Humbled at the Social Security Office

Some reading this blog will know my sitz im leben, my “life setting,” others won’t. For those of you who don’t know me quite as well, I’m a follower of Jesus, a husband to Kaile, and a father to Silas and Maelin, 2 years old and 4 1/2 months old respectively.

Maelin is dreadfully sick at the moment, still recovering from his infants’ case of RSV [look it up]. Silas has a terrible rash on his back and legs, and he’s rather cranky on account of it.

Ok, so that’s the background. Oh, and for fun here’s a picture of them in one of their happier moments:

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Because it’s tax season, I recently became aware of the need to get Maelin’s social security card. It’s one of those chores that’s really hard to fit in amidst the busy and tiring stream of life. But on Monday, I had finally found time, and I took my documents to the social security office downtown here in San Francisco. We used to live in the building next to it, but it’s well out of the way now, even though I was headed to my office next.

Arriving at 9:10am, I took my tab at the kiosk: A465. The room was suffuse with the emotions one might expect: anger, boredom, nerves. After all, we were all waiting, all attempting to get the task done that we need done, be it social security payments, food stamp renewal, whatever.

It was close to 11am by the time my number was called. “A465, A465, window number 7,” came the voice over the PA system. I was there in an instant, reporting to the quiet Asian man who was there to serve all of us. “Do you have your insurance card?” “No, but I have a picture of it right here.”

Pause.

When we got Maelin’s birth certificate during another frenetic trip downtown, they put together a package of *everything* we needed. “Just take all this to the social security office,” they said, “and you’ll be all set.” Well, turns out that wasn’t the case. I wasn’t “all set.” Apparently I now needed original copies of the insurance card.

“Look, man,” I said, feeling that inner burn, “it’s right here on my phone. I took time off work to come down here and I’ve been in line for close to two hours, can we make this happen?” And there he was, quietly doing his job. “I’m sorry, sir, we have to have the original copy. If you come back tomorrow right at 9am the line shouldn’t be too long.”

After two hours of waiting, this isn’t what I wanted to hear.

I glared at him, stuffed all my documents back in the folder, and bolted out of there, overwhelmed with frustration at the wasted time. I may as well have been getting work for the week accomplished. Or I could have stayed with my family. Two hours, wasted!

The next day I returned, following the tip about coming at 9 sharp. A356 was my number. I glanced over to window 7, noticing it was the same gentleman. And, 40 minutes later, just like I dreaded, his voice came over the PA system: “A356, A356, window number 7.”

It was the same guy.

OF COURSE IT WAS THE SAME GUY!

For the first half of our conversation I was cordial. I tried to ignore the voice within. We Christians sometimes talk about the Holy Spirit speaking or comforting or challenging us. This time around, the Spirit was challenging me. I knew an apology was in order, yet I resisted for as long as I could.

Finally, toward the end of the conversation, I couldn’t resist any longer.

“Look man, I was rude yesterday. I’m really sorry,” I blurted. “It’s ok, it’s frustrating to wait for that long only to find out you’re missing a document.” Not having expected him to remember me, I shot back: “Yeah, but it was still rude. I’m really sorry.” “It’s ok, don’t worry about it!” he answered, smiling. “Take care!”

Almost every night I read a book about Jesus to our toddler, Silas, and one of the pages features Ephesians 4:32:

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. 

The illustration is really cute, two girls wearing clothing from bible times [because the book is about Jesus I guess?]. They are holding candles and smiling at each other.

Every night I read that book, yet in the grit and grind of life, those massive ideas are hard to embody. They are hard to live out. Saying sorry is hard for this proud, rushed, often-overwhelmed dad.

And yet, God is teaching me about the depth of his forgiveness for this [and all my other issues] not only in my family, my work relationships, my church, my memory, but also through a kind Asian social security office worker.

I’m humbled but thankful that God is patient with me, even when I’m not patient with his other children.

