Archive for February, 2014

The Space Between…A Holy Space

Prison light 2Timothy or Paul

The Space Between…A Holy Space

When the crisis became a reality for him, he took me up on the offer, but I think it was because he had absolutely no other offer. I don’t think he really wanted to live here.  He liked the way I knew him.  He liked that I knew him for the guy he wanted to be.  The face he showed me was the face he strove for.  He didn’t want me to know everything about him.  Not everything about him was what he wanted to be.  I think he needed somebody to know him as he wanted to be known.  I think he really needed somebody to see him that way.  It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t fully real.  I don’t know anyone who can bear having their whole selves revealed in the full light of day. We all have really ugly places that we have to deal with every day, and that we just don’t want others…people other than God…to know. He needed a place to stay, though.  So, I let him stay here.  It’s hard to hide when you live in close proximity.  I helped him solve one set of problems, but I may have lost something precious in the process.

There is this guy that he wants to be.  And the role I played in his life was to know that guy, and to reflect that guy back to him.  He needed to shine somewhere because there are so many places where he doesn’t shine…and he knows that so excruciatingly well.  I was the guy who knew him at his best, who saw him only at the times of his choosing.  I was the guy who saw the person he wanted to be.  That was a “holy” role…that was a holy space.  It was a place of hope for him.  I wish I had understood that.  I hope now that the truth of unconditional love will have taken root in his heart.  I hope that he comes to know that even though I now know the other sides of him, I still am the guy who sees him the way he hopes to be. I hope that the grace of God can overcome my failure to see the holy space that he had created for me in his life. And I hope that that same grace helps him to know that the space between the person he is and the person he hopes to be is becoming shorter with each passing day.


By Your Boot Straps: A Story that is all too Often True.

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By Your Boot Straps: A Story that is all too Often True.

Here’s how it happens.  You can’t get a job because you don’t have driver’s license.  You don’t have a driver’s license because you can’t afford to get one.  You finally save up enough money from doing odd jobs to learn how to drive after saving for two years to do it.  Then, you can’t afford a vehicle.  So you save for another two years to come up with $1,100 to buy a clunker, except you can’t afford the insurance.  So you drive without insurance because it’s your way to get to the legitimate job you finally got that will allow you to get insurance.  Then your tail light goes out because a mouse ate through your wiring.  The repair will cost a couple hundred dollars that you don’t have because you owe $3,000 to the utility company who just turned your power off.  You owe $3,000 because you didn’t have a job for four years while you were scrounging enough money to get a driver’s license and a car so you could get a job to pay your utilities before they get turned off.  Your pay goes to paying that off so you can cook the food you can’t afford and have to get in inadequate supply from the food pantry.  But…at least your working, so you have hope.

Then, you get a ticket for your tail light being out.  And you get another ticket at the same time for driving without insurance.  You couldn’t afford the light repair, so you sure can’t afford the tickets.  So you start saving to fix the light, and you have no choice but to drive anyway because that’s your only way to get to your job, and your job is your only hope.  Meanwhile, the time is ticking on paying your tickets.  Then you get a letter from the DMV saying that your license has been suspended for failure to pay the tickets that you can’t afford to pay for the tail light that you still can’t afford to fix.  You need the job, so you drive anyway…just to work and back.  You walk miles to do everything else.

Then, on your way to your job which is your only hope, you get pulled over again for the tail light.  They find out that you’re driving on a suspended license and they impound your car and give your another ticket that you can’t afford.  The impound lot charges $50 a day.  You don’t have $50 so it sits there adding up $50 a day to the point where you owe more than the car is worth.  And you try taking two buses to get to work, and get there late.  Twice.  And they fire you.  Now, you’ve lost your car, your driver’s license, AND your job…which was your hope.  And you have tickets that aren’t getting paid because you’ve lost your job and don’t have any money to pay them.

