Tag Archives: Scott Williams

Harm Reduction

Last week’s column in The StarPhoenix was an interesting one for me.  I wrote on the absurd decision of Alberta Health Services to stop giving out crack pipes to addicts while still giving out needles and in the process, came out strongly for harm reduction for a variety of theological reasons.

It was the harshest reaction to anything I have ever written anywhere.  People who I thought were friends were angry that I would write something like that and some questioned my orthodoxy.  An editor asked if it was like a kick to the shins and I said, “higher than that”.  Some mentioned how disappointed my mother and grandparents would be in the article (it wouldn’t be the first time something I wrote or did would fall into that category).   It was not a pleasant couple of days.  The argument that everyone used was that I was compromising and I was on a slippery slope.  Neither argument I found particularly compelling.

I have long been a fan of Meera Bai and the advocacy work she has done with Insite and her and I chatted on Twitter about being a Christian who believes in harm reduction.   On Monday it didn’t feel like there are many of us out there but as the week went on I got a lot of email telling me that they were at the same place as I was.  I realized that the divide wasn’t theological, it was between those who were on the front lines and those that who watched from behind their pulpit.  The more you interact and spend time with people on the street, the more places like Insite and harm reduction programs make sense.  As my good friend Scott Williams said to me, “If you think about it, harm reduction makes sense”.  I did and he was right.

I don’t normally hide behind the work of others but if you have a chance to read Meera Bai and John Stackhouse’s piece from last year in Christian Week, make sure you do.  A bunch of people sent me the link as encouragement.  I had read it when it came out but I appreciated not being alone.

Of course not everyone was angry.  I had a lot of discussion with officers and staff in the Salvation Army about harm reduction.  While I was in Chicago and Mississauga at their Social Services conference there a lot of respectful discussions as people wrestled with both the theology and practice of harm reduction.  It’s not an easy discussion, especially when like me, they come from a holiness tradition.  Some disagreed with harm reduction as a viable strategy.  Others had implementation questions (don’t we all).  Some wanted to talk the politics of harm reduction.

After being scolded in email, on the phone and in person, keeping an addict safe and alive still means an awful lot to me.  If it means that I make some compromises, I’m okay with that.  As for the slippery slope, I’ll wear cleats if it means them and I can hang in there a little longer.

Why I Help Addicts Shoot Up

Great article in Christian Week about Insite

Insite Something about seeing people at their lowest and most desperate, half-clothed from turning tricks for drugs while hating themselves for it, opens into a profound level of intimacy. I am blessed to enter the darkest place of people whose sins are far more public than those of the rest of us. Constant humiliation makes the people I work with especially vulnerable, and vulnerable in almost every way: to violence, to exploitation, to false hope and finally to despair. When allowed into these dark places, it is my privilege, and that of all InSite staff, to communicate worth and love instead of judgment and scorn.

The day nurse asks me to keep an eye out for a specific participant—a regular who comes in several times a day. She hadn’t been seen yet. Later that night, the woman finally comes in, and she’s beaming. "I went to see my daughter today! And I didn’t use all day! F—, soon I’m gonna get off this s—!" We break out in applause and cheers, celebrating her triumphs with her—as she mixes her drugs to take in a few minutes in our facility. Other participants in the room are excited as well; two of them come over to hug her.

Another regular later chats with me in the treatment room as I dress his abscess, trying not to cringe away from the overwhelming odour he emanates. "It would have been my anniversary with my wife today, if she hadn’t gone missing. We’ve both been down and out, but she took care of me out here. Now, I got nobody to talk to. This is the first human touch I’ve had today." I look up, startled. I am wearing gloves, holding my breath, cleaning his sores with a 10-inch sterile Q-tip. Even this, my deficient attempt to heal, is taken as love by a man desperate for human connection. I am ashamed.

