Posts Tagged ‘cross’

Harold, my Friend

Candlelight

Harold, my Friend

I felt him sailing away

Last summer,

Going back

To places he knew, but we didn’t.

If you think demons don’t have power,

You are wrong.

We begged him not to go.

His rope broke free from our shore,

And he is over the horizon now. Our world is so much

Darker today. He took his lantern with him.

Friend. Ambassador. Encourager.

I will hear his laughter echo in my dreams

For a long time. I know he is in

A better place. But I am not.

I am still here.

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What About the Change?

planting

What About the Change?

“Nice sermon, Max. It really made me think.” I know that as he left worship that day he meant those words as encouragement. I didn’t see the need to tell him right then that whether or not a sermon made someone think doesn’t make a lick of difference to me. I simply don’t care whether anything I say makes someone “think”. I care whether they experienced the Holy Spirit in worship, and whether something in that experience led to a changed life. I took the encouragement and simply said, “Thank you. See Wednesday for breakfast?” That’s a better place for a conversation about the difference between “thinking” and “experiencing”, and “sparked interest” and “changed life”.

For our community, what happens on Sunday morning is not only not all of “church”, it isn’t even all of worship. We live life together here. And we live sent. Apart from Mondays, which are days of reflection, people are engaged in God’s mission every day. There are prophetic worship happenings, and healing worship on other days of the week than Sunday. We break bread together regularly. We meet for accountability sessions. And we pray together. We disciple one another around supper tables knowing that disciples aren’t really disciples if they aren’t making disciples. And we serve together in the mission. We get dirty together, fear together, cry together, and toil together. And we see miracles together, signs and wonders of the coming and present Kingdom. Corporate worship on Sundays is a celebration of all that the Lord has done in the mission during the week. And it’s a time to put the pieces together…to go after those parts of ourselves that Christ is trying to redeem and to claim as his. Part celebration and part reflection and part Spirit connection, corporate worship on Sunday is designed as an opportunity to experience the Holy Spirit in a unique way that leads us to change our behaviors, and thus to change our lives. A closer and closer walk. A deeper and deeper obedience. A thickening of our souls.

So, I don’t measure effectiveness by what folks say on the way out on Sunday. I am grateful for the encouragement because it has historically been few and far between. But I am looking for the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of folks, and in myself. Am I kinder? Am I better at discerning what’s really going on? Is my heart breaking for what’s breaking God’s heart? Am I more patient? Does my heart, and do my hands, reach out to people who I could never get anything from? Am I responding with my life and all that I have to the urgency of the situation in the world? Am I praying with all my heart for blessings upon those who have sought with all their hearts to do me harm? Am I inviting others into Kingdom participation with me…the most precious thing in my life? If I lost my checkbook and my calendar and you found them, would you be able to tell from them that I believe in a Kingdom not of this world…and that I am a Christ-follower? For me, those are better indicators of the effectiveness of our missions and ministries, and better indicators that the Holy Spirit has, indeed, come by here. Did that make you think? I love you, but I really don’t care if it made you think. It’s about the fruit. It’s about the change.

When I was a Stranger…

Love thy neighbor

When I was a Stranger…

They drove up to Adams and found him lying in a pile of trash in his trailer. He was alive, but too weak to move much. They’d been friends for years. I get the sense that Harold didn’t have a lot of friends, and that the ones he did have, he cherished. Mike and Jean couldn’t leave him like that. The cancer in his lungs was going to take him, but this was no way to go. So, they packed him up, locked up the old trailer, and took him home to their house so that he could die with some dignity among friends.

Harold has nothing of earthly value. In fact, he owes. There’s no estate. There’s just a mess of bills and papers to sort through and figure out, and a ravenous dysfunctional couple of cousins circling Harold like vultures. And Harold is rough. He’s an ex-biker with a lot of really broken stuff in his rearview mirror. There was no upside in the decision to take him in. There was only knowing that doing what’s right is the only blessing in this life. They did it because that is who they are. They could not NOT do this. They aren’t “walk away” people. They don’t worry about what will happen if they take him in. That just doesn’t cross their minds. They worry deeply about what will happen if they DON’T take him in.