The power gets turned off again because you don’t have a job any more to make payments to keep it on.  Then your rent is late for the same reason and the landlord is calling and screaming at you and calling you a deadbeat and threatening to put you out on the street.  The stress starts to build.  And build.  One day, you’re trying to get some groceries after walking to two miles to the nicer store with better prices, and the clerk treats you rudely…the stress catches up and you respond rudely even though you know you weren’t raised that way.  The clerk escalates the confrontation with a more rude remark.  You then respond in kind.  The off-duty policeman in line behind you who has no idea of your life situation and didn’t hear the clerk’s first remarks sees only a customer who is causing a scene.  He decides to intervene and calls in your information after pulling you aside for a “stop and frisk”.  He’s only doing his job.  He just thinks it’s simple…and there’s nothing simple about poverty or despair.  The dispatcher informs him that there is a warrant out for your arrest for the unpaid tickets.  So, he arrests you.

You don’t have the money to pay the ticket.  So you sit in jail because you have more time than you have money.  Your four kids are at home without supervision. Oh, did I forget to mention that in the midst of all of this, you’re trying to raise four kids?  Where’s the dad? Oh he’s in prison.   One of the kids acts up at school.  Social Services find out they’re living at home without an adult…looked in on by a sympathetic neighbor.  They take your kids.  When you finally get out of jail after serving 30 days among murderers and gang members, you still don’t have a driver’s license because you don’t have a job to earn enough money to get it reinstated.  You can’t get a job because no one will hire you without a driver’s license.  You have no electricity at your apartment.  Your landlord started eviction papers on you while you were in jail, and you will be on the street in about five days.  You can only get five days worth of food once a month from the pantry because somebody figures that’s all you need and any more will enabling you.  You could probably sell that, but it wouldn’t cover what you owe the landlord. Your car is now hopelessly owned by the impound lot owner.  And your kids are spread between three different foster homes and are acting up in them and getting in trouble with the law.  Their own spiral into poverty has begun in another generation, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

And then, you are approached by a gangster who says he feels your pain and has a solution.  If you just sell a little pot for him, you will have enough money to get the license out of hock, get the power turned back on, pay your rent in cash, and get back on track to getting another legitimate job so you can get your kids back.  You can make enough in five days to stop the eviction.

At first you just sell to people you know.  Then one of them brings someone you don’t know.  She turns out to be an undercover police officer.  You get busted with possession with the intent to deliver…and that means prison and criminal record.  Nobody hires people with criminal records anymore, and everyone now does a thorough background check before they hire.  You are done.  And you aren’t even forty yet.

Oh, this is an extreme case, you say? Oh, this is the exception and not the rule? No, it isn’t.  And it all started with a tail light being out and not having the means to fix it. It takes more than boot straps.

Joy, The Real Kind


Joy, The Real Kind

He’d been there at the front door handing out numbers and joking around with Harold for about six weeks straight. Tats from neck to wrist, leather café jacket. Scraggly beard, Young, but old.  That’s the part the gives it away.  Young, but old.  The old is in their eyes…maybe in their bones, too. There’s a way that they carry themselves.  There’s something else in a recovering heroin addicts eyes, too, that I can’t explain.  There’s more to it, but you get to the point where you just kind of know who’s using and who’s recovering. Crack has its tell-tale signs, the jaw going side-to-side, the skin on the hands picked raw.  Heroin has its tell-tale signs, too.   He’d been referred to us by Justice 2000 for mandatory community service hours.  When he came he was pretty sketchy.  And I’m pretty sure he thought we were, too. He didn’t know what all this “Kingdom of Heaven” stuff was about, not sure he wanted to either. But he kept coming back.  And his guard came down.  And we came to know him. And he came to know us. He finished his community service hours, and he kept coming back anyway.

He had been doing so well.  Despensa de la Paz had become more than a place to him, just as it has for so many people.  People who don’t understand spiritual things think we hand out groceries.  Yes, it’s about groceries, but it’s about a whole lot more than groceries.  I always make it a habit to say, “Love you, brother” or “Love you, sister” when they leave. I said that to him every week for a long time.  I think at first he was kind of weirded out by it.  But I remember the first day that he said, “Love you, too.”  His eyes welled up with tears as he said it.

The Teacher said one time that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed.  It’s the smallest of all seeds.  But it grows into a huge bush where the birds of the air come and take shelter. He had to take multiple buses to get to Despensa.  He probably had to start riding about six in the morning.  This had become a bush where he could come and take refuge.  It started so small for him. A cup of coffee and just a break from somebody.  And it became huge.  For many people, Despensa is their refuge.  You can’t quantify that.  There’s no number for that on a form.  But for him, this is the closest thing he’s known to home and safety in a whole lot of years.  God is here, and no one contests God’s presence.

