Tuesday, December 2, 2014

What If He Didn't Need Our Little Gifts

     We first met Jasmina during one of the many trips to IKEA made to outfit three coffee shop churches across Poland.  She was trying to enroll customers in their credit card program.  When we responded to her introduction inquiry in English instead of Polish, she quickly turned her head and asked, "Are you American or British?"  With that, we began a relationship that continues (via facebook) up to the present.
     Her father was an Art Professor in a university in Egypt where she had grown up.  Her boyfriend an Art major in Poland.  Together, the two of them had put together a year long exhibition located in an old, cold, crumbling, red-brick building that had not been in use for several decades.  
     They were incredibly smart, perceptive young people; viewing life, the world and faith from an adventurously optimistic, post-Christian perspective.  Listening to their thoughts, responding to their honest and probing questions was terrific input as we developed our approach to missions in Poland.
     During one of our meals together,  at a pause in the conversation she leaned in and said, "I have been looking at some video on the internet of the American, Evangelical church."
     Rhonda and I glanced warily across the table at each other.
     She continued, "It is very interesting to me to view the American church.  But, I have to ask you a question.  If the point is to introduce people to God as you have mentioned...Why do you offer all of the little gifts?"
     "What do you mean by little gifts?" Rhonda asked.
     I thought back to a newspaper story I remembered reading while pastoring a church in Texas.  It told of one of the churches in Corpus Christi giving away a BMW as a prize for one lucky attender at Easter.  This wasn't quite what Jasmina was getting at.
     "People are invited to come and meet God, but it looks and feels more like a show with the lights dimmed and other special effects enticing people along the way... and so many promises that God will give people things; make them healthy, prosperous……you know, little gifts.    It seems like if people really want to meet God, that they wouldn't need anything else in order to come. Shouldn't He be enough?"
     Wow….Shouldn't meeting God be enough?

     It's easy for me to distance myself from the decision to use a free BMW as an enticement to come to church, but does the question go deeper than that?  I think so.  Had the question come from a nasty debate, or condescending attitude in my friend, I would have probably responded with greater defensiveness, but the question and the questioner arrived from a place of innocence.  It made me ask myself this: "What kind of 'little gifts' do we offer in the gatherings that I have led, that actually might distract people from a true encounter with God rather than draw them toward Him?"  And maybe a second question: "How did we arrive at this place?"  
     I believe that the answers to both of these questions come together in this next story…

    Our transition back to the US from Eastern Europe was challenging.  Leading a church of people in the Pacific Northwest is vastly different than starting coffee houses.   We were just getting our feet on the ground, when I received an anonymous letter in the mail.  The basics of the note said this, "I began attending church here to support my husband…But as you have shared your messages week after week, I am beginning to feel like coming to church has been at least as much for me as it has been for him.  I was prepared to be bored and uninterested, but instead I have been encouraged and inspired.  Furthermore, the Jesus that you are speaking about is making more sense to me all the time and I feel him speaking to me.  I have not yet asked him into my heart, but I think that will come soon."  

     A few weeks later, at the conclusion of the service a man and woman were standing near the front of the platform waiting to speak to me.  The woman introduced herself as Dee and told me that she was the one who had written the letter I just mentioned.  Her husband stood next to her.  He later told me that he had gone through significant struggles in his life; spiritually and physically, but that he felt God had spoken to him while on what could have been his "deathbed" in the hospital and called him back to faith.  Several months later, I had the privilege to pray with both of them in my office, and Dee took the final step in entering into a relationship with her new friend and savior, Jesus.  In the following year, God drew ever closer to both of them.  Then some very difficult news came.  Dee was diagnosed with cancer.  Her physical strength began to drain out of her, even as her spiritual strength was growing.  About a month and a half ago, she left this earthly existence and went to meet the Jesus she had just come to know.  During her last weeks with us, she more and more earnestly prayed for her children and their spiritual lives.  I had met two of them earlier, but during preparation for Dee's funeral I had the chance to connect again.  Those two were in attendance the Sunday afterward.  They were in attendance the Sunday after that, and again the Sunday after that.  In fact, they haven't missed a Sunday since the day Dee went home to heaven.
     About three weeks ago someone said to them, "It is so nice that you have honored Dee by coming  to church."
     They responded by saying, "At first, that is why we came….but now we are coming for ourselves."
     Two weeks ago, during a moment in the service that would have to be described as an old school invitation, Adam and Ashley walked to an altar and committed their lives to Christ, in almost an identical way as Dee did.  There were no little gifts involved.

     When I piece these two stories together, here is what I come to...  Just like any other church leader, I want to do whatever I can to draw others toward hearing the voice of God speak to them.  I want to make it as palatable and understandable as possible. The Holy Spirit has been called many things, The Gentle Persuader, The Hound of Heaven etc.  I get where those terms come from, but I guess my favorite term is the one used from the original Greek definition for Paraclete (the oft-used New Testament term for the Holy Spirit)….He is the One who comes alongside.  When the Holy Spirit truly comes alongside someone, we don't need to offer any little gifts.  They….will….hear…Him.  Dee heard Him, and she was a Grandma.  Adam and Ashley heard Him and they are a young married couple.  His voice crosses over age and culture.  It can be heard with the lights up or the lights dimmed.  He doesn't need our assistance. He just wants us in the church to faithfully make room in our services for him to be lifted up, in music, in spoken word or any other form, and He will take care of the rest.  God is not dead….He isn't even sick.
      Now here is the second half of the question that Jasmina voiced….How did we get here?  Remember the story in 2 Samuel 6:6 where the fellow named Uzzah reached out to steady the ark and made an early exit to heaven because of it?  We have built our systems of church management and worship presentations as though the Holy Spirit needed our talents to make His voice more relevant.  We fine-tuned, edited, and marketed our vision into air-tight, seamless video-worthy productions that barely needed the divine to be successful.  We propped up God like he needed our help...We steadied the ark....but lost something in the process.

