“… that doesn’t make it garbage.”

Everyone has seen videos of people in Manhattan walking past homeless people. Some people treat people who are homeless as invisible (at best) or worthless or a blight (at worst). Last night I was spending time with New York City Relief, making friends with people currently living on the street. I had an important list of names of individuals we had talked to and their prayer requests. (The International House of Prayer church prays faithfully for these people each week baEzra and Eddy, Noah and Chris and I thoughtsed on these lists.) Anyway, I absent-mindedly wrote down what one couple wanted from a fast food restaurant on the back of that list, and sent a couple team members to bring back the food. The volunteers came back with the food, but (of course) not with the list, which was now in the garbage! My mistake! And I was responsible for that list! I asked them to go back for it and try to “rescue” it, while I continued speaking with another homeless man who stopped by and wanted to talk. He’d been living on the street for “many years.” He saw the little drama unfolding about our potentially lost list, and said to me, “Just because something is in the garbage, that doesn’t make it garbage.” It was slightly out of the blue, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since. And the great thing is, it wasn’t me telling him that, perhaps to encourage him, but it was him telling me. It was a beautiful moment where we thought together about a simple but profound truth – and for me, it came from a surprising source. (I’m supposed to be the one dropping profound nuggets out there, right?) The thing is, it shouldn’t be surprising. Whether the woman suffering because she doesn’t have her meds, or the young guy who’s relationship with his father has devastated him, or the woman on the street because her husband’s violence almost killed her – these people are just like us – they have truth and wisdom like like we do (sometimes more than we do) – and only a few minutes spent talking to one or two of them makes that obvious.

When we’re down should we be “kicked to the curb?” When we desperately need help should we be considered a blight? Is our very presence a problem, so that others should rightly treat us as “invisible?” No, because no matter what happens to us, no matter where we are, we know who we are. We know who made us. We know who depends on us. We know who still believes in us. We know what we have to contribute.

It’s no different with people living on the street. They’re humans. They’re moms and dads, siblings, parents, aunts and uncles. They’re old and young. They’re single and married. They’re Christians, Muslims, Jews, and seekers of all kinds. They’re God’s handiwork. Others depend on them. Some are lucky enough that others still believe in them. And they have something to contribute. As Jesus said, you just have to have “eyes to see.”

So, next time, try to remember with me, “Just because something is in the garbage, that doesn’t make it garbage.”

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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.

“Do This In Remembrance of Me”

I grew up in a religious tradition where we celebrated communion only once a quarter. I think the relative infrequency of this was both a reaction to the sacramental approach which can be weekly or even daily, and as a guard against the ceremony becoming commonplace in the church.  Now I’m attending  a church where “the Lord’s Supper” occurs every Sunday. What I’ve discovered is, that the repetition has changed it for me – in a good way. I’ve been “reached” by the ceremony on a deeper level than before. (It’s like some worship songs that repeat the same line over and over. Sometimes after I’ve sung the line six times, I find that on the seventh time I actually think about what I’m singing! Something like that.) Here’s how that worked for me just last Sunday.

To the Corinthian church the Apostle Paul wrote these familiar words about the Lord’s Table:

23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

What we do “in remembrance of” Jesus at the Lord’s table involves two of the most basic foods in history – bread and wine. Today, as throughout history, incorporating these into one’s daily diet is quite typical. They’re common. If you eat, you’ll probably consume them frequently.

When I hold the bread in one hand and the cup in the other, and I look down at them, I ask myself, “Why these elements?”, and “What is it about these elements that should make me think about Jesus and what he did for me?” Or, “Of what exactly are these elements supposed to make me think?” This is what I was wondering last Sunday. (I know the symbolism of the Lord’s Table is rich and the underlying theology is deep. Most of that is beyond the scope of what I’m writing about now. What I want to try to do is to “read” what happens at the Lord’s table the way one would “read” a passage of Scripture in lectio divina. In other words, on top of any known theology that relates, and without stepping outside of the controls that come with a proper understanding of Scripture study, what I did was attempt to ask myself, “What is God saying to me right now, as I hold the bread in one hand, and the cup in the other?”, “What thoughts will prepare me today to meaningfully remember the Lord at his table?”) Here’s what I felt I received:

I’m about to eat the piece of bread I’m holding. I’m going to chew it until it crumbles into a broken collection of particles that no longer resemble what I started with. In a way I’m going to pummel it, and pulverize it, and destroy its form and shape – and then it’s going to enter my body and nourish, strengthen and sustain me. It’s literally going to give me life. I beat it and destroy it, and then it gives me life.

In Isaiah, the Servant of the Lord “was crushed for our iniquities” and “by his wounds we are healed.” (Isa. 53:5b,d) That’s the correlation I’m talking about. When I look at the bread and wonder, “Why bread?” and “Why eat bread?” the answer is that bread it very common, thus very often eaten, and that perhaps by eating bread in this ritual, I will remember when I’m eating my “daily bread” what exactly Christ, the bread of God, has done for me. He has responded to my crushing of him, the pummeling and pulverizing and destroying of him (my rebellion and my great sin), by bringing me life, health and sustenance through that crushed body of his. “By his wounds we are healed.” (And “healed” in the sense of “saved” or “delivered” or “made well or whole.”)