I’ve gotten to know Jean and Mike first as volunteers at the food pantry. They came with a group of bikers who chose to volunteer, and they have been coming back ever since. Since then I have gotten to know them as a part of our faith community, and now through motorcycles. Our words between each other have not been many, but those words have been encouragement for each other. In many circumstances I would say that I did not really know them because we haven’t spent long hours talking together. But I do know them. I know them by the love they have shown over and over and over again to people who can give them nothing in return. They shun credit. They deflect it to others. They have given themselves away to feeding the hungry, and to giving warm clothing and hot coffee to people who would otherwise freeze to death living on the street. And now they have taken in a man no one else even really knew existed so that he could die with dignity and grace, after giving him years of their friendship when no one else did.

A long time ago, a man that we now know as Matthew felt compelled to write about his experience of faith and that of his community. His writing can be found in a part of the Bible called the New Testament. He relates a vision of Jesus foretelling the last judgment that he presents as taking place when we all stand before the Lord one day. In that passage, we find Matthew portraying Jesus saying these words:

‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you took Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ “Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? ‘And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? ‘When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ “The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’

When we dropped Harold off at hospice today, he knew and we knew that that would be his last car ride in this life. He didn’t say much on the way. He just looked at the green that was finally emerging after a long winter. And he was looking beyond it, too, at something that he was beginning to see that none of us still living can yet see. I thought to myself, “Take it all in, Harold. Drink it deep.” We got him in and settled into what will most likely be his death bed in a few days.

After a long period of silence…not uncomfortable silence, but appropriate and almost holy silence, Harold spoke. He said, “I’m working through the fear.” Nothing profound. Just his truth. It struck me that at our end, truth is enough. After another period of silence, Harold said, “It’s okay. You can go.” I said, “I’ll come back tomorrow. If you’ve already left, I’ll see you on the other side. Save me place. I’ll be along.” He smiled as though he understood.

As I walked down the long hall with bright sunlight pouring in windows from one side of the building and cutting colored slashes across the floor ahead of me, I thought, “Today, I know what church is.” See, none of these people that I’ve mentioned here have a fish on their car. None of them hold membership in an institutional church that counts members to report them to their denominational higher-ups. They’re bikers and sinners, just everyday people. They don’t know the Creeds, and they don’t have the Jesus T-shirts. But they are living both ends of what Matthew was talking about, neither one realizing which end of it they are on. Where a hungry person is given something to eat, Jesus is alive there. He is actually there. And where a stranger like Harold is taken in and given shelter by people like Jean and Mike, Jesus is alive there. Where two or three people are gathered together in the way that Jesus would have gathered together, he is among them. And where people are gathered and Jesus actually is, that is church. I was in church today…the real church. And I walked away strangely healed.

Don’t Follow the Breadcrumbs. Follow the Rabbi.

Don’t Follow the Breadcrumbs. Follow the Rabbi.

I was

Wrong. I thought

It was about leaving

Breadcrumbs…like Hansel and Gretel…but

Following those breadcrumbs will only lead you

To the witch.

The grackles have eaten the damn things anyway.

The Way

Forward can only be

Found in imagining

With Jesus…

Asking…

Begging, pleading with Jesus

For a Way

Forward.

Imagining

With Jesus…

The real one, the Living One…

The Way

Forward.

There is

No other way

Forward.

Holy, If Only for a Moment

Equals

Holy, If Only for a Moment

Our food pantries use a term, “Ladders of Peace”.  Some folks struggle with what it means. Like anything that is truly human and truly real, it resists simple definitions. It is who we are in our pantry communities. It is best understood in experiencing it.  Like so many things that are bigger than we are, we are sometimes unable to talk about the ways that they have touched us and changed us, because we just don’t have the words to fully convey the experience.  All I can say is that you understand it when you see it come to life…when you see it in the flesh.

After we close our pantries, we gather our volunteers for a time of reflection.  You have to understand that for us, these aren’t merely food pantries that distribute food.  These, to us, are churches of Christ. They are sacred places where the “least of these” can be found.  And where the least of these can be found, so can the Lord. They are bushes where the birds of the air come to find shelter.  In our reflection time, we ask people to tell us about their experience, how it changed them or made them think differently about something.  Sometimes, the answers are simple: “I had a good time.”  But sometimes the answers are profound.