     There is one name I left out of Dee's story of coming to Jesus.  Her husband's name is Stanley.  Stanley was faithful in following the voice of God in his life.  Dee saw the change in him and came to church where the Holy Spirit met her.  Adam and Ashley witnessed how Dee and Stanley were being changed and came to church for the same reason.  The Holy Spirit met them there as well.  It was that simple.  What I believe has happened in the church in the last couple decades or so, is that we moved away from seeing the power of an individual's changed life as being the natural way for the Holy Spirit to speak to others about the reality of Jesus.  Instead we looked to our church programming capabilities as the emphasis for drawing people into worship.  The effect has been the explosion of the mega-church, but the lack of new people meeting Jesus.  Though many churches have grown in size in recent years, the actual number of Christ followers in most areas has stayed roughly the same.
      Ouch.  Please don't tell anyone, but I fret about this sometimes.  At the church I lead, we try to do our best to present a quality message and quality music in a quality worship environment each Sunday.  We work to have quality programming for children, youth and adults.  I tell myself that I believe this to be important because of the biblical assertion to "do everything as if you are doing it unto the Lord."  And, I believe this to be a true and fair statement as applied to church leadership. But the other reality is this….I am also challenged by the constant concern about those who may leave and go to another church because their view is that our definition of quality is not up to the standards as another churches definition of quality and that other church is only another 10 minutes down the road so…. 
      So, where does all this lead?  I don't know the answer to that for everyone.  But as for me,  :) ….I want to call us home.  I want for the church that I have been entrusted with leading to take back the calling to be personal sharers of faith.  By saying that, I am NOT going to be passing out tracts, and begin anew the  emphasis on pre-programmed, step-driven evangelism.  I think it is more simple than that.  A few weeks ago, I asked for each person to listen for God to give them one word; one word that they could pass on to someone who didn't know Him that was their descriptive word of His faithfulness in their life.  My belief is that when we become people who wear that one word in such a way that Jesus is seen through it,  it can become attractive to people around us.  I don't know what Stanley's word was during the last two years, but  God used it to speak to Dee.  I don't know if it was the same word Dee and Stanley shared, but whatever it was, it spoke to Adam and Ashley.  When we, each of us live in the word of our testimony of His faithfulness, the church doesn't need to hold the ark steady or offer any little gifts.
His presence will be real.
His presence will be alive.
It will span cultures.
It will span generations.
It will draw others unto Him.

Grace and peace,


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Kicking At Doors

    It was something that happened several years ago now; back when we lived in Poland.  However, when the weather turns cold, my mind often runs back to that evening. It must have been in late October or early November. Sometime after 11pm. Roosevelta street in Poznan, was mostly an empty road at that hour. 
     It was cold. Nothing like it is in mid-winter, but it was cold. 
   We were in the car, stopped at a street light, when suddenly an old man began half running, half shuffling across the street. He was wrapped in a bedspread and wearing slippers. He sort of checked to make sure there were no trams coming and sort of made sure there were no cars, but mostly he was focused on the other side of the road and mostly he was oblivious to everything else. Rhonda noticed him first and felt we should do something to help him. So, Ania (a co-worker who we were taking home at the time) and I got out and walked over to the old man.
    By now he was a block or so ahead of us. We watched him go from one doorway to the next, speaking into the apartment intercom systems, kicking at the doors, occasionally rapping on the storefront windows with a magnifying glass and peering intently inside.
     When we caught up to him, I put my arm around him and steered back around in the direction from whence he had come. When Ania was finally able to get his attention and talk with him, he said that he lived in one of these buildings and that he was just trying to find which one. He said he was 83 years old. One end of the bedspread was tied to a wrist, the other to an ankle. Underwear and slippers completed the ensemble.
    Cut to the chase…Through a series of guesses, deductions and near miraculous coincidences, Rhonda and Ania returned our friend to where he was living…about 3 blocks in the opposite direction from where he had been headed. When he found his house…where he lived alone…he was irked that no one let him in when he buzzed his room from the stoop outside. He shouted at the intercom that was calling his apartment, where of course nobody answered. I shook my head. We all felt badly for him, and for his situation.
     His neighbor explained that our friend had been showing signs of Alzheimer’s for the past several months. So, obviously there was a rationale for his behavior. It was such an odd thing to digest; his image still clear in my mind as I think of it. And the capper; what made him the angriest, was that there was nobody home to fix the mess that he got himself into when he left the house. The idea that came to me was this: I wonder how often I have kicked at the door and grumbled at the night for shutting me out in the cold, when the decision to wander off into the darkness had been all mine.

      “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” John 1:5

Friday, September 19, 2014

Be still...

It sounds like an easy thing to do, "Be still.."

When our grand-daughters are with us, I resist the temptation to make that request of them about once an hour.  They are so busy.

After all there's just so much to do, so much to see, and you have only so many hours to address these options before someone older announces with sudden solemnity, "It's bed-time."
Then all of the fun stuff that the waking hours offer to a 4 and 6 year-old is boxed up and stuffed away until that same voice offers, "It's time to get up."

Fifty three years old about a week ago and I am familiar with the merits of "being still," but it is a trick for me to get there.

Last night, during a rare, quiet evening alone, my wife and I were watching a "romantic movie" on the television.  I know it was a "romantic movie" because it was listed as such when I searched the categories on Netflix.  It was nice.  It had some humor, some tenderness, but at the end in particular some sadness.  We watched silently those last few moments, and without a word, as the credits began to roll and the final song played, we put our arms around each other and held each other for several minutes.  No words.  A few tears.  Nothing had to be said.  In the silence there was a mutual thankfulness of the gift that we had been given of life....shared.

Wednesday night in a small group I am part of, a friend mentioned a recent time where he sat alone in a hot-tub in an outdoor, vacation setting.  He said that as he sat alone there, trying to relax, a list of concerns and daily troubles began to form in his mind.  In this beautiful stillness he was wrestling with the pressures of what he must do to handle these worries.   All at once, he felt the Lord break into the silence and say, "Just do what I ask you to do. That's all.  I will take care of the rest."  My friend said, it was overwhelming to know that this myriad of problems would be handled this way; that his God would intercede with such love and support in issues that felt like he would have to find solutions for himself.  In fact, the thought was so overwhelming, my friend admitted that as he sat there for an hour and a half in the hot-tub alone, soaking in the warmth of that quiet moment...he even cried a bit.

Now,  for the sake of myself and my friend I feel that I am obligated to mention that tears are not a necessary part of "being still."  

My point in all of this is to say when we wean ourselves away from distractions around us, some truly wonderful revelations can take place.