The Model Student

So.. I’m a youth pastor. With that comes a particular set of preconceived notions, at least for a lot of people. There is an archetype for who and how youth pastors are and how they act.

Annoying t-shirts.

Frosted tips [ok, in like.. 1999].

Bro-ey guilt-inducing talk: “yo, Jen, you should totally swing youth group tonight. Jesus is gonna be there, so, I mean..”

Ok, so maybe that’s somewhat of a start. Now let’s think for a second about the purpose of ministry that is specific to young people. We need to ask the question, “what is our goal?” 

I’ve got some answers to that, but sometimes what happens in my brain is I imagine all the various ways a deep and resonant faith in Jesus can affect someone’s life. So, to allow you in on it, I created a diagram of what sometimes comes to mind as I think about work with students here in San Francisco.

First, the “Model Student.”

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Next, the “Actual Student.”

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You have now entered my brain. Thanks for coming. If you’re curious where this is going, finish up. If not, have a quick laugh if it tickles you then find something else to read. 

Ok, so there are some really impactful ways a genuine and authentic faith in the risen Jesus can change a person. I have written not a few blog posts on how my faith intersects with my life, and Christian practice is a subject that looms large in our culture.

Now, the point: is it really this simple? 

These silly comics point to actual truths, but I think what is most ridiculous is the thought that a model person or model student is actually as pure/spiritually wonderful as the comics suggest. In other words…

I’m afraid we’re all a bit more complicated. 

Right? I mean, come on. Yes, there are spiritual greats, there are saints. But each of us is internally mixed and our loves aren’t quite 100% pure. Do we all genuinely love our neighbors-and our enemies-as ourselves, like Jesus teaches? Or do we secretly harbor quiet judgment about folks who think [or vote?] differently than we d0?

People of faith fall into this trap.

People without faith do too.

And what’s the difference? I’d advocate that Christian faith does a pretty good amazing job at revealing the honest truth about our true selves. We’re all failing to fully love others-neighbors and enemies-as God loves us. We’re all failing to fully care for creation in all the ways we can [and yes, the Toyota Prius uses fossil fuel. And so do fully electric cars-they have to charge, after all].

The honesty about how we really are at the deepest level reveals that we are all a mixed bag. We do the right thing, we do something that compromises our values. We make progress, we relapse. This is the journey of faith.

But that Christian honesty is backed up with an action plan: repentance, forgiveness, and a lot of grace for when we don’t measure up to the high standard of loving God/others deeply.

God’s grace, shown in Jesus, floods the scene. Jesus models forgiveness to the folks gathered at his execution: “father forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing [Luke 23:34 MSG].”

Following Jesus is no path for the faint of heart. Yes, Jesus comforts-but he challenges us too. That’s where my little “model student” diagram falls hopelessly short. All the things are important, but I left out the deepest aspects of faith: love for God and love for neighbor/enemy.” After all, you can’t really separate those two concepts anyway. 

That is what I yearn for in the model student.

And that is what I, though I so often fail to embody it, strive for as well.

Pastor King / MLK Connects. [More than Ever]

There’s this part of the 1963 I Have a Dream speech where Pastor King rolls into a lilting, homiletical refrain: “I have a dream…” He talks about a dream that “one day” his “four little children will live in a nation where they are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” He finishes some of these refrains with biblical precision, tying ideas together by bookending phrases with “I have a dream today.”

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Pastor King’s roots in the Baptist church become so apparent as his speaking verges on a kind of improvised singing. It’s not quite singing per se, but it’s certainly not mere speaking either. A few churches still exist that hold the “whooping” tradition as dear, and for that I’m thankful; it stirs the soul to hear the artistic convergence of Pastor King’s incarnational faith and political passion. The I Have a Dream speech is equal parts biblical homily and civic prophecy.

Appropriately, he closes with an old Negro spiritual:

“Free at last, free at last; thank God almighty, I’m free at last!”

As an American, I have been moved by the life, testimony, and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. During a turbulent political season, I am reminded why his contributions are so enduringly significant.