I finish dressing the wound, clean up, remove my gloves and give him a hug. I hop up on the treatment bench next to him and we sit together and talk for another 15 minutes: about life, love and faith. He says goodbye, and then asks for a referral to an exit program. I give it to him. He knows the referral is merely one point along our journey together, and that I will listen to his story whether he goes to the program or not. As a Christian, I know that his life is part of God’s real story of redemption. InSite is one of the few places where I get to hear it openly spoken, with trust, without judgment.

Having witnessed three generations of the same family shoot up in the same room, I have come to understand that injection drug use is far from being the result of one bad decision. It is the outcome of a complex of systemic, familial and individual influences that must not be oversimplified to "It’s their fault. They should just quit and get a job."

Update: My friend Scott has a great write up of his experiences here.

Losing My Religion

A lot of you have asked why I have stopped posting about items of faith and Christianity here and the reason is pretty complex.  First of all after reading around 5 books a week for 15 years or so, I no longer have the time or the desire to read that much.  Much of that reading was theological or about church life and what has been said on the topic for me has been said.  I still get probably 100 books a year to review and most of them are just rehashing what has been said and said and said again.  On the occasional time when I can force myself to enter into Scott’s Parable, I see the same book, just written by different authors.  I know I am taking some shots at some friends here but it seems like a lot more reflection and a lot less publishing may help everyone.

It goes for me as well, if I don’t have anything to say, I am not going to log in and write anything.  To paraphrase a good friend of mine who used to joke, “If you want a better sermon, get Max Lucado to write better books”, so in other words, if you want a better blog, write better stuff for me to link to.

The more serious reason is that I struggle with the distance between neighborhood/community and the church.  I have read and heard pastors say that they need to vision cast (what a geeky and churchy phrase) or sell their church on the idea that they need to be a part of their community.  This is a phrase I have heard for years but I never realized how strange it was that the church had stopped being part of the community.  Now of course with more and more churches wanting more real estate, they are literally moving outside of their cities and towns so they can create more programs that compete with and pull people away from the communities they are apart of.  The fact that we have to “vision cast”, sell, manipulate, or coerce our congregations to be part of the community, in fact, we had to come up with new church growth terminology to describe what should be our natural reaction as human beings… (I’m missional, your missional, we are all missional) that is our responsibility to make our local communities a better place for everyone to live in. 

Years ago I listened to a series of podcasts by Todd Hunter and Dallas Willard in which Hunter talked about one of the metrics his church used was how far people were travelling to get to his church without realizing the impact it had on local communities.  While that may represent one extreme of the equation, it was quite similar to what we experience as a family in finding a church in Saskatoon.   There is a pull to be a part of the church community, which church leaders tend of think of as a true or at least superior community which puts us in tension with my commitments to other things that are going on in my geographic community.  While I agree there is a need for involvement in the church, our local communities the need is often just as pressing.  So I have kids clubs that interfere with Mark taking karate, small groups that only work for people who work 8-5 (and definitely not for those who like Wendy and I who are work from 7:00 a.m. when I go to work to 10:45 p.m. when Wendy walks in the door from work).   I have prostitutes on my street, a brothel on my block, guys grinding drugs across from the local elementary school, the Terror Squad working out a local restaurant and bar and I keep hearing that my number one priority needs to be a small group in a church.

I follow some pastors and church leaders on Twitter and I realized it’s a giant irrelevant echo chamber where the tweets and retweets reinforce what they believe.  I haven’t lost my faith in Christianity, I am just in doubt that the church is an accurate representation of what it represents anymore.  I was in a room of pastors earlier this year and they were still talking about media in worship, ancient future song writing, and all sorts of peripheral things about church life with great interest and not one of them mentioned life in their community.  A friend of mine sent me a sermon the other day on YouTube to check out as it would cure what ailed my soul.  The stage looked like it was stolen from David Letterman and I am pretty sure it was meant to be a copy and after watching the sermon, I realized that he was speaking in the same style that Vince does while pitching Slap Chops.  Sadly not only did I used to speak like that in public but so do so many other pastors I know.  I realized while watching this that the church had become a parody of itself.  The Emperor has no clothes.