You might be flooded with joy at the knowledge of the special union you share with your wife.
You might recall with pride the achievements of present and past you have shared with your children.
You might see how Christ has come to your support through your family and friends right up to today.
You may marvel at the moments that He has used you to reach into someone else's life.
You may hear the voice of eternity speak even to you, "Well done my good and faithful servant."

There will come a day when instead of straining at the veil that separates, I will bust through the door into heaven and hear all things and know fully all things.

Until then, it is worth the effort, the discipline, the practice, the search, to just a find a way to....
                                                                                                  "Be still..."  (Psalm 46:10)

Monday, August 11, 2014


      When the doorbell rang at the parsonage at Northside Nazarene Church in Chicago I looked through the window to see who was there.  The pastor and his family were away and I had been given instructions on how to respond to visitors.  The young man outside looked like anyone that I might have known in college.  His clothes 
slightly wrinkled, but they were clean. His face showed about a days growth of stubble.  He took one last drag on his cigarette, exhaled, then snuffed it out on the porch with his tennis shoe. He looked into the glass window of the front door and straightened his hair a bit with his hand then pushed the buzzer.  Slowly, I made my way to the foyer of the house and turned the doorknob.
          “What can I do for you?”
          “Well, I’m kinda down on my luck lately and could really use a couple dollars for some food." 
        "I can't give you money,” I said abruptly, remembering the instructions the pastor had given
me before he had left. The man’s eyes dropped to the pavement. 
                                 “But I can make you a sandwich or something if you’d like,”
                        I added hopefully.
        His eyes came up to mine and he smiled, “That would be great!"
       "I'll have to ask you to wait outside, but it will only take a minute,”
I said and then rushed away toward the kitchen. He turned around and sat down on the step,
looking out across the street to the kids playing in front of the apartment building. In the kitchen,
I pieced together a roast beef sandwich, grabbed a couple cookies, some carrot sticks and an apple, put
it on a plate along with a can of soda and carried it out to the man on the porch.
        “Here you go,”
         “You bet.”
          He ate ravenously. I tried not to notice. “So you’ve been having a rough time lately.”
         “You said you were down on your luck.”
        “Oh yeah, “ he said between gulps of soda. “I lost my job, haven’t been able to pay the rent for my place and the landlord’s been on me.”
        “Oh,” I said. “I wish I could help you out a little more, but other than food, we’re not supposed to...I mean the pastor told us not to...anyway, I hope things go better for you soon.”
        “I’m Cary,” he said, brushing away the previous attempts at conversation while extending me his hand.
          I introduced myself, took his extended hand and shook it.
He got up to leave, tossing the apple in the air and catching it with the other hand, “Good sandwich!” he said as he disappeared around the corner of the building and headed down the alleyway.
I stepped back inside the parsonage and nervously paced around the room for a moment. Then I went to the living room, knelt down in front of the couch and began to pray.
      Dear God. Help me to understand a guy like Cary. He doesn’t look to be that much older than I am, and yet we’re worlds apart."  
      It was a couple weeks later when I saw Cary for the second time. Mike (my roommate) and I were asleep in the basement of the parsonage. It was a rainy, miserable, hot July evening when Cary came stumbling to the door of the parsonage. We helped him to the rear of the building and down the back steps. He was mumbling something about his landlady and thanked us profusely for helping him.
     We laid him down on the couch in the basement of the parsonage where Mike and I stayed. We covered him with a blanket and he immediately passed out. The light from the alleyway spilled through our basement window and as I lay awake in bed I watched this man toss and turn through a fitful night. I wondered what type of demons, real or imagined plagued him. His arms reached out in defense, his feet kicked and his whole body shuddered against unseen attacks for hours and then there were a few moments of stillness. I almost wondered if he had died, but then he gently turned, tucking the blanket about his neck and began to snore. I turned and sighed myself, whispering quietly a soft prayer on Cary’s behalf, asking God to keep those demons away, at least for a night so he might get a few hours of rest.
     The morning came bright white and courageous. There was hope in the sunshine and the evening’s rain that fell hard against the brick of the parsonage, left a cleansing wash upon the dirty alleys and black asphalt streets of Chicago. I had a cereal breakfast and headed for work. Mike and I worked opposite shifts at the Boy’s Club that week so Cary was with him in the morning, helping with the food pantry and then he was with me in the afternoon.
     The pastor allowed for Cary to stay with us, so long as he was sober. So we sat down with him and explained the situation. Over the next several days, Cary became a part of the family. He ate meals with us, went into work with us and slept on the couch down in the basement with us. Sometimes we went over to the church and prayed together, Mike played choruses on his guitar and we talked about Christ’s love, compassion and grace. Cary listened intently and asked lots of questions, but kept God arms length away, even though he sang with us through the choruses and hymns. Then one day, he was gone. All of us in the parsonage were uneasy with his disappearance.
      I think we all knew that even though Cary had been doing so well while living with us, that he still wasn’t strong enough to battle life on the streets alone. Weeks passed and none of us heard anything. Finally, one night when I came home late from the Boy’s Club I was met by Mike down in the basement and he gave me the bad news. It was about what I expected. Cary had shown up at the church during the middle of the day. It was very obvious he had been drinking and the pastor said that he couldn’t let him stay. Of course, that was a hard pill to swallow, but we all knew that the pastor was right. He had 2 young daughters to think about, and to let a young alcoholic that he barely knew stay in the same home as his family after breaking the simple house rules he had set up, really wasn’t wise. I knew that if it had been my choice, I would have done the same thing. Still, it was tough to imagine Cary back on the streets, sleeping in alley ways and begging food when we had just seen him a few days ago sleeping contentedly on our basement couch and eating Cocoa Puffs with the rest of the family at breakfast time.
        I went through all those guilt exercises that we do when we want so bad for something good to happen to someone we care about and instead something not so good happens. Was there something I could have said? Was there something I could have done? I’m pretty good at those exercises, but in the end, there was no question as to why Cary was back into what we had hoped he had left behind. He chose to go there. Still, I thought about the personal devils he was fighting inside. I considered the protected environment I had grown up in. I never had to face some of the choices that Cary had to. I wondered how my life might have been different were I forced to make some of those choices. If not for the grace of God...