In the same way he took the cup…. Imagine how many times, since that night when Jesus shared a cup of wine with his beloved friends, that others have lifted the cup together over a meal. Again, perhaps if I can think clearly about the wine in the ceremony, then I will make a mental connection to this “daily wine” that is such a big part of the diet of the human race. Perhaps, “whenever” I lift the cup (not just in church) I will be unable to do so without “remembering” him.

And the question is the same, “Why wine?”, and “Why drink the wine?” In Joel’s O.T. prophecy, the Lord himself offers wine – in addition to two other very common food products (grain and olive oil) – as indicators of his restoration and blessing of his people:

“I am sending you grain, new wine and olive oil,
enough to satisfy you fully;
never again will I make you
an object of scorn to the nations.” (Joel 2:19)

And notice how so much of this comes together or is echoed in Psalm 104:

14 [The Lord] makes grass grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to cultivate—
bringing forth food from the earth:
15 wine that gladdens human hearts,
oil to make their faces shine,
and bread that sustains their hearts. (Ps. 104:14,15)

The blood of Jesus will be spilled. It will no longer be in his body – it will make its way to a cup. People will drink it. I will drink it – even though it’s me who caused the spilling of his blood. I caused his blood to be spilled, and now I’m drinking it, and in the process, he brings me gladness and joy – the blood of the killed Savior (the Savior that I killed) that I take into my body by the cup, God gives to me as a means of restoration and promised blessing. It represents one of his most basic and satisfying gifts. (Joel 2:19) It gladdens my heart. (Ps. 104:14) The sadness I caused God brings me joy.

So in every experience of partaking of the “body and the blood of the Lord”, by the bread and the wine, if I’m paying attention, I will remember not only that his death is what has given and continues to give me life (salvation, health, wholeness, wellness, joy), but that I am the cause of his death. His grace his triumphed over my guilt. My very sin towards God the Son, has been used by God the Father to become his instrument of blessing to me. Selah.

To me, this is a little different from remembering that (1) Christ died for sinners and that (2) I am a sinner. It’s more than remembering that (3) his body was broken for me in spite of me being a sinner and that (4) the blessings of the New Covenant are mine through this that he did. It’s all this, but it’s more. It’s reliving and thus remembering each time I chew the bread or sip down the wine that I am at the same time the one who destroyed the Son of God, and the one given new life by him through his destruction. The guilty one partakes and lives. The most unworthy one is blessed.

It’s unheard of good news without precedent. In fact it seems just “too good” to remember only quarterly.

________

Postscript: The next time at the Table led to another devotional thought: The bread and wine, being the most basic and common food of all, represent all that we eat and drink. As I look down at these symbols, I realize that God must give me what I need to live. I can’t do anything but receive.

A Good Friday Meditation

I hadn’t been a good son for years. I had my reasons, so I just stayed away. Now I was going home for the holiday. It was dark and wet and cold, and as usual, I was late. To save time I cut through a baseball field near the house. Before I reached the infield, the smell hit me – I had forgotten how the geese love these fields, and now their “dirt” was jammed into the soles of my shoes. Then, in my hurry and with the wet grass, I stepped in a muddy puddle and slipped. My hands were full with bags of food for the evening – my contribution to the reconciliation meal so long in coming. I went down face first into the disgusting grass, soiling my clothes and dumping the food. It couldn’t be worse. I smelled like a sewer, and the carefully chosen peace-offering was ruined.

As I mounted the front steps and knocked, it crossed my mind to turn back. As the porch light came on, I no longer wondered. Now I saw how disgustingly filthy I was.

Before I could move, the door swung open and I saw my father’s face. He quickly scanned me from head to toe and exclaimed, “Come in my son. We have a wonderful meal for you, and we’ve all been waiting. I can’t tell you how great it is to see you. Nothing could make me happier than you’re being here with me tonight. I thought my heart would break from missing you.”

A Sense of Being Loved by God

“I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.” – Charles Wesley

I wonder sometimes why it’s so hard for me to feel loved, or to love someone else. Sometimes, when the intimacy level rises in some way – say, between me and my wife, even just in some subtle way in a conversation – I can perceive an almost imperceptible unease that comes over me. I think about how undemonstrative my parents were in many ways, and wonder if that’s the cause. Predictably, my next thought is a question – “Am I perpetuating this situation with my own children?” I’m not that demonstrative myself.

Some people just seem to rejoice in God’s love so easily. They feel it. It warms their hearts. It encourages them. How is that? Sometimes I secretly suspect that they’re just faking it. I’m usually all “up in my head.” I can give you all the proofs that God loves me, but I’m talking about feeling it. Sometimes I just suppose that if I were just less stiff-necked towards God, I would feel it then – but would I? Is this a common problem?

