Thursday, July 21, 2011

InterFaith Unity, Contemplation, and Humanitarian Outreach: Our Guiding Stars.

Here at St Francis Place our work revolves around three basic concepts which together form our mission: InterFaith Unity, Contemplation, and Humanitarian Outreach.

InterFaith Unity:

We are all God's Children regardless of how we see or understand God. By coming together in extended community both online and face to face we learn to see the commonalities that exist between us. Eventually we begin to see not just the Unity which exists between us, but also the Oneness of all things; all things being rooted in the Creator. With each other's support and friendship we break through the walls of illusion which have divided us for too long, and begin building bridges of love and Unity!


Contemplation, or Prayer and Meditation; call it what you will. This discipline is known to all in varying forms. Some may sit cross-legged chanting a mantra. Another may take a silent walk in nature. Others may lose themselves in creating or observing a work of art. Still others may gain this state of mind in the very deep and profound study of Scripture. Contemplation gives us the ability to see beyond ourselves and into the Mind of the Universe. In Contemplation we seek out the Will of God, as we understand God, and gain the insight, strength and energy needed to do the work that needs to be done. We cut through the chatter of our day-to-day lives and listen to the silence and the stillness of the Divine. By engaging in these practices on a daily basis we attain Serenity, Peace of Mind, and Wisdom.

Humanitarian Outreach (Helping Others):

We have all needed help at one time or another. And in our times of deepest need there was somebody there to help. It is not always possible or even necessary to repay those who have been there for us, but we can honor our benefactors through the simple act of "paying it forward." When we see a person in need, give whatever you can. Give without demanding payment in return. Rather ask only that when their circumstances improve they also repay your kindness by spreading the gift of goodness to others. We all have needs, and we all have abilities. Let us use them not just in the service of ourselves, but in the service of others as well. Thus we fulfill the Scriptural command, "Love your neighbor as you love yourself."

Here at St Francis Place, InterFaith InterPeace, ACA, and our other ministerial outreach programs we practice being open to all regardless of religion (or lack there-of), race, creed, color, sex, or sexual orientation. All with an open heart are welcome.

If you would like to join our extended online community, message me for details. Those wishing to make a donation to this work may do so by clicking on the "Donate" button above.

Thank You For Your Care and Interest,


Homeless In Hickory County: A True Story of Extended Community.

Back around Christmas a few years ago a homeless man named Steve knocked on our door. I was the pastor of a local Christian Church, so having strangers knock on my door asking for aid was a routine situation. Usually I would talk to them for a few minutes, access their need for help, and slip them a Salvation Army voucher redeemable for goods at most retail stores if the situation warranted. But Steve was different. He did not want a Salvation Army voucher or even cold hard cash. All he wanted was a tent. He told me he had come back into the area to see his family at Christmas, but did not want to live off of his kids even though he was homeless and could not afford a hotel. He shared that he had been living in his car up to that point, and with the nights getting colder, could not afford to run the car's engine to keep warm. His request was simple and to the point: a spare blanket that he could use in his old sleeping bag for warmth, and an old tent if we had one.

In Hickory County Mo. there is not much by way of housing homeless people for any period of time. What we pastors usually would do was put them up for a day at a local hotel which always gave us a special rate during the off-season, then provide for a bit of food. The next morning the homeless person would hit the road again for the next town that would provide some form of basic hospitality, and the pattern would repeat. But I could tell right away that Steve was different from the majority of people I had dealt with. There was an excitement in his eyes and a child-like innocence about him. He was around 50 years of age, but reminded me of a child of 12. He spoke briefly about "hearing voices" telling him to forsake his faith in God, but that he wanted nothing to do with those suggestions which he attributed to coming from Satan. He said he was a child of God and wanted to live as a child of God. He did not like being around a lot of people, but instead preferred to live out in nature with "God's creatures." I could tell right away I was dealing with a paranoid schizophrenic of the classic type. Not the kind that presented a danger to others, but rather a sweet and loveable one who, while needing help, prefered giving help to others rather than receiving for himself. This would not be one of my typical pastoral missions of mercy. Rather this would be one that would teach me a great deal about human nature and life in general.

With Steve waiting in our living room I called the local authorities and had a background check done on Steve. He was clean with no prior offences. I called the mental health authorities in the area asking if they knew of any programs he might qualify for. I discovered to my surprise that in our small rural area there were no programs that could take him in. According to one man I spoke with the best that could be done would be to put him into an institution for an overnight evaluation, then, if they felt he was not a danger to others, would cut him loose the next day leaving him again out on his own. After these conversations I took Steve to our backyard storage shed and gave him an old tent I had not used in years, as well as a blanket and some tins of food. Against my usual better judgement, I worked hard to convince him to take $20 for gas. He did not want to accept the money at first, then only accepted it on the condition that he could pay me back when he could. He took his things and headed out to a local campground which allowed the homeless to stay free of charge during the winter months. I never really expected to see him again.

