Finding Humanity

Homeless man hands

Our church is located downtown and so it’s not uncommon for some unique characters to be wandering the area. Last night as we were about to begin practice for worship on Sunday when a man wandered in through the back doors so I made my way to the foyer to see how I could help him. His shoulder length salt/pepper hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail. His clothes were layered and worn and his breath smelled strongly of smoke and alcohol. He explained he was looking for the Catholic church that takes people in. I wasn’t sure which one he was talking about and when my husband (who had joined me in the back) mentioned there was another organization that houses people overnight he quickly and emphatically informed us that “he won’t go there!”

It was at this point that the conversation took an…interesting turn. It began with him telling us that he wasn’t homeless and that he was in town for work with a private security agency. Up until this point there was part of me that thought perhaps there was some truth to what he was saying but after this the story escalated beyond what I could have imagined.

The lines of his stories blurred between working for past presidents, attending George H.W. Bush’s burial after he “was shot,” rebuilding “one of the Statues of Liberty”, contributing to the new Star Wars movie, needing to get to such-and-such highway because he has a shipment of 200,000 gallons of oil coming in, and the 12 million dollar paycheck he has coming from the government because he killed one of the four ISIS members that are currently here in town.

If you didn’t follow any of that you’re in good company.

Now, I’m pretty well acquainted with this sort of encounter. When I was 19 years old I spent 3 months living in the Tenderloin Disctrict of San Francisco as a part of YWAM. Just out our front door was a large community of people whose daily existence greatly differed from mine in most ways.

Even with the extent of the homelessness in SF it’s still pretty dang easy to spend a day in the city with blinders on to the poverty and need by strategically planning which streets to visit and which to avoid. But not in YWAM. We were confronted with it daily. Have you seen Pursuit of Happyness? Remember the scene where Will Smith and his son are in line with hundreds of people outside of Glide Memorial Church waiting to get a place to sleep for the night? That was our street. We couldn’t conveniently structure our day to avoid coming face to face with the need at our doorstep. And we weren’t trying to either. We learned their names. We sat with them and listened to their stories. We heard about the careers and families they had lost and the dreams they had long since laid to rest.

My husband and I met at an inner-city church plant. We wandered the streets talking and praying with people that had no permanent address and those whose lives were filled with drugs, alcohol, mental illness and abuse. We discipled prostitutes. We worshiped alongside drug dealers and pimps. It was raw and ridiculously messy. It was unpredictable and unstable.

Through these experiences we learned to see people as people. To see past the brokenness. To look beyond the mistakes and flaws, however grievous they may have been and we saw in them something of ourselves.

Our shared humanity.

Now seven years removed from that environment I confess I’ve gotten much better at putting my blinders on and rerouting to avoid those uncomfortable situations (a fact I’m not proud of). But every once in awhile it becomes unavoidable. Like last night.

We get so good at avoiding these situations because if we look someone in the eye and see their suffering we are compelled to acknowledge their humanity. And if we acknowledge their humanity it leaves us feeling responsible to do something. And if we don’t feel we can help in any measurable ways it leaves us feeling helpless.

Helpless is not a feeling we as humans enjoy. So we strive to avoid it at all costs.

Last night I struggled to bury the feelings of helplessness I was experiencing. I certainly could not cure his mental illness (likely schizophrenia). A few bucks or some food provides a bit of relief, but what really is that in the grand scheme of this man’s life? I felt helpless.

So I did what I knew I could do. I listened. We listened to his madness. We prayed briefly for him, tried to direct him towards a place that could house him for the night and proceeded with our rehearsal.

His name, he told us, is Eddie Monnie “Monet.”

Eddie left something for us. Tied to the door of our church like it was Luther’s 95 theses was a red nylon strap, part of a bicycle handle and two pieces of paper, folded in quarters and wrapped around the door handle secured with rubber bands. One side contained line after line of typed text full of symbols and arbitrary letters, surely amounting to some top secret coded CIA message or perhaps an extraterrestrial language. But the other side was a letter or poem handwritten by Eddie about someone he loved. Here is part of what he wrote:

The pain, the love, just won’t let go. I died everytime you said go. Get a job, go away, why won’t you just die. My heart left me. Every ounce of spirit drained like rain drops like a water fall, like the world crashed and burned. So cold.

You didn’t want me…I love another now since I left you. Now I’m so cold, so old, do I try, do I cry…

-dedicated to Betty. She sacrificed her life for me. She died February 7th, 2017 instead of me–for my sons and my daughters-my girls.