       It was at least a month later, on a Monday when the front doorbuzzer sounded at the parsonage.  It was Cary. He looked much the same as that first time I met him. But this time, his speech was badly slurred and he smelled like stale beer. 
     “Hey Cary, where have you been?”
     “It’s great to see you again. What have you been doing? We’ve all missed you.”
     “I’ve been around.”
     It was obvious he wasn’t into sharing what had gone on in his life since I last saw him. He was intent on something else. 
     “Can I borrow some money for some food?”
      It was not a comfortable situation. 
     “You know I can’t give you money Cary. If you want some food I can make you some lunch or we can walk down to the corner for Chinese.”
      “I don’t want lunch. Just give me a couple dollars. What’s five bucks to you?"
     Cary was getting more agitated as the conversation continued. He sort of pawed the ground with his sneakered shoes, talking into the pavement. 
     “Look, just give me the money and I’ll be outta here.”
     “I’m not going to do that. I can get you a sandwich in just a second...” I turned away from the door and headed for the kitchen, “Why don’t you come in and sit down..”
     “Forget it, I don’t want a ------- sandwich!” he turned and started down the parsonage steps, then spun back around and I met him at the door. His words spilled out like noises from a sputtering car engine. Anger, hurt, and alcohol made them come in short forced bursts,
      “Who do you think you are?” he said pointing at me through the screen door.
      “Who do you think you are? he repeated. “ You have no idea what it’s like to be me....No idea! You need to walk in my shoes ....See what it’s like on the streets. Who are you to judge me?!...You can’t judge me!...You don’t have a clue what it’s like to be me!”
     I tried to digest what he said. It would have been easy to cast it all aside and ignore him. He was  drunk. He didn’t know what he was talking about. Yet, somewhere deep in my heart I felt Christ calling me in a different direction. Before I could even think about it, these words fell out of my mouth,
     “You’re right Cary. I don’t know what it’s like to live like you. I don’t know what you go through each day. So here’s the deal. I’ll give you the five dollars, but if I do, you have to let me hang out with you today. Wherever you go, whatever you do for the rest of the day, you will take me with you, so I can learn a little more about what it’s like to be you. Deal?”
     It caught him by surprise. I’d like to say that this was part of some elaborate plan that I had thought through before that day and that I was only waiting for Cary to give me the opportunity to spring this on him. The truth is I didn’t have any idea what I was getting into. When I spoke those words of challenge to Cary, I was surprised to hear them myself. They were more of a frustrated reaction to his statement that I was judging him without the right to do so, than a well planned response. He stared intensely back at me for a moment, then down at the pavement and shook his head.
      “I don’t care. If that’s what you want.”
     “I’ll be right back,” I said, walking into the house to get the money and my coat. My mind raced. Was this really a good idea? Somehow though, I knew it was right. There was a quiet peace in my heart, almost as if I could see light in a doorway that was closed before. 
      “O.K.” I said, pressing the five dollar bill into his hand, “Let’s go.”
We walked down the sidewalk to Damen Avenue where the “L” train stopped. Cary didn’t say anything at all, he just walked. We turned right on Damen, past the drycleaners and another small shop then just as I expected, stepped inside the liquor store. Cary hoisted 3 of the quart size bottles of Colt 45 onto the counter and laid out his money. I just stood quietly next to him. Then, once again, without a word we were on our way out the doors and headed back down Damen Avenue in the opposite direction of which we had just come. We went under the train platform and started toward the stairs on the side, but just before the stairs Cary turned right and headed down a gravel path that ran underneath the trestle. I had been up those stairs dozens of times and never noticed that path until then. I had a hunch there may be a lot of the North side of Chicago that I had never noticed before that would become familiar to me before the day was out. We were only about ten feet down that path however when Cary abruptly stopped and then spoke for the first time since we left the parsonage.
      “Okay, you’ve made your point. You showed that you really care, but you can go home now.”
     “I’m not going home, and I’m not trying to make a point. The way I see it, there’s a lot that you can teach me today. I really don’t know what it’s like to live like you. If it’s alright, I’d rather stay with you. If you want me to go home, I will, but this isn’t about the five dollars okay!?”
      He handed me the bag with two of the beer bottles inside, then took the third, unscrewed the top and took a swig, “You want some?” he said, offering me the bottle.
       “No thanks.”
       He took another drink, looked at me, with a smug smile and headed down the path again. We stayed under the train trestle for about half a mile or so. I would never have imagined that you could walk that far in Chicago without walking on any concrete, but the whole way was almost like a nature walk. There were small trees and bushes lining the path, and birds flitted across the way before us. All the while that we walked we stayed directly beneath the train route through the Northside.