What happened in the next few days was totally unexpected. Within two days he was back on my doorstep with $20 in hand and a Christmas cake. He told me his son had given him some money and some food, and he wanted to pay back my hospitality. I accepted the money, but told him to at least keep the food. He smiled and said, "Awe Ralph...I really don't like fruit cake. It gives me the runs, and when you are homeless you have to be careful about things like that." No other explanation was necessary for me at that point. I accepted his gifts, and asked how he was doing and exactly where he was staying. He had a place in a local park not too many miles away, and I told myself I would check in with him every few days to see how he was doing. A few days later I did just that. I arrived early in the morning at Steve's campsite to find him feeding a deer potato skins! It was like he was feeding a family pet! The innocence this man portrayed could even be felt by the park animals. He seemed to be doing fine, so while I did not like leaving him out in nature during the cold winter month of December, I left feeling like I was doing the right thing.

Another day later I knew I had to take more drastic action. The weather report warned of a large ice storm moving into our area, which would last several days. I went down to his campsite and after a long conversation, convinced him to move out of there. We got him packed into his car just as the ice started coming down. I managed to book him into a really cheap hotel for $250 per month paying first and last months rent, and asked Steve to promise me he would stay there for at least the full two months. He said he would, and thanked me for the help. After I got Steve moved in, I managed to make it back home in the middle of the ice storm. Later that night the ice was so severe we lost electricity in our home and over much of the county. The outage would last for over a week. The next morning waking up in a cold house with the temps just above freezing, my concern was more for my family rather than Steve. I wondered how he was doing, but saw also that we were iced in and could really do nothing more to help. So I just camped out in our powerless unheated home with my wife and made the best of it. We ate out of cans and heated by candlelight for the next few days until the roads were cleared enough for us to get out.

About that time Steve showed up again. He was happy and grateful and was wanting to check up on us to see how we were doing. He was surprised to find that we were without power as his utilities were still on! He offered for my wife and I to stay at his place. I appreciated the offer, but being a church pastor who lived right next door to the church he served, I told him I had to stay on site to keep an eye on things. A few days after that the power was finally restored, and our life began to get back to normal.

After the Christmas, New Years, and ice storm closure period was over, I took the situation concerning Steve up with the wider church. Most were eager to help out. I told them we had paid two months rent for him out-of-pocket, but that additional funds might be needed from the church until a more permanent living arrangement could be found. One kind church member took out her check book and gave me a check for $250 saying she wanted to split the cost with us for putting Steve up for those two months. Others gathered together more blankets and food. An old cot that had been gathering dust in somebodies basement found its way up to Steve's place along with pots, pans, and other household goods. Within 30 days a church member who did not want to be identified talked to the owner of a local lumber yard and convinced him to give Steve a job. Steve came over to our place that day to give me the news! He was beaming with delight. He loved the chance to work again, and paid his own way for the next nine months. Over that same period of time we got Steve signed up for medical benefits and things seemed to be going well. I thought we had a real success story on our hands. Unfortunately I do not exactly have a happy ending to report as of this writing.

It seems at one point Steve stopped seeing the doctor we had signed him up for, and stopped taking his medications again. He never fully trusted the doctor, nor did he trust the medications. Such is common with the schizophrenic. Sometime in September after nine months of having settled down into a normal lifestyle, he followed the voices back out onto the road. I have lost track of him, but still wonder where he is and what he is up to, hoping that if our paths cross again we might be able to help in a far better way. Services to the homeless in our county are still few to none except for the outreach of a few small churches and committed pastors. This is where you the reader may be able to help!

By clicking on the "Donate" key to the right of this post, you can help us provide aid to other people such as Steve. Even donations as low as five to ten dollars per month can be of great benefit. Realistically one person or even one small group of people can not always do much to help out those who can not for whatever reason help themselves. But by joining our limited resources together, we can make a definite difference in the lives of others. All that is needed is the willingness to take action and do what you can to reach out to those in need. Your help today will be greatly appreciated.


Ralph and Heydi

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Why forgive? Why should I let somebody off the hook who has done me harm in the past? People today are usually slow to forgive, thinking they have a right to their anger (which we do), but not thinking of the harm holding onto anger does to themselves. Long ago the Buddha put it this way, "Hanging onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at somebody else. You are the one who gets burned."

