Friday, February 19, 2016

Tuan's Story Of Crumbs

                He had been attending for a few weeks when I caught his arm as he was heading out the  
           front door, following the conclusion of our Sunday morning service and introduced myself.
           Later, we made an appointment to get together and get to know each other better.  It was
           during that meeting that I asked him what drew him to our church.  There were several ideas
           that he shared with me as to why he stayed at our church once he arrived, but the story of
           why he came that very first time was rather unique, and he has given me permission to
           share it.  So, this is Tuan's "story of crumbs"... :)
      The most difficult decisions you will ever make are the ones God has already made for you... 
     But how do we know that we are on the right path? For me, that means "following crumbs". God leaves all of us many crumbs so that we can stay the course.  But unlike the story of Hansel and Gretel, these crumbs do not get eaten by birds; they do come and go but it takes recognition, discernment and obedience to lead us back home, to Him.

     Several years back while “strolling” through life, I found myself lost. I had a good paying job, the bills were always paid on time, I took vacations often, and had strong relationships with a small group of friends that I could always count on. But I was empty inside.  I couldn’t really explain why I felt that way, but the void grew and quickly overwhelmed my life. I was falling apart. As it is when you lose control of something valuable, anxiety sets in.  I became desperate as the downward spiral dictated my emotions and also hindered me physically. 

     It finally dawned on me that while I spent a lot of time praying to God to help me get through what I could see was an impending onslaught of depression, I failed to listen or see. Simply put, I did not do my part.  That’s when I started to pick up the crumbs. 

     I was living in Seattle at the time and my commute to work was by way of bike on the Burke Gilman Trail.  On a commute home one day there was an older man riding in front me.  I don’t know what the circumstances were, but it appeared something he ran over had caused him to crash on the pavement.  A few of us stopped alongside him and quickly realized that 911 was in order as he was not responsive.  After that incident, whenever I saw debris on the trail that I felt was a potential hazard, I would stop and remove it. A simple crumb at the time.  I once found a wallet on the trail. I got to work, Googled the person using his driver’s license, and wallet and owner were quickly reunited, just another crumb that I had picked up.  I started to befriend a homeless man on the trail. I would see Duane regularly on my way to and from work pushing his shopping cart full of his belongings. And over time I finally decided to stop and say “hi”. I would offer him what I had in my backpack as far as food but soon offered more.  Shoes and clothing would eventually follow. Yet more crumbs on the trail.  My best friend was going through a bitter divorce.  I did my best to help by being there as a friend but it was obvious that he needed more.  I saw that as a crumb and followed it, and told him my story about crumbs.  He’s now a Christian and finding his own crumbs.   
     I even found crumbs at work.  Superficial conversations with my coworkers were mundane, but upon closer inspection, were really crumbs. The crumbs were telling me that stronger relationships could be built through what once was only water cooler jibber-jabber. So as the crumbs emerged, I availed of what was given and threw in a few crumbs of my own and the conversations soon took on new life, with greater meaning; allowing me to even talk about God, at work of all places!     
     Following the crumbs even led me to Budapest, Hungary.  This past summer while traveling through Europe, the crumbs gave me the opportunity to feed the onslaught of refugees fleeing from Syria and overwhelming the Hungarian city. 
     And most recently, a golden crumb as I like to call it.  After 3 years of looking for a church (yes, it was that hard for me to find one), the crumbs led me to Hillside!

     Now it seems I have an imaginary basket full of crumbs, and no matter where I look I will not be steered wrong as long as I follow the crumbs. It has become clear to me that the more crumbs I pick up, the better I feel about myself and the more hope I have each day.  More importantly by seeing and recognizing these crumbs I started to hear more and more from God.  What He told me was threefold:

      1)    Pick up the crumbs; stay on the path.

      2)    The crumbs will make you feel better, you in turn will talk about crumbs, making others feel better. They will look for their own crumbs.

      3)    The crumbs are from me and they are all around you, always.  We now have a relationship, consume at will and you will never be lost, hungry or full, but you will be satisfied.

     To sum this up, I believe that God provides the means and the opportunities to help us from veering astray, but we still have to help ourselves to completely stay on course.  We must take action to fully be receptive to what has been given in order to grow and have an unbreakable bond with God.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Frightened Church

     A few weeks ago I told a story that was part of my life-education while living in Chicago in the mid-80's.  I used it as an introduction to the message I shared about what happens to the church when we look at our world through fear-tinted glasses. The story goes like this...