A couple of weeks ago, I got to Despensa and he wasn’t there.  I figured maybe he missed a bus, but that he’d be along.  His girlfriend came in very upset, and said she hadn’t heard from him, that he’d disappeared, and that she was worried about him.  She knows him.  They used together. And they were recovering together. She said he’d told her that he was thinking about getting some crack.  I know this is jaded and horrible, but I actually felt a sense of relief that he wanted to get some crack, because at least it wasn’t heroin.  So many people are dying out here from that first return visit to heroin when they relapse…too many to count. What crossed my mind was that he might mess himself up, maybe even get himself thrown in jail, but he wouldn’t be dead with a needle sticking out of his arm. Don’t get me wrong, I know the monster that crack is, and I’ve seen it devour households.  I’m just telling you what went through my head.  I have become what I’ve become. After years of this, it just is what it is.

I was excited to see him today.  Joy.  The real kind.  He was back.  And he was clean again.  And he was alive.  It’s funny how quickly we get into each other’s hearts here.  I’ve seen so many people not make it, so many people die or end up in prison forever, or just disappear…I just thank God every day that God has not allowed me to become hard. I don’t ever want to get to that terrifying place where I am afraid to feel anymore…where I am afraid to let people like him into my heart. The metaphor isn’t lost on me, “a heart that’s broken, and yet is also resurrected.”  As I walked away after catching up with him, I said, “Love you, brother.”  I heard the catch in his voice, holding back tears, and he said, “Yeah. Love you, too.” One day, this friend might not make it.  One day it might be this one that his mother finds dead in the bathroom, or who washes up in the Milwaukee River, or who dies in some Godforsaken abandoned warehouse.  It might be him one day.  But, not today.  Today, he was here.  Today, he was our gift.  And I am grateful.

Something Happens: 6 Observations on Disciples making Disciples

w eugene smith photo - walk

Something Happens: 6 Observations on Disciples making Disciples

1)     It seems to be about an invitation.  We see a lot of disciples made. We don’t use fancy discipling programs with three-fold color glossy curriculum. We don’t use video-based tier-one programming with slick marketing and marquee-name speakers.  Programs have never borne fruit in my community.  And we have never been in the position to buy expensive stuff.  And yet, we are seeing fourth generation disciples being made now.  We don’t use the latest techniques.  We don’t use anything that requires a lot of training. We use prayer and fasting and getting in the Word together. And we engage with God’s mission. We change what we do, and it changes what we see and what we think.  We seek the Kingdom with all of our hearts.  Where we find it, we participate in it.  And we invite others to participate with us.  We invite those coming out of the harvest to labor in the harvest with us right from day one. People want to be included in things that make a difference. When we invite our unreached friends into the mission with us, something happens.

2)      “Pray the Lord of the harvest to send more laborers into the harvest…” WITH YOU: When we put a disciple side-by-side with an unreached person, and they are laboring together in a mission that represents the present Kingdom, something happens.  Jesus told his disciples, “When two or three are gathered in my name (or as Jesus would have gathered), I will be among you.”  So…there Jesus is…among us…doing what he did when he was in flesh.  When Jesus is among us, something happens.

3)     People need a new pair of glasses in order to see the Kingdom:  When we tell a Gospel story before we start doing a mission, and we don’t announce that it is a Gospel story, those who have not yet been reached by the Good News of the Kingdom but are laboring with us still end up viewing their participation that day through a Gospel lens. And something happens.

4)     Real Friends.  When we labor next to each other in the mission, we become friends.  I’m not talking about worldly friends who we choose because they can give us some advantage, or because we “like” them. I’m talking about the kind of friendship that forms when people are struggling together in something that is bigger and more important that either one of them.  I am talking about the kind of friendship that involves having each other’s backs.  I’m talking about the kind of friendship that can weather accountability because what you are engaged in together matters. When we start to have those kinds of friendships, something happens.