When we hold onto to anger, all sorts of bad things can happen to us. If you have held onto a resentment for any length of time a simple demonstration will make this point clear. Think of somebody whom you have not yet completely forgiven who has caused you harm in the past. Now, what do you notice about yourself and the way you are feeling? Has you face turned red yet? Do you feel your blood pressure going up? Any signs of stomach upset? If you are thinking about this close to bedtime, do you have trouble going to sleep afterwards? Do you feel like crying, pounding a wall, or going out for a drink? These and other things are warning signs that not forgiving another person for the harm they have done to you in the past is screwing up your present moment. Also notice that holding onto the anger is not causing these things to happen to the person you are holding the anger against; rather they are happening to you.

Forgiveness clears the way for us to get on with our lives. If we are holding onto anger and resentments, we are hanging onto the past, and a very nasty part of our past. Focusing on the past obscures our view of the present. Rather than going ahead with our lives, we are stuck looking into the rearview mirror as it were (and a cracked rearview mirror at that). How can we move forward when we spend too much time looking behind? We can not. We must eventually see the wisdom in leaving the past behind, for ourselves and others, so we can see the present for what it is, and move ahead into the future. Forgiveness makes this possible.

Most Christians today believe they do not have to forgive anyone. They tend to believe that if they accept Jesus as their Lord ans Savior, then God will forgive them. But that is about as far as forgiveness goes for many of them. Is this what Jesus taught? A simple look at the Gospel of Matthew will show that it is not.

In Matthew 6: 14-15 Jesus makes this clear. "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." (NRSV) Here Jesus teaches a very simple law of Karma: You reap what you sow; or, what goes around comes around. As we forgive others, so will God forgive us. In other parts of Matthew Jesus again points out the urgency in forgiving the sins of others. "When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift." (Matthew 5: 23-24, NRSV). The Christians of the 1st century took this teaching seriously. There is a practice recorded in the Didache (Teaching of the Apostles) which reads, "On the Lord's Day assemble in common to break bread and offer thanks; but first confess your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure. However nobody who is quarreling with their brother may join your meeting until they are reconciled; your sacrifice must not be defiled." (Didache 14: 1-2) This should make it abundantly clear that forgiveness is not just something the first followers of Jesus believed in; it is something they practiced and taught others to do as well.

Today in churches and even in some pop psychology circles forgiveness is taught as being optional. Nothing could be more harmful or further from the truth! Forgiveness is essential to the life of a healthy human being. People working in recovery groups have noticed that when alcoholics practice forgiveness, their chances of complete recovery dramatically improve. But if they hold onto resentments, it is usually only a matter of time before their next drink. Even non-alcoholics notice a life improvement when they learn to forgive. They gain the ability to see life more clearly and live life more fully. In some people who begin to practice forgiveness for the first times some amazing physical changes are noticed as well. High blood pressure may stabilize; insomnia may disappear and stomach ulcers may heal of their own accord. When these changes are noticed in ordinary human beings who practice forgiveness for the first time in their lives, the "why" of forgiveness becomes obvious; we do this to stop punishing ourselves!

There is an old saying, "Time heals all wounds." When we forgive this saying is proven to be true. However there is an opposite yet just as true saying, "Time wounds all heels." When we refuse to forgive others and ourselves, this saying is borne out in spades.

This all is not to say that we should forget the harm that others have done to us and to set ourselves up to being hurt all over again. John F. Kennedy once said, "Forgive the sins of others, but remember their names." In other words we should forgive the trespass, but remember and respect the weakness in the other person (and in ourself) which made the trespass possible in the first place. If your husband is an alcoholic who has beaten you and your children while drinking; forgive the trespass, but take measures to protect yourself and others from any further abuse, even to the point of leaving the home and seeking legal recourse. If somebody has cheated you out of a large sum of money, again forgive the trespass, but be cautious about trusting your money with that person again, and if appropriate, file criminal charges. Yet we should always leave the door open to repentance and transformation! We never punish an evil doer out of a sense of revenge. Rather we do so out of love hoping the wrong-doer will learn from their mistakes and change, and also remembering the times in the past in which we ourselves had been the evil-doer. Remember too that people do change and grow over time. An alcoholic who once did terrible things to themselves and others may become an outstanding citizen and parent once they seek help and put their drinking days behind them. Likewise common thieves can become trustworthy once more when they truly learn the errors of their ways and seek to move forward as more Godly persons. Forgiveness leaves the door open to such transformation. A lack of forgiveness tries to shut this door tight.

Great spiritual masters such as Jesus, the Buddha, and others knew about the power of forgiveness and transformation. They commonly associated with criminals and riff-raff that the normal religious people of their time would avoid. And in the literature of the great world religions, we see accounts of people who were once thought to be completely lost being redeemed; thieves becoming great teachers and killers becoming saints. Redemption for anyone is possible. Let us never shut the door.