      It was a silent march. Periodically, I would glance down an alleyway and get a glimpse of street signs or a store front, a few of the times I saw something recognizable to help me gauge where we were. It’s an odd thing to be just a few yards from roads and sidewalks that you’ve traveled many times, and still feel as though you’re in a foreign land. It made me wonder just how much I missed when I walked down those sidewalks. There’s a removed safety in staying to those sidewalks that I had always known and yet never really paid any attention to before.
      Now we came to a sort of clearing. It was almost like a meadow in the middle of a forest, except in this case instead of being encircled by trees we were surrounded by brick and mortar apartment buildings. There were a couple; three scattered railroad ties on the gravel and dust covered ground, bushes, some small trees and some tossed beer cans and liquor bottles. Cary stopped in front of a large rock, motioned for me to stop as he unscrewed the cap of his bottle and took a deep drink then wiped his mouth with his sleeve and sat down at the rock. I sat on one of the old railroad ties and had just found my seat when a voice hollered from the path we had just come down.
     “Cary my man, is that you?”
     In seconds a face appeared, peeking around the bushes that lined the trail. A smile sprang to Cary’s face and he jumped to his feet to greet the visitor.
    “Damn, it’s good to see you. I’ve been worried about you man. I heard your landlady booted you...thought you had no place to go...then I heard about Jerome, man what a sorry story there.”
        He was much older than either of us were. He looked to be in his fifties. A younger man stood next to him. He was taller than all of us and very thin. He had jet black hair, a moustache and was wearing a simple white t-shirt, blue jeans and some old black sneakers. There was a tattoo on his right shoulder that looked like a horse from where I was sitting. Both were white. The older man wore blue jeans, work boots and a button-up shirt. His hair was in a pony tail that fell out the back of the Cubs ballcap he wore. He pulled a pack of cigarettes from the jean jacket that had been slung over his shoulder,
      “Say bud, if you give me a chance at the booze I can share some smokes. Hey Cary, who is your friend?”
        I stepped over to the three men and introduced myself, setting the other two bottles of beer down in front of them. He offered me a cigarette. 
        “What happened to Jerome?” Cary asked as the three passed around the bottle.
      “Well,” began the older man, “I don’t know everything, but I do know he’s in the hospital; almost died I guess. It’s gettin’ pretty tough downtown these days. Someone tried to rip him off his food stamps. It was some new guy in town that Jerome was with...You gotta watch your back when it’s people ya don’t know. Anyway, Jerome wouldn’t give up the food stamps and so the jerk sticks him in the ribs. Like I said, he’s damn lucky to be alive.”
      “Where’s he now?”
      “Cook’s. We’re gonna go see him today. Wanna come with us?”
      “I got some stuff I have to take care of with my landlady,” Cary answered.
    “With your landlady? Why don’t you just give that up and take the streets with us again? We’re thinkin’ about jumpin’ the train for Boston in a few days...”
      Cary didn’t respond, he just tipped back the bottle then passed it on. Soon they were done with the first bottle and we were all seated in a circle. Like a bunch of farmers in the field talking about crop rotations. Only the topics of conversation were not about farming. The bottle had passed me several times. I simply handed it to the next guy in line.  We laughed together about the Cubs (I think everyone laughs about the Cubs sometime) and other things. Occasionally, the conversation would turn more serious especially when talking about some of the dangerous aspects of the street. The two men I didn’t know were completely accepting of me.  From what I could understand, my acceptance came on the sole basis of Cary’s endorsement when we first arrived, “He’s a friend I met at the food pantry at the Northside Church.”
     I was amazed that it took so little to gain their confidence. There was a sense that I was immediate family. The two men took Cary and I through a list of people that only Cary knew, and he nodded acknowledgement of who they were each time a name was mentioned, then both men would proceed to give a short biography on what had been happening in said person’s life over the past few days or weeks. It was hard for me to understand all the two were sharing in respect to places that they were talking about. Some of the people had interesting names like, “Snowman”, “Dr. Jekyll” and “Mad Margaret”, and others were more regular like Bobby and Mary. It reminded me of a family reunion, when relatives you haven’t seen for some time come together and you play the “catch-up-on -the-name-game” finding out what has gone on in an aunt or cousin’s life since you last saw each other. We must have stayed there for at least a couple hours, but the time went by very quickly and comfortably. It was almost as if the whole city of Chicago, and the six million or so people who live in it had disappeared for a bit and left us alone to sit there in the “park” and have this time together. Finally though, each man took one last drag on their cigarette and one at a time snuffed them out on the ground. There was a round of handshakes, pats on the back, a chorus of, “take care of yourselfs” then the two men left Cary and I alone.
     “They seemed like some pretty good guys,” I offered.
     “Yeah. We all kinda look out for each other on the street.”
     “Do you know that Jerome guy very well?”
     “Yeah. He lived with me for awhile. He’s gay. Just a young guy, 18 or 19, he’s not so careful about who he’s with sometimes. I kinda thought it could catch up to him someday. People who would kill you for a few bucks or for food, or just for the fun of it...they’re out there...straight up.”
     I nodded my head and looked around at the quiet place where I was standing and tried to imagine what it would be like to sleep there, huddled up in an old blanket and a bottle. I guess what struck me the most was the uncertainty of it all. I can’t remember a day of my life where I didn’t know where I’d be sleeping that night. I can’t remember ever wondering if there would be food for dinner, or clean clothes to put on. There were so many assumed conveniences in my life. 
     Cary reached down and picked up the remaining two bottles of beer and looked me in the eye.
O.K. So are you going home now?”
    “Huh,” I said, still in thought.
    “I said, are you going to go home now?”
    “No. I’m with you all day. Remember!?”
    Cary looked at me with a somewhat surprised look, tilted his head and sighed, then spun around and started off down the trail again.

     We had gone about twenty paces when I caught him by the shoulder and asked, “Where are we headed now?”
      “I’m goin’ back to my apartment. Gonna see if she’s locked me out again.”
      “Why would she lock you out?”
   “I haven’t paid the rent for 3 weeks. I’m on a week to week deal. She knows I’ll get it      though...straight up...I’m good for it. I can’t go back on the streets though, I’ll do anything...I just can’t go back, I won’t survive there.” 
      He looked me in the eyes and I could see the seriousness in his stare. I saw something else in his eyes too, something behind the glassy, bloodshot whites. You could almost see the absence of hope. I can’t really explain it but it was there, or rather it wasn’t there. No hope. It made his eyes almost gray; it made me look away. He turned and marched on.
     “Those guys back there, they were alright.”
    “Tom and Charlie?”
    “I guess. I don’t remember them ever saying their names. But they seemed to be good guys.”
    “Well, “ Cary started with a small smile, “They’re pretty cool most the time but they can get kinda dark if they’re tanked.”
     “Most people can if their drunk,” I said.
    We walked on silently for the next several minutes. I can’t say how far we walked, but it took about an hour or so. The only time we stopped was so that Cary could take a drink. We turned out of the path and it opened onto an alleyway between two large, red-brick apartment buildings. Shadows fell into the alley, the sun was beginning to set. There was a busy street up ahead. We walked toward it. Trash cans and dumpsters lined the dark walk. Trash piled overtop many of them; empty cereal boxes, dirty diapers and crushed beer and soda cans fell onto the pavement. We walked on.
     When we came to the head street I recognized it to be Damen Ave. We threaded between traffic. Cary was weaving a little as he walked. It made me nervous. When we got to the other side of the street we walked down a short driveway and behind a house that faced the street. There was a short stair in the back that led to the second floor of the house. Up the stairs onto a small landing. Cary set down the beer and reached into his pocket. He pulled out his key and moved an unsteady hand to the lock on the door. After a couple seconds he found the the keyhole and unlocked the door. He pushed it open and the two of us stepped inside. It was a tiny living space. A bed, a sink, a small dresser and a toilet, it was all crammed into about a twelve by twelve area. It was clean and tidy though. A bar of soap at the sink. A lamp on the dresser. Cary sat his beer next to the lamp. The second bottle was nearly gone. He pulled a large knife out of another pocket and set it next to the beer, then his wallet and the change from the five I had given him next to that. He drank the last swallow of the second bottle then set it next to the other. He walked over next to the bed and slumped onto it. I pulled a chair from in front of the dresser and sat down .