I realized that I no longer see most churches any differently than Kiwanas or another service club but this one has higher fixed costs.  Are all churches like this?  I don’t think so.  One of the great experiences I have had in life was spending a bit of time with Dave Blondel and the Third Space.   Both Wendy and I have said that we would be quite comfortable attending a church lead by my friends, Scott Williams, Randall Friesen, Pernell Goodyear, Kim Reid or Darryl Dash but those kinds of churches and those kinds of pastors aren’t that easy to find.  The problem for me is when I see the kind of church that is engaged in creative ways in it’s community, it’s awfully hard to go back.  When I was down in Maple Creek, I did some pastoral work with people.  We literally put on some orange Salvation Army vests, went from flood ravaged house to flood ravaged house and chatted with flood victims.  Everyone in that community knew the Salvation Army Corps officers, Captain Ed and Charlotte.  Every last person.  When he was in Saskatoon, he was everywhere in the community as well.  If he can do it, so can other churches and their leaders.  If Wendy, myself, my staff, and a bunch of volunteers can work amongst Saskatoon’s poorest, so can everyone.  What we do isn’t brain surgery (umm, except for my staff, you are all brilliant… underpaid but brilliant) but a compassionate response to the community around us.   Instead I find churches that are isolated and focused on themselves.  Too many times over the last couple of years to hear a sermon on parenting, the need for leadership, church growth or again, church growth.  Did I mention I hear a lot of sermons on the need for church growth.  Sadly I am not alone.  A good friend of mine recently left his long time church and said, “I’ve learned all I need to learn from the pulpit on the need for church growth”.  It’s like the church has lot’s it’s reason for existence and is just looking at how to keep paying the bills.  Yet sadly in a lot of communities, the need for the church and it’s redemptive message has never been greater.

The other thing is that while I hate the overuse of the concept of “a dark night of the soul”, it has been an extremely lonely time spiritually for me.  God was extremely distant and I don’t really have a lot of people to talk to about this stuff.  The praxis of my spiritual life was solid but there was no connection.  After exhausting my traditional options, I sought out a Roman Catholic spiritual advisor who I spent a lot of time talking with.  He was the one who said, “It’s not a dark night of the soul, it’s a wounded soul that I was dealing with.”  A co-worker once said to me, “We aren’t normal.  We are so desensitized by what we see sometimes, we aren’t bothered by what should bother us.”  I thought about it a lot and realized that my job had changed me deeply and for the worse and I wasn’t equipped for what that has done to me.  As an INTJ, I am already an underdeveloped feeler which at times makes it hard to fully understand what I am feeling.  Looking at life from a rather cold and analytical mind has it’s advantages but it always makes it hard to look at life when the problem isn’t a rational one and as any of the staff that I work with will say, rational behavior can often be in short supply with what we see some days.  Toss in that the amount of violence and death we have seen this summer, it has taken a toll.  It seems like every murder and suspicious death in the city has been connected to someone I know and it’s hard.  The first thing I am doing in the morning is dealing with another one.  Jaded or not, it has had an impact and those add up a little bit.

As my spiritual advisor and I have talked, I shared that when God reveals himself to me, often I feel He was disappointed in me.  I have long that was my biases, insecurities, and self worth issues coming out.  I have come to seriously wonder if maybe God was quite disappointed in me and the reason for the silence, or just lack of disappointment is that maybe He isn’t anymore.

My evangelical friends don’t really get what I see.  It actually upsets many of them when I tell them what I am seeing.  I was talking to one friend about the fact that there are 600 known prostitutes in the city (of course they move from city to city to city) and he was totally freaked out.  Our conversation ended with, “I am glad our church isn’t on the west side, I couldn’t deal with this".  Yet I talk with some of them all of the time.  They are working tonight two blocks down from where I am writing this.  Addicted to drugs, sexual abuse survivors, acquired brain injuries.   They aren’t abstract numbers but real girls with real stories and real families but the church ignores it.  They also ignore the fact that many of their congregants are the ones that are paying these girls to get them off.  While my faith seems as strong as always, I am no longer interested in a religion that is disconnected from the community it is a part of. 