5)    “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road…?” Experience doesn’t seem to make disciples who make disciples.  But when experience is put together with intentional reflection, something happens.  We have a brief-back after every mission, and we ask people to tell us what they took away from their experience and how it changed them.  When people have the opportunity to both experience and reflect, something happens.

6)      It’s not about us. When we truly don’t care who gets the credit, things grow.  When we can truly give up agendas and the desire for personal accolades and recognition, and work to make sure that others get the credit, things grow. It’s deeper than that, though.  When we don’t care who gets the credit, then it’s not about us.  When it’s not about us, we can put down our masks and just be the flawed and vulnerable humans that we really are.  People are starving for a place to just be wounded and vulnerable, and have that be enough.  If it’s not about us, we don’t have to be in control and we don’t have to be perfect.  If we don’t, neither does anyone else.  Being able to be vulnerable and authentic allows people to grow. When people grow and missions grow and lives are changed right before people’s eyes, something happens.

A Season of Silence, And Now We Move On

A Season of Silence, And Now We Move On

I have been passing through a season of silence and have not been posting as I have in the past.  I am grateful for your patience.  Alan Roxburgh said something recently in a lecture, “Disciples are constantly being pushed out into disruptive, confusing spaces that we cannot manage, predict or control. Why does God do that? Because God is God. When we find ourselves in those spaces, we turn to God as God.”  I think that might help you to understand where I have been.  I don’t wish that space on anyone. And yet, God has never been closer than in the moments of my greatest uncertainty. This has been a painful season, and I have spent my time in prayer and fasting at Lord’s feet.  I didn’t think I had anymore illusions about people, but this has been a bitter winter of disillusioning. It has been a time of fire.  And it has been a time of suffering.  And it is over.  And now we move on.  God’s Kingdom is very much alive.


I saw the Kingdom of God last week. When I first met her, she was homeless. And she also had a positivity about her despite her predicament. She and I and another friend used to have breakfast together every couple of weeks during that time. We shared hope and encouragement with one another.  She helped me to remember why I went into ministry. She came to our street ministry and volunteered. Then she came to Despensa and volunteered. She became a huge part of the Despensa team. We worked on job leads and resumes. We laughed because apparently I am not the best resume formatter for the current job market. Thank God, she found someone better! She got herself a job to create an income stream. Then she got out of the shelter and got into an apartment. The income stream allowed her to keep a roof over her head while she worked towards her dream of working in health and nutrition. Soon, she landed an opportunity there, too. We lost her awesome presence at the food pantry because she was working two jobs, and one of them was on the weekends. However, she made time to volunteer to serve at the St. Ben’s meal program with us last week. It was so great to see her. She slipped an envelope in my hand and told me that she wanted to contribute to the mission. She went to work on the food line, and I opened the envelope. In it was enough money to sponsor half of the meal we served that night!! We feed over 300 people! She must have skipped meals and gone without significant things in order to be able to contribute the mission like that. She is what the mission is all about. From subject to object. And she is a humbling example of what sacrificial giving really means. Thank you all for your crazy generosity in sponsoring our missions so that people can be truly transformed!! The Kingdom is alive in her, and through her. And through all of you, as well!

I’ve Heard it Sing

gold yellow wheat field close up with sunset sky in background

I’ve Heard it Sing

I am sad today

Because I feel something that I have loved

Slip away from me. It is just beyond me. Always, it seems. Just beyond me.

I’ve heard it sing.  The rustle of its wings in the brush has startled me. I just can’t

Find the simple word to tell myself and you what

It is. I only know its song

Is beautiful.

There is a grief.  It is always there among

The flowers along the road.

So many illusions knifed down in these fields. The joy is never whole.

There never comes a day when

Every stone is plucked from the pasture

So that the rows grow straight, and the plow cuts


My friend hasn’t spoken to me of it.    I don’t know

Who I am to him. But from across this gap, I could feel something

Break. What broke in him today, is broken in me, too.

It was a different rod that broke it…there are so

Many that get picked up and thrown. “Count the cost”, the teacher said. But

How could we have possibly known how deep that slash would be?

And if, one day, we finally get to where that song is sung in full chorus, will there be anything left

In us to even recognize its tune anymore?