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Who is Betty and did she really die just two weeks earlier? Did he really have sons and daughters? I don’t know nor will I ever, I’m sure. But what I do know is that while Eddie’s mind may not function like yours or mine, his heart does. He feels pain, disappointment, frustration, loneliness and loss. He is aware of the loss of his youth, the loss of his loved one, the loss of what his life might have held.

He is human.

His body feels pain. Cold. Sickness. Hunger.

He is human.

Yet he also must feel the loss of his humanity in the eyes of society at large.

He was once a brand new baby for whom the world was full of promise. He was once a five-year-old boy, perhaps as energetic and joyful at one point as my own five year old son. He had hopes and dreams for his life. There were things that he was skilled at and gifted in. He experienced the awkwardness of middle school, the growing pains of adulthood. Love and loss.

At some point in his life he was probably in his right mind. Mental illness works like that. You may be a normally functioning adult until one day some trauma or simply enough time passing causes you to cross a threshold and the mental illness you were predisposed to finally surfaces. The mind morphs into something unrecognizable. Think Russel Crow in A Beautiful Mind.

There’s a line from a Gungor song that says, “When we see our brother, we’ll all be free.” We can see those around us but do we see them. Do we see people or do we only see their circumstances? Do we only see the bad choices they’ve made, their mistakes and their failings?

Let’s take this further. Do we only see their political affiliation, their religion, their race or their socio-economic standing? Or can we see their humanity? Can we see ourselves and our stories in them? Can we see the faces of our children our parents or our best friends in them?

I’m learning to be more and more comfortable with being uncomfortable in life. I’m confident that although God has plans to prosper us and give us a hope and a future, it’s not just so we can enjoy a long and comfortable life. To whom much has been given much is required. When we insist on surrounding ourselves with pads and bumpers and blinders to insulate ourselves from the world’s suffering we are closing the doors of God’s love. He pours his love into us so we can let it overflow onto the world around us.

And when we don’t feel like we have enough to give, we can let him fill us up again in order to pour out because he is an endless source of love. When we don’t feel we have enough strength to let empathy and compassion run their course in our hearts, we can lean on him. When we feel the discomfort of helplessness we can face it head on knowing that He is the source of all wisdom needed to transform the world into what he intends it to be.

And when we don’t know where to start we can start by allowing ourselves to see those around us. To see with His eyes each person put in our path as one that was created in His image.

To see humanity in every human we come into contact with.

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Loving Beyond My Comfort Zone

My good friend Holly works for the missions organization we partnered with in Haiti and their staff is doing a guest blog series about living a missions minded lifestyle. I was honored to be invited to participate! You can find this over at her blog as well.   She’s amazing and I love reading her blog–definitely worth a look!

I initially hesitated when asked to write this for a couple of reasons, one of them being that I often don’t feel like I’m all that great at living a missional lifestyle. It is my heart, for sure. But the practical application in my life doesn’t always feel very successful.

Up until recently, I was always surrounded by people that hadn’t yet experienced the love of Jesus. I grew going to public school, went to a state university, and held several jobs in retail and restaurant and so I never had to look for opportunities to share my faith. As is the case for most people that don’t work in a church.  And it’s a beautiful thing since our co-workers and classmates are the people that see us day in and day out. These are the people that actually get to see, not just hear, us living out our faith.

Fast forward to 2010 when my husband and I were incredibly blessed to take a position as the worship pastors in a great church…2,000 miles away from home.  Suddenly I’m eating, sleeping, and breathing church. Our only connections in our new town are those in our church community and the cashiers at Safeway, Target and Quickstop. Two thousand miles from home there are no past classmates around.  No former co-workers.  And we won’t meet our neighbors for a few months because our yards here are fenced and garages are attached and you can come and go from your home without ever stepping out into the fresh (ok, not-so-fresh here in the Central Valley) air.  I’m in a giant bubble of shiny, happy, Jesus-loving folk. And it’s amazing in some ways.

I love my job and the people we work with and the people in the church, but there’s something missing.  There are no organic opportunities for community with those outside the church. As much as I could drop an old-school tract on the restaurant table, or tritely say “Jesus loves you” to the Starbucks barista it’s scary and besides that I don’t think it’s all that effective coming from someone who is a perfect stranger.  We, as Americans, are aware for the most part that “Jesus loves us” as we’ve seen it on billboards and heard it on from the sidewalk prophets at least once or twice in our lives. Sadly, it has become a cliché.

