“… 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.”

Martin Luther King and Counterintuitive Living

I heard screamin’
And bullwhips cracking
How long? How long?

Neil Young, “Southern Man”

On September 15, 1963, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed. Dynamite sent bricks and glass flying, and killed four young black girls who were preparing to lead the annual Youth Day worship service. The grandfather of one of the girls, an eleven year old, came sobbing from the church clutching her shoe. On the other side of the world, the Moscow paper Izvestia described the event as a “massacre of the innocents.”

At one point as grief settled upon them, Diane Nash and James Bevel, key leaders in the civil rights movement with Dr. Martin Luther King raged in sorrow, and seriously considered becoming vigilantes. They would identify, stalk, and kill the bombers – the “Black Muslim option.”

Other responses to this horrific event were hardly righteous. Some Southern Baptist leaders drafted a resolution of sympathy for the stricken congregation, but the Southern Baptist Convention rejected it. The largest interracial collection of clergy ever in Birmingham gathered for the funerals, but no city officials attended. President Kennedy himself expressed outrage and grief, but as Taylor Branch explains “carefully pledged the full power of the federal government to the ‘detection’ of those responsible, rather than to conviction or trial.”

Only Dr. King proved unwavering to his principle of loving nonviolence:

“History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city…. We must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and worth of all human personality.”

He said these words because this is what he lived. These words expressed the core philosophy of his life and ministry. It was necessary, as Frederick Douglass  had said before him, to save “black men’s bodies and white men’s souls.” The real goal, King said, was not to defeat the white man but “to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor and challenge his false sense of superiority…. The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community.”

When I read the Sermon on the Mount and hear Jesus tell his followers to turn the other cheek, or to love their enemies, I wonder, “How can we?” When we’re wronged, the desire for revenge goes deep. When we’re purposely, viciously hurt, we want to hurt back. Of course Jesus models what he preached about loving nonviolence better than anyone, “Father, forgive them.” he prayed from the cross – but, I say to myself, “That was Jesus!”

And so, when someone who was definitely not the God-man, who was definitely not made of anything but the clay I’m made of, does what Dr. King did, I’m awestruck. Perhaps loving my enemies and turning the other cheek is not only for the dispensation of the Kingdom! Perhaps such responses are possible (and expected) now.

How was Dr. King able to do it? He believed. He believed at his very core in something that seems against logic to us. He believed that hate must be met with love. That indeed, only love was sufficient to conquer hate, and that love must be radical – willing to suffer and bleed in it’s work to save both the oppressed and the oppressor. He believed in the human dignity of his enemies – those same people who would use a cattle prod or fire hose on him. He believed in loving them.

We will not learn this way of life from Hollywood films or television shows. It won’t be modeled for us by our drinking buddies at the local watering hole, or by the N.R.A. leadership. We may not even learn it in church. (It took the Southern Baptist Convention 30 years to repent of it’s shameful response.) We’ll only learn it from Jesus, and people like Frederick Douglass, Gandhi and Martin Luther King – all of whom learned it from Jesus.

Our world is unfamiliar with this kind of love. If we can learn it and live it out before them, not only against all of their expectations, but counter to every natural instinct of our own, who knows what impact we might have in our world? It’s counterintuitive living at it’s best, if we can only live it.