain is still developing and being “rewired”. Youth who have been injured, developed bad habits, lived in hostile and impoverished environments, and survived receive a second chance from biology. Where do they get this chance from society? Schools? Not with behavior and attention problems. Employers? Not with a criminal record and drug habits. Family? Maybe. The state, via foster care? Only until your eighteenth birthday. These are the youth who come to us. Our job is to get them on their feet, by helping them become legal with IDs, helping them navigate legal and medical systems, and helping them find and maintain employment and housing. However, do yourecall that powerful buffer that protects developing brains from the negative effects of the stress that is inescapable at that point in their lives? A strong, supportive relationship with an adult. That is the critical part of the ambiguous job description that comes with all social service jobs. That is what enables the brain, creativity, learning and memory, and hope to thrive.
The power of positive relationships was underscored to me a few weeks ago during a conversation with our site’s pediatrician, after I asked how he saw the role of Covenant House in the greater medical/ social services infrastructure of the city. He drew a picture of a cliff. At the bottom of the cliff, were hospitals, ambulances, and life support to catch youth who had fallen all the way down the cliff. Between the top and bottom of the cliff, he drew a trampoline, to represent Covenant House, and said “our role, here, is to help youth bounce back.” Then he looked me in the eye and said “and the way we help them bounce back, is by falling in love with them.” The actual, daily challenges of this—of providing structure and boundaries, finding youth’s individual strengths and admirable qualities among red flags, and building a supportive relationship with someone who has had little experience to develop an internal model of that—those topics will have to wait for future posts.
(1) UN General Assembly. (1959). Declaration of the Rights of the Child. Resolution 1386 (XIV).
(2) UNICEF. (2012). Measuring Child Poverty. Report Card Series, 10. <http://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/rc10_eng.pdf>
(3) Bornstein. (2013) Protecting Children from Toxic Stress. NY Times. <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/30/protecting-children-from-toxic-stress/?hp&rref=opinion&_r=0>
(4) Shonkoff, Boyce, and McEwen. (2009). Neuroscience, Molecular Biology, and the Childhood Roots of Health Disparities: Building a New Framework for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. JAMA, 301, 2252-2259.
(5) Shonkoff et al. (2012). The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress. Pediatrics, 129, e232-246.
Tim's ministry placement is as a Youth Advisor at Covenant House.