Kissing the Leper

Kissing the Leper

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I read  a book review this morning of “The Shattered Lantern” by Ronald Rolheiser on Spirituality & Practice, a website I use daily. In part it quotes a story in the book about St. Francis of Assisi.    Click here to read the review.

“One night prior to his conversion, Francis, then a rich and pampered young man, donned his flashiest clothes, mounted his horse, and set off for a night of drinking and carousing. God, social justice, and the poor were not on his mind. Riding down a narrow road, he found his path blocked by a leper. He was particularly repulsed by lepers, by their deformities and smell, and so he tried to steer his horse around the leper, but the path was too narrow. Frustrated, angry, but with his path clearly blocked before him, Francis eventually had no other choice but to get down off his horse and try to move the leper out of his path. When he put out his hand to take the leper’s arm, as he touched the leper, something inside him snapped. Suddenly irrational, unashamed, and undeterred by the smell of rotting flesh, he kissed that leper. His life was never the same again. In that kiss, Francis found the reality of God and of love in a way that would change his life for ever.”

Later it said, ” Concrete contact with the poor is Christian contemplation. It knocks the scales off one’s eyes.  ‘Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me,’ Christ assures us. In the poor, God is ever-present in our world, waiting to be met. In the powerless, one can find the power of God; in the voiceless, one can hear the voice of God; in the economically poor, one can find God’s treasures; in the weak, one can find God’s strength; and in the unattractive, one can find God’s beauty.”

“Perhaps the only way we have of not letting ourselves be swallowed whole by our culture is to kiss the leper, to place our lot with those who have no place within the culture, namely, the poor with their many faces: the aged, the sick, the dying, the unborn, the handicapped, the unattractive, the displaced, and all those others that are not valued by the culture. To touch those who have no place within our culture is to give ourselves a perspective beyond culture.”

It struck a chord in me.  I t reminded me of an article I read a couple of years ago that I have since lost track of.  It talked about  getting close to the poor in the broader sense of the word, increasing our ability to better understand the issues they face daily and the ostracization they experience daily,.   The article, written by a Catholic bishop, urged us to change our language.  Instead of speaking of people as “the” poor,  he urged people to use the words, “our poor”.

We are all one in God, we are his people, his sheep, and we are all each other’s neighbor.  Therefore, those who have health, financial and societal struggles, are our poor.  Hear the difference between “the poor” and “our poor”.  Hear the distance “the” allows and the intimacy of “our”.  One way allows us to create a good, comfortable gap, like not sitting too close to a stranger in the pew.  The other demands we pull people close to us, make their worries our worries, their cares our cares, their success our success.

Consider that those who are depressed or grieving are often given wide berth.  We say the right words, give the hugs, send the cards.  But mostly, we don’t step into their pile of sadness.  Those who look or live differently than we do are accorded the smile, the acknowledgement, the peace be with you even, but we never invite them into our home for a meal.  Yet, God calls us to feed his sheep, not in an impersonal, stand outside the fence way, but in an up close, look into their eyes and hear their heart way.feed-my-sheep

I experienced this recently at a memorial service.  My husband and I had sat down when I noticed a woman sitting alone in a pew opposite ours.  I looked at her for a while.  Then I felt a nudge.  It wasn’t my husband.  “Let’s move over by that woman sitting alone.”  We did.  We introduced ourselves and our connection to the friend we had lost.  She shared her name and explained quietly, with tears, that she was a former in law who still thought fondly about the man who had passed away.  “I knew him for so long.  Maybe longer than anyone else here.”  I hugged her and before the ceremony began, she shared some memories.  During the service, I noticed her crying and put my arm around her.  She took my hand.  After the service we walked out together and hugged.  I don’t remember her name but I will never forget her heart.

This, the week of Thanksgiving, we celebrate a first meal in America, likely fictionalized, to represent a coming together of peoples, vastly different but similar in their kindness.  As the story goes, it was not a meal of silence, of distance but one of open thanksgiving and caring.

This Thanksgiving, many of us are headed to tables laden with food but empty of understanding,  a wide chasm between us and our meal partners.  Perhaps instead of looking at each other as a political party supporter, we get closer and look into each other’s eyes and hear their heart.  Perhaps, we find a similarity of kindness.  Perhaps we see each other as belonging to each other.  One of my favorite Mother Teresa quotes says, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other.”

I wish you a Thanksgiving of plenty and enough.

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Love 101

Although I was involved in many different ministries over my years as a parishioner at my former Catholic parish, the ministry that meant the most to me was Loaves and Fishes.

In fact, even after I joined Easter Lutheran over a year ago, I volunteered to stay involved with Loaves and Fishes through my former parish.

Volunteers from that parish are responsible for cooking and serving a meal to as many as 250 people once each month at St. Stephen’s Church in Minneapolis. Generous parishioners also make donations to cover the entire cost of the meal.

DSCN0245That group of volunteers and donors comes together to provide a meal to the homeless, the unemployed, the working poor, the mentally ill and to any other person who is hungry… and who is our brother and sister.

For the past 29 years, I have made the trip to south Minneapolis each month to be part of the Loaves and Fishes serving team. I am part of a group of about 25 people who serve the meal that has been lovingly prepared earlier in the day by parish volunteer cooks.

Now, I will be the first to admit to you that I am not a scripture scholar… not even a little bit! But, when a scripture passage hits home to me, as it most certainly does in this quotation from Matthew’s 25th chapter, I need to take action.

In that quotation, Jesus says at the last judgment, “For I was hungry and you gave me food… I was thirsty and you gave me drink”

And, if we ask Jesus when we fed him and gave him drink, he will say, “I assure you, when you did it for one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it for me!”

For whatever doubts I have had with religion over the years and for whatever doubts I have in what I personally believe, I do know one thing for sure… Jesus Christ gave me an example of how I must live my life. How he led his own life on earth is a standard that I want and need to keep.

For all of these years, I have never, ever, tired of this ministry of Loaves and Fishes. It is a simple way to respond to the command of Jesus that we are truly our brother’s and sister’s keepers. It allows each of us as cooks and servers and donors to make a difference in somebody’s life…to live the gospel.

We, in effect, bring Jesus to the people eating our simple meal of salad, fruit, sloppy joes and beans. But, in another sense, the people we serve at Loaves and Fishes bring Jesus to us, as well.

Loaves and Fishes 004For you see, all types of people come through that serving line to receive our free meal. And, sometimes, it is pretty easy to tell that some of these folks are really down on their luck. But, that’s when Jesus makes his most meaningful appearance in my life because, through the life-worn faces of people coming through our serving line, I truly see the face of Jesus, on earth.

By serving these people, the command of Jesus… to feed my brothers and sisters… becomes so incredibly real to me, more than hearing the same words at church or reading those same words from my Bible. The people served at Loaves and Fishes create a spiritual experience for me and they strengthen my faith.

So, what has this ministry opportunity of having the privilege of feeding people meant to me? I truly believe that it is not enough to “know my faith”. It is imperative that I “act my faith”.

Loaves and Fishes gives me the chance to bring Jesus to others as well as have Jesus brought to me. It’s “Love 101”.

                                                                                                                          

Ron Jackelen continues to serve at Loaves and Fishes at St. Stephens in Minneapolis and also volunteers through Loaves and Fishes at the Easter Lutheran Community Meal.