      A few moments of awkward silence passed, and then I heard Cary begin to quietly cry. His head was buried in his hands.
      “What are you still here for?” he began.
      “You stuck it out all the way. When are you going home? Why can’t you leave me alone?”
     I really didn’t know what to say. I didn’t feel as though I had accomplished much. It was like winning a bet that had no prize. Then, in a slowfooted way I began to stumble onto God’s plan for this entire day. Words began to tumble out of my mouth that I didn’t even think about before I heard them myself.
     “Why do you drink Cary?”
He sat up on the bed and stared at me. His bloodshot eyes wet with tears. His hands shook. His face contorted with pain.
    “How old do you think I am?...How old do I look to you?...I’m 26 years old, and I feel like I’m 56. I’ve been drinking hard since I was 15 or 16......and I can’t tell you what I’ve done just to get a drink.”
My eyes were fixed on him, he was pacing back and forth on the other side of the bed like he was caged. Something was tearing at his insides.
     “I don’t have to know what you’ve done Cary, it just doesn’t matter to me. I just want to tell you that...”
      He cut into me mid-sentence and stepped up to where I was seated, reaching up to his hair with both hands, tormented, “I’ve been with men,” he spat out at me, “I mean, old men,..... dirty men....I think I killed someone once,” tears were streaming down his face. “I’ve lied to people...family....my parents. I slept in sewer, I can’t live with it anymore...I think I’m gonna die...” he broke off in sobs face down on the bed.
      I sat in my chair. I looked at Cary. I thought about my life. For a brief second I considered the extent of my life’s sorrow. I looked at Cary. For the first time in my Christian experience all of the stuff that I wanted to say about God’s unconditional love, his great understanding and compassion. It all sounded so hollow in my thoughts. Could God really help this guy? Inside I could hear a voice telling me not to share with him about Jesus. The voice was stabbing at my gut with guilt and shame. It was asking questions like, “What happens to this poor guy if Jesus can’t help him? Just another disappointment in a series for him? ....Maybe the last disappointment... The last one he can take. Better just leave and go home like he said.”
      For a moment I didn’t say anything. Then I felt as if the former voice was superceded by another and what I was hearing now, simply said, “Let me worry about whether or not Cary’s problems are too big to handle. It’s your place to tell him about me.”
      And so I began to share with him about Jesus’ compassion and His love. The words still felt forced,  and whether it came through to Cary or not, there was a lack of assurance in my words that I could feel was there.
     “Cary, God loves you. He doesn’t care about what you’ve done. He wants to help you get through today and build on tomorrow. There’s no sin too wicked or dark that can’t be forgiven.”
     He just continued to weep. I was trying to drum up some confidence in my heart. I took a deep breath and released it then started again.
     “Cary, tell me about how you got started drinking. Tell me why you can’t quit. What kind of hold does it have on your life?”
     “I can’t.”
     “Yes you can. I’m not going anywhere and I promise I won’t be shocked or disappointed in you.” Wishful thinking. I had no idea what might be coming next; no clue as to what had turned this young man into an old man sobbing into his pillow, fighting to stay off the streets in Northside Chicago.
He sat up slowly, then swung his legs over the side of the bed, stood up again, and began pacing. He was holding his head in his hands like he had some huge headache. I could tell there was a great battle going on in his heart, and silently I began to pray, still looking at him the whole time, watching him pace. Then he stopped and walked over to me again. His mouth quivered for a second as he stared darts into me; wondering if he was safe. Then he began,
     “When I was thirteen years old, I went with my family to the beach. It was a really nice day, we were all having a great time, “ as the words came from his mouth, emotion ran across his face. In the description of the day a trace of joy in his eyes, and as he continued the joy ran to hurt and tears welled.
     “My brother and me, we were having a catch with the football. The sun was warm. We decided to go for a swim. So I went into a changing room,” his eyes flashed anger, hurt and shame. Tears streamed down his face and his jaw tightened. He turned his face away.
     “What happened Cary? What happened in the changing room?”
He faced me. His voice shook with the bitterness of thirteen years worth of secrecy born in shame,
     “It was my fault...I never should have let it happen... I shoulda just killed myself..”
     “Cary what happened!?”
     “He raped me...some dirty old man.... He pushed me into the back and raped me. And I never did nothing about it. I just went out and had a swim.”
    “You didn’t say anything about what happened to anyone?” I asked, imagining the desperate emotion that must have been flowing through the mind of a thirteen year-old boy.
      “Why Cary? Why didn’t you tell anyone?”
      Now his words were angry, “Because it was my fault.”
      “It was your fault? How could it have been your fault?”
    “Because I was too weak. It would never have happened to my brother. Rollie was an all-state football player, he’s strong, everyone loved him, nobody could have done something like that to him. I’m weak,..maybe I wanted it to happen...it was my fault.”
     If I didn’t audibly groan in pain, I know I felt like it. I wanted to give him something. Something more than words. Again, the promise of Jesus’ caring and grace seemed insufficient, but I kept after it, trying to not let the uncertainty in my heart bleed through the words I was sharing. As I continued, Cary struggled to listen.
      I pledged to Cary that God’s grace was great enough to cover all his hurts. I did my best to explain to him that the Father did not see any blame on his head because of what happened one day in a dark place to a young boy, desperate and afraid. He continued to cry, falling face first into his bed again, sobbing. I patted his back and began to pray.
    A few moments later, the sun had completely set, I said, “amen”, and Cary’s eyes went shut. The emotion and alcohol had spent his energy. I quietly let myself out the door, locking it behind me. Down the stairs and through the alley and back to Damen avenue; all the way home I thought about what had just taken place that day. I had learned so much. So much about Cary. So much about life outside my frame of reference, but also so much about myself, and my concepts of Christ’s healing power, and the parameters I placed around it.
      I never had another chance to speak with Cary. I went by the apartment a week later only to meet the landlady after knocking on the door. He had left the house. The lady thought that he had checked into a detox center, she didn’t know which one. About a month after that, I was traveling through the Uptown on a transit bus. It was a hot August afternoon. I lifted my head up, looked to my right, and out the window. There, not more than ten feet away, on a bus headed in the opposite direction was Cary. He caught my glance just as the bus began to pull away. A giant smile covered his face. He waved frantically and tried to shout at me through the window as the two buses pulled away from each other. He looked good. He looked clean, and not just on the outside. There was a joy that seemed to emanate from him. I watched behind, until the bus was out of sight.