I know there are reasons for that, Lyle Schaller will tell us that the idea of the neighborhood church died with the rise of the car and cheap fuel but at the same time when I hear that people are living in over crowded slum suites because of sky high rents, there are 600 known prostitutes in the city and the vast majority of them are being trafficked, gangs are taking an toll on our kids, and some local elementary schools have had to cut back to 30 minute lunch breaks to stop elementary school girls from working the street on lunch breaks… doesn’t this call people to do something other than giving away some free clothes and serve soup once in a while?  If young grade seven and eight girls losing their virginity to STD carrying john’s doesn’t call us to drastic action, what will?

Over fifteen years ago, columnist Paul Jackson wrote in The Star Phoenix that the church had abandoned it’s role of social services provider – taking care of widows and orphans – to the government during the 1960s and 70s.  As the economies in North America struggled to pay for their new obligations, Jackson felt the church needed to step up again.  It hasn’t happened yet.  In fact most trends show churches walking more and more away from those difficult tasks and instead continuing to move to younger and younger suburban neighborhoods and therefore away from the problems.  It may be great church growth doctrine but what about the neighborhood and that you left behind.  The east side of Saskatoon has twice as many churches per person than then west side does.  Guess which side of the city has the higher concentration of wealth and guess which side has the core neighborhoods in it.  I’ll let you figure it out.

Good news

As my friend Scott wrote last week, he is now working as an addictions counselor

i’ve grown up a bit since those days of security. for the second time since leaving the full time paid religious world i have had to look for work. it was a very humbling thing to not be called, day after day, for jobs that i was overqualified for. it was difficult to try to find odd jobs, ways of generating income when i had 8 years of post-secondary education. it is hard to describe how freaky it was. was. then the call came… a day later than they had said. i hadn’t slept in days. annette said it was like getting a call saying your kids were in a traffic accident – one call that changes your future.

i finally landed a good job yesterday. it is in my area of expertise (addictions counsellor) for good money with a great agency. i still have the club church on the weekends but i don’t take a salary – the orphans need it more than i do. all of a sudden i can breath again, think about christmas again, maybe order in chinese food occasionally. but something has changed inside. there is a subtle insecurity there now, an understanding of the tentative nature of life.

Congratulations.  It’s good news and he will make a big difference in Maple Ridge.

But will I respect you in the morning?

Scott is writing about the culture of evangelical clergy and how it differs from almost every other job in the world.  This comment was as good as the post.

guilt was more what I felt going on those "junkets". I remember skipping a breakfast buffet that was being paid by the church. we had 10min to eat and it cost $14.95 (in 2001). One pastor said to me, "who cares, the church is paying for it." Bingo…

end-wall-st-bull-collapsed-slide That statement could have been overhead by a AIG executive on their half million dollar retreat after the government had to give them $40 billion to stay solvent.  It may have been said while workmen were spending $1.2 million on the CEO of Merill Lynch’s office after it was bailed out and bought by Bank of America.   He also made headlines this week when he gave out $4 billion in bonus’ to executives after it was reported that the bank lost $15 billion last quarter.  It wasn’t just him.  Wall Street bonuses declined only 4.7% last year to an average of $180,420 per worker, according to the latest figures from the New York State Comptroller’s office. One of the worst years in Wall Street’s history, a year when three illustrious banks – Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch – closed, was still one of the best years for bonuses.   It also could have been heard over the sounds of the private jet engines starting up that the Big 3 execs took to Washington a couple of weeks ago.  They weren’t footing the bill, their shareholders and hopefully us taxpayers would.