     I was a tad behind schedule that morning, riding the bicycle I had borrowed from the pastor’s daughter (a girl's bike, complete with a white-woven basket in front, ornamented with flowers around the upper rim) down Damen Avenue on my way to work at the Boy’s club. Switching over to a side street to avoid traffic I was finally making some good time, but after hopping the bike over a curb, I felt the back end hit the pavement with a thud, braked the bike and looked down at the hind wheel. The tire was quickly going flat. I bent down and got a closer look. There was a roofing tack stuck in the tire.
     I pushed the bike over to the curb and began looking for a pay phone. I couldn’t see one anywhere. Then, kitty-corner from where I was, my eyes were drawn upward to a beautiful cross that was attached to the top of an ornately decorated church facility surrounded by a black, wrought-iron fence. A beautiful cross, shining in the morning light, above stained glass and spired window settings. I rolled the bicycle toward the front steps and set the kickstand.
    Walking around the bike, I reached to open the front door, but both sides of the double-entry were locked. I rapped my knuckle against the hand-carved wood, backed away a step and waited. Nothing. I tried again. Same result. I peered through the small inset window in the upper half of the door. I couldn’t see any activity in the hallway that stretched out several yards behind the door. Yet there was a light on in the corridor that intersected the entryway hall. I backed up again and noticed an intercom box to the right of the door and stepped over to it. I pushed the button marked “talk” and said,

Hello!?” then released the button.
A voice crackled over the speaker, “May I help you?”
A sense of relief swept over me.
You sure can help me,” I said.
You see, my bike tire went flat just around the corner, if you can come and open the door, I’ll just make a quick phone call...let the Boy’s Club know that I will be a little late and get a friend of mine to come pick up the bike on his way to work...”
There was no response.
Hello...Is there anyone there!?”
I’m sorry sir, I’ll have to check and see if it’s O.K. to open the door.”
I have to check with one of the sisters to find out if I can open the door.”
You’re kidding...right!?”
I’ll be right back.”
Wait a minute. I just want to use the phone. You can call the church where I live, they’ll vouch for me. It will only take a minute.”
I’ll be right back sir.”

    I stepped away from the speaker, shaking my head in disbelief. I waited. I waited some more. I watched the traffic run past the well- manicured front lawn of the church. I squinted a look into that little window one more time. Nothing. I felt like I was waiting on the wizard of OZ to give me some gift from behind the curtain. Finally the voice came back to the speaker.

Sir...Are you still there?”
I talked with a sister.”
She said that we couldn’t really help you.”
You can’t help me?”
I’m sorry sir.”
I wanted to tell her just how “sorry” she was. 
My throat was suddenly dry, but I still tried to speak, “There’s nothing...I mean...can I leave the bike here and walk to the club?...pick it up later? I’ll back away from the door and leave it on the stoop.”
I’ll have to check with the sister. Just a moment.”
No wait...just forget it. I can’t believe this...I just need to use the phone.”
I’m sorry sir.”
“Sister said that there is probably a pay phone in the tavern across the street.”
Thanks...I’m sure there is.” I turned away from the doors and started down the steps, then stopped and walked back to the speaker and pushed the talk button one more time.
Are you still there.”
Yes,” she said.
Do me a favor please. Tell your sister to take down the cross from the top of the building, it’s false advertising.”

    When I re-live this story in my mind, it's hard for me to believe I delivered the last line.  It doesn't really sound like me; at least the 54-year-old me.  Maybe it was more like the 21 year-old me than I recall. 
    Thirty-plus years later...
    The church we worship in is located in a very diverse area.  
    We have regular challenges with theft and vandalism on and around our property.  
   Part of our parking area is away from view of the church; hidden by a hillside.  We are aware of fairly continual drug sales and other activities that take place there.  
   The police have used our kid's playground as a stake-out location in attempt to catch some of the local suppliers.  
   Transients often sleep in our entryways.  Occasionally, they will find an unlocked door in one of our vehicles and fend off the cold there.  
    There is a weariness that creeps in when trying to be compassionate in this kind of environment.  That's just the truth.  
     That being said, I can understand some of the sheltered-ness that key characters in the story above were creating for "the sisters".  To me, this is not a story about a denominational stance.  It's easy to point at another faith group and expose their shortcomings. What's harder is to take the opportunity for me to address my own fear-based responses to what's happening in the world around me.  
    My worries.  My stereotypes.  My fears.  My church.  Where am I in all of this?  
    Faith only breathes in the realm of risk. 
  I can't retreat from view of what's outside my door; only address the completely comfortable situations that come my way and truly stay in step with Jesus.  That's a place too safe for faith to grow.  
    So, what is the line between faith and recklessness?  I don't always know.  I'm not sure that the line is so certain that policy statements can always define it.  Though I am generally in favor of policy statements, God seems to operate outside church policies with great effectiveness.
    I guess that in the immediate sense, the only thing I know for sure is that pointing across the street to the bar when someone with a need appears before me, is not the response of faith.