      I look back on my relationship with Cary from a lot of different perspectives. I have never struggled in sharing my Jesus with someone the way I did with Cary. Yet, I have a settledness that Christ was never-the-less faithful. It was my insufficiency that had to be dealt with on that day, not the Savior’s. In my heart I want to picture Cary forever as I saw him on the bus. I expect to see him in heaven when I get there. Still, some questions stay with me from those days in Chicago.
     Was it God’s plan to place me in Cary’s life to help him, or vice-versa? I suppose looking back, it was God’s plan for both of us to learn some things about who He was that brought us together.  Unless I work at it, I have found that I am completely capable of seeing life through faithless eyes. I know that He loves me anyway, but my sense is that there are a lot more people in this world who, “feel like their 56 years old”, even though they are actually much younger. I must be able to believe that the Jesus who breathed new life into me, is their Jesus too, and that truly there are no boundaries to His saving grace.

For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the LORD, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:11 - The new KJV

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Ghosts of Africa

They will be there in the instants between my carefully planned appointments.

Invading my conscience with faded snaps of an
open, brown field, and a herd of 400 zebra,
tossing their heads swishing their tails...
Scattered giraffe,
straining their necks into the warm breeze,
Looking like far-off sailing ships against the
blue sky.
A rogue elephant or rhino crashing through the bush, with no need for stealth and a

giant crane circling to the ground
in silhouette against a setting sun.

I will wheel the car into the driveway, reach for my cell-phone, and they’ll be gone; all the animals, the scorching sun, dusty trails and bleached white bones, disappearing into the whirlpool of the present.

Then she comes...
Dressed in a dirty, stretched-out-of-shape tee-shirt that says,
Aspen, Colorado”, on one side, and
For the fun of it!” on the other.
This one is Sudanese,
but she could have been from Congo,
Uganda or Ethiopia.
She is breastfeeding a child in her arms,
while two others tug at the konga about her waist.
Her cheekbones are set high, and she has no teeth behind her lower lip.
A scar is on her forehead.
Her feet are cracked and dry, as
she has walked perhaps several hundred miles
to stand outside my office.
There’s no milk, there’s no ugali she says...
No husband, no home, no water, no clothes for the baby.
The small ones reach out and touch my hand,
then pull back immediately;
as though the white skin gave off an electric shock.
Their noses are running...they smell of urine.
Now, the mother’s eyes meet mine, and the despair in them falls over me like shadow.

Then the alarm near my pillow begins to drag me into the new day, and the shadow creeps away into some abyss and I’m thankful.
When I’m watching the TV, or rather looking at the screen and watching nothing at all; when the car pauses at an intersection; while the offering plate is making its tour down the aisle or when I’m staring blindly into a restaurant menu, I know that during these unguarded moments the images will return.

Shining mouths, singing atop their voices, in a foreign rhythm,
Wamilele, wamilele, Mungu wa baraka ni Yesu Bwana!” 
(Eternal God of blessings, it is Christ the Lord)
Jacaranda trees, glowing purple, surrounded by a sweet mist, rising from the hot
sticky, tarmac street....
Seas of black faces, that peer at me with curiosity
as I spin the four-wheel drive through the market of Kikomba...
Elegant ladies walking gracefully down ancient footpaths,
with baskets of maize balanced on their heads...
Pickers, bent over a blanket of deep-green tea plants, their bright colored wraps,
dotting the Kericho country-side...

They will always be with me, these ghosts of Africa, haunting me like a welcomed song, learned long ago; the words lost to my mind, but their meaning fresh in my heart.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Finding The Way Home

Walks into the forest have mostly been a comfort to me.  I like to think of myself as adventuresome, not like Indiana Jones or something, but one who is usually drawn to the road less traveled.

Not all forests of my life have been filled with trees, some were built of concrete and steel, others were winding paths in my heart that darkened my mind with questions.

What comes after that bend in the path?  What happens if I take that alleyway?  Can I cut through the trees and bushes to my right and get home quicker?  

Recently however, I have discovered that although I am a person who enjoys the challenge of walking into the unknown, what I have seen in my heart is that I generally want to pick the time and location of the journey.  When it comes before I feel prepared or in a place not of my choosing, then, walks in the forest are not my favorite thing, and I have  some deep and unsettled feelings about them.  I believe the anxiety stems from this thought,  If I go down this path, will I be able to find my way home?

To some degree, I think that this was what was on Thomas' mind when he asked this question in John 14...

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

The disciples and Jesus had gone many places together.  Sometimes the journey was affirming, exciting and inspiring, but sometimes it was also hard, cold, dark, hurried and fearful.  The one preserving thought had always been this:  As long as Jesus is with us, He will always lead us home.  

But now the shadow comes.  In the verses before those quoted above, Jesus has just revealed that he is going to leave them.   He will be going ahead of them to his father's house to prepare a place for them.  He says that He will come back to get them and that they actually already know the way to where He is going.  Still, Jesus gives no directions on how to get there.  At least nothing that refers to geography.  His only directional help comes in verse 6, "I am the way..."  And it is enfolded by just one additional phrase....Trust in me.

What is the route?  "I am the way...Trust in me."
What are the landmarks?  "I am the way...Trust in me."
Is that to the North, South, East or West?  "I am the way...Trust in me."
Can I get that on mapquest or GPS?  "I am the way...Trust in me."
How long should it take to get there?  "I am the way...Trust in me."

Phew.  Even for someone who mostly likes forest wanderings, this seems very little instruction to go on.  It's one thing to deal with the journey and have faith when the silhouette of Jesus is walking the trail before you.  It's something completely different when He says I will go on ahead of you and prepare for your arrival, but you will walk the rest on your own.  

As "edgy" as I wish to think my life has been up until now, the truth is I have never strayed far enough away from home that I didn't think I could retrace my steps and return.  That has been my safety net; my memory of the journey past, and how I could follow it's trail of bread crumbs back to where things began.