I’m not saying these venues are never effective for sharing the gospel, but what people are longing to see today are Jesus followers who really look like Jesus. Not a fictional, pharisaical Jesus who never associated with sinners except to cast the first stone, but the real Jesus of the Bible who regularly hung out with the prostitutes, embezzling tax collectors, and fisherman-nobodies.  The world is longing for Jesus followers who will love like Jesus.

I used to think that sharing your faith meant standing up on your high school cafeteria table and preaching a sermon during lunch.  Since I never could get up the courage to do that (surprising, I know) I figured I had pretty much failed.

I’ve grown in my understanding of faith-sharing since then.  There’s a familiar quote from St. Augustine that says,  “Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.” There are times when we need to speak up and share with actual words what God has done in our lives, but in general those moments are much more potent when people have seen the evidence in our actions of how God has changed us.  When you think about it that way, living missionally should be pretty easy if our faith is genuine.  We simply seek, imperfectly but with humility and vulnerability, to model our lives after Jesus, and love with authenticity.

The world is weary of Christians who have plenty to say on every subject but rarely, if ever, manifest the goodness or love of Jesus through their actions.  Love, in its truest form, will open the doors of hardened hearts that politics, apologetics, and theological debate could never unlock.

So how do you live this missional lifestyle in a church bubble?  It’s been a challenge for me, being an “all-or-none” kind of person.  It’s tempting for me to think “if I can’t build a deep relationship with you day in and day out, I can’t do anything.”   I posted previously about one experience with a little boy in Haiti who like many of the children we interacted with there, was so clearly seeking even a few moments of love and affection.  I hesitated for a couple minutes before putting my arm around Angelo because I first had to think through things like “what if he doesn’t actually want any affection because he’s too old for that? What if he rejects my gesture? Or what if someone takes this the wrong way? In the U.S. you can get a lawsuit thrown at you when these things are misunderstood!” and so on and so on.  Even though it was an innocent , simple gesture—putting my arm around his shoulders—I came up with so many reasons why I shouldn’t do it. And when I finally ignored those reasons and followed through it was like this tough little boy just melted.

As I walked away from that ordinary, yet heart-altering experience in Haiti I was struck by how we can be so stingy with our love.  We often act as though we have a limited supply of love and so we better find excuses to hoard it for our family and closest friends lest we run out.

A similar experience in a West African orphanage six years ago. Initially the tiny girl was very stiff in my arms and resisted me. After a few minutes the tenseness eased until she finally rested in my arms to the point peaceful sleep, even amidst the other children’s rambunctious playing.

It’s easy to find excuses why we shouldn’t show love to somebody.

I’m too busy today. 

I’ve got my two year old with me, I can’t.

I don’t even know them. 

If he weren’t an alcoholic he wouldn’t be in this position. 

If she had made better choices her life would’ve turned out differently.

It’s not my problem. Someone else will do it.

I’m too busy.

Clearly she doesn’t want to let anyone close to her.

I’m sure he has other friends that he can talk to.

The need is too great, what can I do?  

It’s just not my style.

I’m too busy.

Love perseveres. It perseveres beyond what is comfortable or easy.

The fact is that Jesus Christ died for everyone and it wasn’t comfortable or easy. Which means that everyone is worth our time. Everyone is worth us stepping outside of our comfort zone, getting rid of our excuses and laying down any stones we may have picked up along the way. Everyone is worth us sacrificing our pride. Everyone that ever existed was created in God’s image and therefore has unsurpassable worth.

Sometimes those that have been without love and affection for a long time or have been rejected often are the ones that resist it the most or have the hardest exterior. Love is what will break down that hard exterior.

Andy Stanley says, “Do for one what you wish you could do for everyone.” I cannot rid the world of depression. I cannot end human trafficking on my own. I cannot heal all the world’s mental illnesses and addictions. On my own I cannot solve world hunger or bring about world peace.

But I can find the one person who needs a friend and offering a listening ear.

I can set aside my personal opinions and judgments to buy a homeless man lunch.

I can learn the barista’s name and build a relationship over time.

I can stop making excuses.

I can stop beating myself up when I fail to love and live missionally.

I can let God’s perfect love, which there is always enough of, fill my heart to the point it overflows onto everyone I come into contact with.

The reality is that as Jesus followers we are dealers of hope that the world desperately needs. They may not admit it. They may not even realize it. But those of us who have lived inside the love of Jesus Christ know it brings hope and life and peace and joy. And that is the good news, AKA the gospel. The good news isn’t rules or religion or tradition. It’s that God wants to bring His kingdom to earth as it is in heaven. That he wants to meet the needs in peoples lives and hearts right now. And he wants to use us to do it.