He is from Myanmar, though I think he might say that he is from Burma.  He is from a persecuted people group there, the Chin.  He has spent a good part of his life as an IDP, and then as a refugee in a camp outside his country.  He immigrated to the U.S. fairly recently.  If I had to guess, I would guess that he is in his early twenties.  His English is broken, but we can communicate. He brings a group of about twenty other Chin young adults and teenagers once a month to serve with us. He has a light in him that is infectious.  He has a joy that is overflowing out of him.  He has every right to be an angry and bitter young man, and he is not.  I don’t know why.  What I do know is that I count him among my friends, and I am grateful.

As he began to speak that day (it was his turn), I struggled at first to understand what he was saying.  I think he was a little nervous.  But after the first few sentences, I understood what he was saying.  He said that since coming to the U.S., he has been treated badly because he looks different, and because his English isn’t good.  He said that people look down on him, like he is less than them.  He told us about the struggles that he’s had in finding a job because of prejudice.  The “American Dream” has been elusive for him.  He told us these things while all the while smiling.  It struck me that his smile was transcendent, from a place not of this world. And then he said something that was both simple and profound.  It pierced me.  He said, “In my life, everywhere I go here I am looked down on.  But not here.  Here is different.  Here, I am an equal.” He smiled.  He sat down.  Tears began to well up in my eyes. The room was silent…holy, if only for a moment.  The Kingdom of God had drawn very near to us, and we had the incredible opportunity to participate with him in it.

Why This Smear of Ash?

Ash smear

Why This Smear of Ash?

Ashes to ashes.  From the dust do we come and to the dust shall we all return.  No matter how far along the road we get, Ash Wednesday reminds us that we all have a common starting point on this earth, and a common ending point.  These bodies are made from the dust of the earth, and one day these bodies will be returned to their lender.  It still freaks me out a little bit to be reminded that house dust is mostly dried skin, our flesh carried off by the wind only to find a new home in the television vents and strewn across the coffee tables and dresser tops.  It is a healthy reminder of just how insignificant we are…and how fleeting and fragile this life is.  The paradox of insignificance…the crazy incongruity of being nothing and yet being treasure.  In and of ourselves, we are dust and ash.  Yet, connected to something inexplicably bigger, we are also breath and all that goes with it.

It is likely that today you will see a dark smear of ash on the foreheads of some of our neighbors, a reminder of what we are without that something that gives us breath…that something that gives us hope in the reality of the dust from which we are made and to which we shall return.  Why has the God of Love chosen to form us from the earth and to number our days? Why must what begins here also end here among broken hearts and broken things?

Today, I do not have an answer.  But as I look at the black smear of ashes on the foreheads of so many people seeking answers to so many unanswerable questions and solace for so many still-open wounds, I am compelled to think on these things.  What are we really if we are truly more than the sum total of our carbon matter and firing synapses?  Do we really belong merely to the earth from whence we come, or is there more that we come from than dust and water? And what about the breath?  What about the love? How do we explain the love and the hurt and the joy?  Where do those come from, and what do we owe their author for visiting them upon us? I have never seen a tree weep at the loss of another tree.  Outside of poetry, I have never heard a wheat field roar with laughter.  And I have never seen a mountain lay down its life for another mountain. Of what are these?  Surely these will not return to the earth because it is not from the earth that they have clawed their way into us.  What ends must end.  There is no changing that.  But sometimes I think that end must be real in order for all that has led up to that end to have real meaning.  Without claiming our beginning AND our end, can we really claim that anything that we choose or experience between those two banal commonalities really matters at all?  Ashes to ashes.  From the dust do we come…or do we? I will dwell on that…today.

Lord, Hear our Prayer.

Lord, Hear our Prayer

on earth as in heaven

In my study and prayer time this morning it came to me how little Jesus had to say about what happens to us after we die. He says a few things, but not a lot of things. And it also struck me how much Jesus had to say about how we live in this life. He said, “The Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near to you this day.” His teachings were all about living a life of heaven in this life…heaven’s economy, heaven’s ethics, heaven’s priorities. He prayed, “…on earth as it is in heaven.” His message was about God’s Kingdom at work in the world that we can participate in, and invite others to participate in with us. So…as I eat my “fat Tuesday” pancakes tonight (actually, no carbs for me right now ), I’m going to think on those words, “…on earth as it is in heaven”. Lord, hear our prayer…

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

broken%20windows

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.

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