Poor Thomas....Doubting Thomas...(the guy who has had to live through history with an adjective instead of a proper title before his name)...I think this was his major point of struggle also.  He kept up with the rest of group as long as he could see the way home, if only in his mind, and now Jesus had removed that reference point as well.   Now the whole thing was tied to nothing but two ideas, held together by someone who just told them He would be leaving.

"I am the way....Trust in me."

That's all we get?  That's all there is?  Is it enough to walk on?  Enough for us to find life in?  Enough to have peace?  There is a forest walk up ahead for all of us....somewhere, sometime down the road.  We might have advance knowledge of its coming, but maybe not.   I guess I am hearing Him say to me that the answers to these questions have to do with the depth of my relationship to the one giving the instruction and my belief that He will be as faithful in my future as He has been in my past.  Even in the moments that I was deeper into the forest than I realized at the time.  

Uncertainty is an empty well, waiting to be filled with something; hope, fear, perseverance, anger, faith....That empty well is me, and what it is filled with rests a lot on my own choosing.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Beethoven And Other Classics

     The room was very dark. Away from the bar, the music blared over the sound system. People were dancing in another corner of the room. Guys were dancing with girls, guys were dancing with guys, girls were dancing with girls. I looked to the hardwood finish on the counter, closed my eyes and whispered a simple prayer.
     “Jesus, I hope you know what you’re doing, ...please make something worthwhile come out of this time I have here.” I had joined a group of Portland area pastors on a Friday night attempting to minister in the downtown bar scene.
     I took a sip of my soda and began to try and engage the man seated next to me in conversation. It went slowly at first, but eventually he began to share about his life.
      He was a Jewish man. He had moved to the northwest from New Jersey when things had come to a head with his parents while living at home. A college-degree in biology, now hundreds of miles from home working as a custodian in a large office building. He spoke of loneliness. He had lived with a woman for the better part of three years but things just hadn’t worked out. With her gone there had been no one. His words were directed to me but his eyes looked downward in despair at the glass of beer in front of him. Then there was a flicker of happiness that surprised me when I in a desperate attempt to stimulate conversation, asked him if he had any pets.
      “Yes, I do” he said excitedly, “ I have two guinea-pigs.”
       I chuckled at seeing how excited he was.
      “Really, guinea-pigs!?”
     “Yes, they are such wonderful pets. I’ve had them for almost a year now. My apartment complex won’t allow dogs or cats, so this was the best I could do. They’re not like people, they don’t care how successful you are, or how much money you have, they just know who takes care of them and are thankful.”
     “I see ...” I said, trying to feign interest in the details of this man’s relationship to his rodents.
   “Their names are Beethoven and Bach,” he said and droned on for about 15 minutes on how interesting their sleeping habits were. I was mostly frustrated that we were getting a long way off from what I wanted to talk to him about, but all the while, I just nodded and listened, learning quite a bit more about guinea-pig care than I will ever put to a good use. Finally, he took a breath and then asked me what I was doing in Portland.
     “Well...” I began, and over the next couple minutes explained to him that I was a Christian and that I was a part of this ministry team roaming through the city on a Friday night, out to help lost souls like him and as I began to drone on, I could see him shrinking back into his drink. I stopped talking.
He had turned completely away from me.
     “Did I say something wrong?...I didn’t mean to offend you...I’m sorry...”
     Nothing. No response.

     I sat silent in my chair for a couple minutes. I prayed again, asking the Lord to help me build a bridge back to this man. My mind was spinning but I couldn’t think of anything to say, finally I almost blurted out, “So what do you feed those guinea-pigs anyway?”
      He turned and looked me straight in the face for the first time, as if to see if I really cared to hear his response.
     “Mostly they eat a ground meal I get at the pet store, but I like to give them carrots and celery sometimes, they really like that,” and off he went again telling me when and how to feed them. I wondered if he noticed my sigh of relief when he started talking again. I listened for a long time. But it was alright. For some reason I felt like there was going to be an opportunity still to share Jesus with this man. While he spoke I began to pray that God would give me a more comfortable transition, so I wouldn’t crash and burn like the first time. I was still praying for that opportunity when he suddenly stopped talking about his pets and said, 
     “You know, it’s hard for me to understand you Christians. Why do you worship someone who was killed almost 2000 years ago?”
     His question was so straight forward I thought at first that maybe he was just being sarcastic.
    “Um...well...that’s not the end of the story,” I said.
     He looked at me with sincere interest. 
    “I mean,....he rose from the dead.” Those words sounded so strange against the backdrop of cigarette smoke, dance music and the smell of beer. He just continued to look at me, waiting for me to continue.
     “Have you ever read the new testament?”
     He shook his head. I told him about the gospel story, my personal spiritual journey with Jesus and ended with why I was there sitting next to him. I watched carefully this time to see if my words were too many or too hard for him to hear. He drank in every syllable. And then I knew it was time to stop.
     He quietly nodded his head and then turned to his drink and emptied the glass. In very reverent tones he began to talk about the separation he felt from his parents and his sense of shame in not making them proud of him. He spoke of his dissatisfaction with his job and the hopelessness of his life.  Finally he said, 
      “If Jesus is really all that you’ve told me, I guess I’d sure like to meet him sometime too.”
     “All you have to do is say his name and He’s there,” I said.
     “I will remember that,” he answered.
    I glanced down to my watch. It was time for me to meet up with the other pastors. In fact I was already ten minutes late and not being familiar with the city wasn’t completely sure I knew how to get back to our meeting place.
     “I have to go now,” I said, still not wanting to leave.
    “It was really nice to talk with you.” I shook his hand and hesitantly began to move past him toward the door. He caught my coatsleave and I turned to look at him. His eyes were wet with tears.
    “Thanks for talking with me, “ he said, “And if you ever think about it, every once in awhile will you stop and say a prayer for a Jewish boy who never made his parents proud?”
     “I will,” I said.
     And I have... many times.

    I suppose that my experience in sharing with this man was a terrific learning opportunity in many ways. Of course sharing about our faith in a tavern or bar is quite a challenge. Yet there was a greater lesson that I learned through this conversation. I was so eager to share Jesus with someone that night, but not really interested in listening. Beethoven and Bach are names that I will probably never forget. Truth is, I can’t even remember the man’s name any more...just his pets’, but it took listening about those names to be able to share about, “the name above all names.”

    Everyone has a story. Most of the time if we will listen to theirs, I think we will have a better chance to tell His.