Anyway, in a time of silent prayer, I was listening for God to somehow give me something on this. It was real quiet. Then, I have to admit, I seemed to have sort of an epiphany as my love for my four sons came to mind. First, let me compare that parental love to married love.

In married love husband and wife become “one flesh.” Their interests are joined. As is often said as a wedding, “You’re joys and sorrows will be shared alike.” According to the Bible, their lives of active love lived for the each other should rise above the ups and downs of life. We’re called to love our spouses unconditionally, as God has loved us in Christ. We’re called to love each other (to take care of each other) as we care for ourselves. We must be reminded, exhorted and commanded to love in this way, which says something about us and the nature of man. Doesn’t it? We’ve chosen to live with one person from all the people who inhabit the planet – because we love that person – and we still have to be reminded, exhorted and commanded to love them. (And statistics and our experience prove the necessity of such divine insistence.) But here is what I want to consider – the “feeling” of love by married people. We know that feelings come and go, and that we can’t trust them to govern our choices. We know that acting in loving ways will often lead to loving feelings, and we know that feelings can be valuable to us in understanding ourselves and even what God is saying to us. But I’m talking about something else. I’m talking about how either spouse’s “feeling” love for the other is often conditional or contingent. It’s counter to instinct (It’s instinctive for me to love myself.), and it’s counter to the nature of things in a fallen world (which again is for me to focus on myself and my needs). I suppose this is just two ways of saying the same thing.

And this is where my love for my sons, and your love for your child or children come in. It seems to me that this love is quite different. I don’t have to be exhorted or commanded to love my sons, in fact the Bible assumes I will. Parents just love their children. (Take this like a Biblical proverb. Of course there are exceptions, but this is a generally true and reliable guide.) You might have a child who merits a bumper sticker proclaiming his greatness, or one you’d rather not talk about because he’s in rehab again or prison. You might have a child that is your best friend, or idolizes you, or you might have one that won’t come for holidays and wants nothing to do with you. No matter. In either case, if you’re a typical parent, you love that child more than anything in the world.

A parent’s love for a child differs from married love in just that way – and I’m talking now about active love (doing loving things) and feelings of love. A parent’s love isn’t conditional or contingent. There is nothing your child could do that would make you stop loving them. It’s not something we struggle to do, or need to be reminded to do. It’s something we can’t stop doing. Our acts of love flow out of these feelings of love – feelings that are rooted in instinct and the nature of things. (Even my natural inclination to put myself first, and my sinful selfish egocentrism fail to overcome this love of mine.) In almost all cases, parents love their children no matter what. It’s that simple. When the Bible says “as a Father has compassion on his children” it’s appealing to this obvious reality.

When I try to explain my love for my children in words, it sounds like this: I love them so much that it hurts. Probably until they have children of their own, and maybe not even for a long time then, they can’t even fathom it. I would do anything for them, including gladly giving my life. They mean more to me than anything in this world. I know I will always love them like this, and that nothing they could ever do or choose to be could change that. I wish them only the best, and one of the most painful things for me as their father, is wanting so much more for them and not having the ability to help them.

Well, this is the epiphany I mentioned earlier. It dawned on me. This painful love of a parent for his child is the way God loves me. I think this is the most powerful analogy that he makes – the parent-child analogy – not the husband-wife analogy to describe his love for us. (I’m aware that the church is the bride of Christ, and that God married his chosen people Israel, but the way these analogies work is different, and I don’t think they help as effectively with the question I’m raising.)

Am I “feeling” the love of God for me? I can think about Christ’s laying down his life for me. I can meditate on the significance of the bread and wine in the Last Supper. I can think about how fearfully and wonderfully made I am, or about how the Biblical story is all about him being “God with me” – and in this age, “God in me.” I can meditate on all these truths (and more!), and I should. But for me, what hits me on the most visceral level, is thinking that the way I love my sons is the way God loves me. There is no ought, no altruism, no struggle in that love of mine. It’s an incredible, unparalleled force of nature in the truest sense – and I mean that in this way, that God has created me in such a way that I will love my sons. That I will love my sons. And why would he do that? For the survival of the race, no doubt, but more importantly, so that I would understand his love for me. My feelings of love for my four sons reflect God’s desire that I would fathom my heavenly father’s love for me. That’s why I’m that way. God loves his children. I’m created in his image. I love my children. My feelings of love for my children – those instinctive, most powerful of all feelings – mirror how God feels about me. To this I can relate. This actually does help me to “feel” it and understand it in a unique way – and in a new way, maybe I can believe. It makes sense to me. I know these feelings of a parent. I know how powerful they are. I know how indestructible they are. They are “loyal love” feelings. These are God’s feelings towards me.

So, I’m “feeling” it more now, and each time I look at, or pray for, or think about my children, I’ll be feeling it again.