Wednesday, November 28, 2007

In The Wilderness

This story is fictional, but mostly based on real people, although not real events.

He was running, running, running. His breath burst within his chest, painfully. Across the desert he wandered, cracks in the ground, jagged rocks rising from the parched land like bones. No matter where he looked, there was disaster. The soldiers would capture him for sure.
One of his finest companions, Uriah, was beside him. “Sir,” he panted, running beside his master, “Let us hide among the crooked rocks. Perhaps we could hide and gain some rest.”
“No,” David gasped, each stride desperately pointed in a particular direction.
“But, sir! Surely they will capture us!”
“No, we will get there first. Come!” David turned to enter the rocks. Uriah looked, mystified at David’s response. Did he listen to him or not? David runs around a few tall finger-like stones then stops, breathing heavily for a full five minutes until his lungs quieted. David was whispering, repeating like a mantra, “This is not the shelter I seek, this is not the shelter I seek.”
Behind him, Uriah could hear the soldiers walking close behind him. “The traitor must have run into these rocks, Sire. Only he would be so stupid to stop in the only hiding place in all this area. We will find him quickly. And destroy him forever.”
David gasped. The king! The king is with them. How David longed to grasp hold of his hand and beg for forgiveness, for whatever he had done. David knew that if he could just talk to the king, explain to him what the reality is, all this unpleasantness would be behind him.
“Do you think he is really in here, son?” Saul’s words were slurred as if he were drunk or drugged. David was infuriated. What have they done to my lord?
“Yes, sire. He will be dead in moments and your fears can be put to rest.” Fears! Thought David. This liar had drugged his king, convinced him that he was Jonathan, and then spread lied about David! Anger enflamed David’s mind. He would pay—this little man would squirm and moan in pain.
But the contingent of the king entered the rocks, turning dangerously close to David and his two men. Just as the last man entered the shelter, David ran out, straight across the open desert. Uriah shrugged and looked at the other man, and ran, following David.
The sun beat down on them, pushing them across the desert, causing precious moisture to escape from their bodies, dripping, wasted, upon the parched ground. In the distance, however, Uriah was making out a community. It was bare, only a few tents resting in the middle of empty wilderness, but it was clearly where David was heading.
They continued to run without rest until they reached the first tent. David ran right past it, to other tents in the community. Uriah paused and looked behind him. The king’s soldiers would be close behind them, but they haven’t finished looking through the rocks yet. Uriah breathed easier. There would be a little time. They could escape, if only they would leave this camp quickly.
Uriah turned toward the tents and walked through a few of them. On the other side of the camp, he spied David’s other men. “Adino!” Uriah called, and the two embraced, kissing each other on the cheeks. “How did you come here?”
“David sent us before you left. Didn’t you know?”
Uriah shrugged. “For once, he kept his own counsel.’ Uriah looked around, “Where is he? I know he came over here.”
Adino’s face scrunched up in disgust, “He didn’t greet us—not even to wave. He passed by as if we were strangers—or worse, enemies!—and ran into a tent there.”
“Which one?”
“That one over there.”
Uriah followed Adino’s finger, and walked to the tent. The flap was left open—stupid, allowing all the cool air of the morning escape to mix with the afternoon heat—so Uriah ducked under the flap and spied his master.
At the far end of the tent was the holy of holies, the seat of the Most High. There at the top were the seraphim—the angels that upheld the power and glory of God himself. Uriah struck, stunned. He had never seen such a sight before. For all of David’s clear devotion to Yahweh, Uriah was a foreigner, a Hittite, and his gods were different. But still, such an idol as this, with such clear power! No wonder David was so devoted!
And there was the man himself, prostrate before the image of the seat of God, murmuring. No, wait. He wasn’t just mumbling a prayer. He was singing! Uriah could make out some of the words, “My soul is satisfied… your right hand supports me…” Uriah mocked his devotion to himself. David sometimes could be so obtuse—not even seeing what situation he was in!
“My lord, the soldiers will soon leave the rocks and they will know where we…”
“SHUT UP! Just shut up! Don’t you think I know all that? This is where I am supposed to be.”
“Surely you don’t want us all to be captured…”
“We won’t be! And even if we are, what I am doing here is more important than life itself.”
“More important than your men?” Uriah scoffed. “Is your song to your god worth your faithlessness to your men who dedicated themselves to you?”
“I was up all night, Uriah,” David’s eyes were wild, almost insane. Uriah stayed silent, fearing David’s reaction. “And a song came to me, as if in a dream. ‘O God, you are my God,’ I sang in the midst of my enemies. And I knew that I had to reach the Sanctuary. I had to be before my God. Deliverance is not to be found in hiding, but in devotion. Don’t trust in me, Uriah. I am just a man. Trust in God.”