Back to Scott’s post.  In a lot of denominations, the senior pastor is expected to be in the pulpit between 40 and 42 Sunday’s a year.  If you have enough years of service in, there is six weeks of holidays to take which brings you down to 46 weeks of preaching and then from there on the last six plus weeks were for conferences, retreats, and study time.  Depending on the interpretation, some used those weeks off as additional vacation time under the guise of study break (I knew of one pastor who would read one book on his four week study break) or some choose to take the sermon prep time for study or time for spiritual exercises and just don’t preach on that Sunday.

I am not sure I care to get into the specifics of pastoral theology but some guys I know don’t work very hard and are experts at milking the system.  Eugene Peterson writes about them in Working the Angles and I think we all know of some of them.  Scott alludes to them as the “good old days” and he is right, him and I met up at several conferences. I think any of us who were in pastoral leadership actually personified it at one point of our lives.  Pernell Goodyear once told me of a video where the creators tried to find a pastor in his office on a Wednesday at 10:00 a.m.  They were unsuccessful in their search and he never did mention a spiritual disaster the night before that would require them all to sleep in.

My point is that there is a culture of entitlement in evangelical circles as well.  No one actually thinks they are a part of a culture of entitlement as when you are in that culture it makes sense to take a private jet to beg for bailouts, take in a couple thousand dollars in travel a year when your church is laying off staff, or spend $1.2 million to redecorate your office when you are bankrupt.  It’s always going to be someone else’s money and that is a hard temptation to overcome.  The mistake is that we think that no one else sees what is going on but it always comes out, even if you are apart of a sub culture that condones it, other outside it are saying it okay. In every bad decision listed above, I am sure most were run by someone else and it made sense to them as well.  Just because someone else says it is okay, it doesn’t mean it is.   I am not sure if that is worth the price of a new office, avoiding the lines in the Detroit airport, or even a free breakfast that the church will pay for because when the emperor is seen without his clothes, no one respects him in the morning.

Celebrity Culture

Scott is talking about the celebrity culture in the church on his weblog and he makes a good point, the church is obsessed with celebrities and superstars like the rest of the world. I don’t know if I accept his examples totally but his point is right on.

I have a similar story about being at WillowCreek. I worked at a church that used to purchase 20 tickets or so to the Leadership Summit and fly down most of its staff to hear “leaders” talk about leadership. The second time I was there, Wendy, myself and others were milling about in the lobby and people were literally lined up at the door. When the door to the lobby opened, these people ran into the auditorium so they could get to the front of the building supposedly so they could get close to Bill Hybels. I am assuming they were under the impression if Bill sweat on them or they could smell what kind of deodorant he used, they would be better leaders. It was a little odd to see and not the norm but at the same time I think it is something that permeates church culture.

The church is a lot like NASCAR, it markets and sells those that are successful. The stories of success are what is needed to sell books, book people into conferences, sell DVDs, or have people come to your church. While there is a lot of talk about faith and God’s blessing, there is an entire industry out there that is selling the opposite message, it is about speaking, leadership, vision and they have the tools to help get the church there and I think we have bought into that far more than we will ever admit. To sell those items, they need a face and a story to share and depending of the product, they partner with those that people resonate with, kind of like George Foreman and his grills.

Some people in the church seek out celebrity status while others it just happened to. Those that seek the status will quote whore themselves to irrelevance and keep releasing the same book with a different cover and a couple new stories again and again. Others will be stuck with it because at a certain point they captured the imagination of a people. I don’t blame them and I don’t even blame the industry that produces them. Their bottom line is the bottom line and for decades have been producing all sorts of crap. The people I blame are those of us who are looking for the secrets, the easy way out, the success, the glory, and will pay $295 for a one day seminar with them as they tell us what they wrote in the last three books.

It comes from a lack of leadership, a lack of confidence, a lack of trust, and a lack of faith in our ownselves and instead of admitting it, we go looking for it from someone else. This is a deep structural problem in the church, one that is reinforced by the system rather than challenged which is why I think people are often attracted to movements on the fringe of the church, it’s where they would be if they had the courage to go there. Instead we make those who are there into celebs and try to live through them.