Pastor King’s speech continues a legacy that reaches back into the Bible’s Old Testament and forward into the now and even, I think, into the future of our world as we move deeper into the 21st century. His imagination was shaped by the likes of the prophet Amos, who confronted unjust rulers on their tax codes and court systems, calling for justice in unapologetically poetic fashion.

Another Jewish man, Jesus, who I believe to also be the Son of God, was the absolute height of the biblical prophetic tradition. He spoke truth to power in his Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew chapters 5-7. Instead of merely prohibiting murder, Jesus [God’s Son] explains how God is even interested in our innermost attitudes toward one another. It’s not just about getting along! It’s about honoring one another deeply and from the heart.

This kind of religion gets to our motivations, to our core identity, reaching right into our attitudes toward one another.

In the recent political season, we are reminded that hateful words and actions are as common as the air we breathe. Politicians, pundits, reporters, and casual social media users seem freer than ever to let their opinions fly.

I came across an example of such vitriolic anger when I read a “comic” on Instagram related to the Black Lives Matter movement. It featured comic versions of various events specific to the movement such as brick throwing, cop shooting, and Trump voter assault.

I replied to the man who posted it, asking him to consider taking it down. First, he said a rude version of “no.” When I warned him that I might report him to Instagram, he told me off again, taking me as a religious nut of some kind. It was something along the lines of, “go read your f*****g Bible you [oblique gay reference].” I hadn’t mentioned anything about my faith or religious convictions, but I guess he was right about how this was my motivation.

Racism is alive, friends, along with the ravaging attitudes and predispositions that it carries with it, and it’s much closer to all of us than we sometimes realize. It’s on social media, on the lips of people around us, in quiet corners of the internet, in politics. But most jarringly, it’s often occupying space in the hiddenness of our hearts.

The smallness of my recent brush with racism paves a way for us to consider folks who are truly hurting. Blacks, the working poor, Muslims stuck in airports, religious minorities, marginalized groups of every kind. Surely you have heard the stories, as have I, and I pray we not only hear but also listen.

Back to Pastor King.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in line with not only the explicitly biblical tradition, but also in line with the trajectory we all follow if we take the time to listen to the voice of God speaking to us within our souls [the Holy Spirit, to use biblical terms]. If we all search ourselves, quiet ourselves, then listen and imagine with our God-given imagination, we all yearn in our own way for a world that is free from hateful speech and violent actions. If we continue to listen, we learn that we are called to, in the words of Jesus, love our neighbor-and even our enemies. And in so doing, we love God, for every person bears God’s image.

I speak from a position of much privilege as I relay these ideas, and I acknowledge this freely. I was born into a ethnic group, nation, and individual family that received an enormous amount of vocational, educational, personal, and economic opportunity in large part because of injustices. Tracing the exact details is difficult, but our privilege comes from African Americans, Native Americans, and even to a far lesser degree from certain groups of European Americans.

As I write, I can almost hear the pushback: “but Ben, all of that is in the past!” “Come on Ben, none of that was your fault!” “Ben, guilt isn’t getting us anywhere!” Well, I get it. Yes, the systems preexisted us. But once we learn about the power of the systems, we are confronted with the choice of either perpetuating their heinous power or taking steps toward freedom. For our privileged selves this may mean leveraging our positions of power and influence and even our circles of friends and family to help one another know about said privilege.

Pastor King’s legacy helps impel even privileged imaginations to see a world free from the racism, bigotry, sexism, and prejudice that pervades every facet of life, from our personal conversations to our civic discourse.

Speaking alongside the law, the prophets, and also along the trajectory of the New Testament’s Christocentric pathway, Pastor King shows us what it means to be free:

Free.

Free to love;

Free to forgive;

Free to extend grace;

Free to heal divisions;

Free to practice generosity;

Free to exist as we were created to be.

And in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

“Free at last, free at last; thank God almighty, I’m free at last!”