Ministry to Homeless Friends: Lessons Learned

I learned one big lesson each of the first five times I ventured out with the team from NYC Relief (“The Relief Bus”).CBovzOnUkAA8QD6

1. Many might wonder, “The Bible says that God cares for the poor, but does he? How is that?” I learned that if you ask the poor themselves, “Does God care for you.” They are very likely to say “Yes!”

2. We often need to see results, and how what we do is important and a good use of our time in that way. I learned that simply kneeling down to talk to someone, looking them in the face, and showing them the love of God has great significance in itself. In fact, it’s exactly, specifically, explicitly what Jesus says to do. (He doesn’t tell us we have to save the world or force others to change.)

3. I learned from a friend on the street that, if I feel my wife can’t really hear me when I’m trying to tell her something, that I should just “Take her hand, ask her to sit down with me, and then have a conversation.” Simple. No doubt heard it before. It had a special impact this time. (But I still need to do it, so the story isn’t over yet.) I learned that I can learn from someone on the street – and why not?

4. I’ve been either in ministry or preparing for ministry most of my life, and most of that time I’ve had my nose in a book, and I’ve been “all up in my head.” When I met a bunch of 18 year old volunteers, and learned that in their ministry school, this do stuff like this most every day (street ministry in Manhattan), I learned that I had a long way to go understanding what God expects of me and how much more I could also be doing.

5. To do street ministry, you have to start by entering a “no-judgment zone” with anyone you will meet. It’s not about merit or blame. Our job is unconditional love. I learned that I can (and should) bring this same attitude home with me, and apply it on a daily basis (for instance) with my wife and children. Imagine.

If I am ever able to work more full-time with the Relief Bus, I will have to raise support. I’ve already been thinking about what I might say to church groups or interested friends. After four or five points, I know now that I would have to sheepishly admit (point #6), that I do this because I need to. This is how I so spiritual formation. Doing this changes me. It makes me a better Christian, and a better human (which, after all is the point of being a Christian). I don’t know at this point where it will all lead, but I’m all in.

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“Go Ahead. Shake Your Fist At God”

“For they shake their fists at God, defying the Almighty.”   Eliphaz in Job 15:25

By the end of the book that bears his name, Job has repented, apologized to God, and quieted himself before God. It’s instructive to ask “Why?” Why the big switch from his questions and criticisms of God that fill up most of the rest of the book? Here’s why: (1) Not because God answers his question, “Why me?” He doesn’t.  (2) Not because God explains to him why the righteous suffer. He doesn’t.  (3) And not because God reveals himself in awesome majesty and power, which he does (Job 38-40), because Job knew this already as some of his monologues make plain. The reason that Job repents is (4) that God appears to him – He sees God “with his own eyes”, and that was enough.

I would have expected a different ending. I would have expected God to let Job know about the contest with Satan, and about why he was suffering (pretty much the same thing). I would have expected Job to be rebuked for his disrespectful, seemingly arrogant, bitter attitude towards God, and that his misguided friends would be more or less let off the hook. (They were just saying what everybody then believed – including Job, until recently that is.)

Instead, God vindicates Job and condemns his friends – in each case for what they “said about him.” This is important.

God has no problem with Job except that he has spoken beyond his knowledge. He rewards Job. The fist in the air that must have accompanied so much of what Job had to say was no problem. The fist in the air was a good thing. In fact, God condemnation of Job’s friends is really because they didn’t raise their fists with Job. Job himself warns them that they will be judged, and that’s exactly what happens. (I know you may be beginning to fume, but please stay with me.)

Let’s examine then, what both Job and his friends had to say about God (explicitly and implicitly):  Job’s friends agreed that (1) God rewards the just, (2) that he punishes the unjust, (3) that since Job is suffering at God’s hand, he is obviously unjust, and (4) that therefore everything made sense. There was no reason for protest. No reason for a fist in the air.

As for Job, he agreed on the first two points, but when it came to the charges against him, (3) Job insisted he was innocent and still being punished by God. He also said (4) that this made no sense, and that it was indeed reason for protest – and thus the fist in the air.

The theology of Job’s friends was untempered by compassion or empathy towards Job, nor did they seemingly even entertain the possibility that Job could be speaking the truth (even though they knew the kind of life he had always lived). Their worldview wouldn’t let them go there. They had no self-doubt, no sense of their own limitations, and that is how their speaking about God was not right. They looked at what seemed an obviously horrific travesty of justice, attributed it to God, and were content to leave it at that. No questions. No problem. No protest.

Like his friends, Job attributed all his problems to God. Unlike his friends though, he wasn’t content to just accept that the God of justice would torture a righteous man for no reason. (Job was completely unaware of the cosmic test that was transpiring.) Job wouldn’t be quiet or let it go. Nor would he agree to a world where God arbitrarily torments those whose hope is in him. Job had no explanation for his experience, but he repudiates the explanation that his friend’s worldview and theology implies – about God!

In a way, this brings us full circle to the beginning of the book. Satan says to God “Anyone can believe and hope in you when he has sufficient evidence to lean on.” God replies, “Then take away his evidence.” And he does! And in the end, Job passes the test! He loses his hope (at times), he rails against God, he accuses God of being a bad God, he reaches the point where nothing makes sense any more, and where he desperately wants to die. Even so, he refuses to believe in an ultimate way, that God is not the righteous ruler of the world.

When intuition and instinct lead us to struggle with something that God does or says, we’re not just to fold our arms smugly and say to ourselves or others, “If God did it/said it, it can’t be wrong.” No. That’s just the opposite of the message of Job. That’s just what Job’s friends did. What we must do is refuse to explain away the apparent injustice and cry out for answers. That’s what Job did. What Job did is a better thing. In the story, it’s the only acceptable thing. And why? Because instead of assuming that we always have the answer, it assumes we don’t. And instead of diminishing God’s glory and righteousness (as is implicit in the argument of Job’s friends), it insists upon it – even though at the moment it makes no sense.

Who had more faith, Job or his friends? You know the answer to that. And that’s what we’re called to – faith based on evidence (and Job’s faith was based on evidence – evidence left over from “the good old days”, but not forgotten), but also faith that persists when there is no contemporary evidence, no evidence that makes sense any more.

So, remember Job the next time your world is turned upside down and inside out. The next time it seems that God is your enemy for no good reason. The next time you cry out to him in desperation and receive only silence in reply. The next time a natural disaster wipes out a nearby community, or a murderous rampage takes out a whole classroom of children. Those of you who trust and hope in God, remember Job, and don’t be afraid to raise your fist.* You’ll be in good company.

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*I realize that nowhere in the text does it say that Job actually raised his fist in the air in protest, but Job certainly protests, and it’s not in an academic, emotionally detached manner. He calls down curses, he speaks rashly, he says that God is “beating him” and “grounding him down“, – even his friends could see that his suffering was “too great for words.” I believe that in a theatrical performance, anyone who played Job would be raising his fist in anger. How could it be otherwise? The words of Eliphaz express his idea of what “wicked people” do – “they shake their fists at God.” It’s clear that in his speech, he is talking about Job and to Job (cf. Yancey, The Bible Jesus Read, p. 57), but indirectly, as is common in the monologues of the three friends.