Raining, raining, raining. He awoke, cold and in the storm, with a light shining in his eyes and a shout in his ears. “Excuse me sir! Will you please come out of the tent!” Cops, he thought dejectedly. Why can’t they leave me alone? All I’m trying to do is sleep.
He got up to obey the command when he stopped suddenly. He could hear sniffing along the front of the tent. A K-9 unit. Suddenly fear gripped his heart. It was only a month ago when his friend, camped only a short distance from this very place, was attacked by a police dog. His leg and arm was all chewed up and he spent a week in the hospital. The doctors say he will walk again. Eventually. But the scars on his face and the fear in his heart would never heal. Never.
One of the cops was yelling, “C’mon—get out of there!”
“I’m coming!” David yelled back sharply. He arose out of his bag, put on his hat, and escaped under the tent in the back.
Damn, it was cold! He had no shoes and no coat and the icy wind blew on him, causing pellets of freezing rain to pelt his bare face. He dipped his head down to allow his hat to block the worst of the weather and he turned aside behind a tree. Shit! He stepped right into his latrine. And it was cold, too! What else could go wrong?
“He’s not in there,” he heard a shout a few yards back. “He must have gotten out through the back! C’mon!” Footsteps ran after him, and he escaped for his life.
His only deliverance was that he knew the small patch of woods better than the cops. For the last month he had been finding and following a three inch wide path through the woods to his camp in the dark. Even in the pitch black of 1am, he could follow it out. The cops didn’t know where he was going.
As David ran past tree after tree, swerving through the branches, he had time to consider. What have I done wrong? Perhaps they looking for a criminal, like they were last month. But probably they were just kicking him out. Maybe a neighbor saw him enter the woods and it took them all night to find his camp. Damn. That place is gone. As well as my tent. And my blankets. And food.
Don’t I have the right to sleep? It wasn’t my choice to be homeless. I don’t have much choice about it now. Don’t the cops know how difficult life is here? David has been outside for three years, and each winter is more difficult than the last. He had to stay in the urban area in order to take advantage of the services that were available there, but even with the few charities available, none of them had enough resources to get him off the street. To get him a truck to sleep in. To recover the tools someone had stolen from him so he could get back to his trade.
But David knew that the cops didn’t care about that. They saw him as a criminal, a thief of air and water and uncared-for property because he did not have the money or employment to pay for four walls and a roof.
Only five minutes later, however, he was out of woods, and the shelter of the trees fell behind him. He had gained a head start in front of the cops, but now he was out in the open and they could set their dog on him anytime. They might even shoot at him, like they did that girl who panicked at a pull-over and drove away. She’s dead now. What was he to do?
The church. It’s right around the corner. If there is just a slight possibility the priest forgot to lock the door…
He ran down the block to the doors of the chapel. Behind him, a full block away, the cops were huffing, trying to shout, “Stop!” but getting caught up by their short breath. Please, be open, please… He tried the tall door and, miracle enough, it was open! David entered and tried to shut the door behind him, but it was slowed by one of those things that closed doors carefully. Damn, come on! Finally, the door was shut and he locked it.
Walking through the foyer, he walked into the sanctuary. The lights were all off. He must be here by himself. Perhaps he could crash here for the night, get up early and then figure out where he could get a new tent. And blankets. And a coat. And shoes. He sighed. It would be a long day, full of refusals and dirty looks, as if he wanted to be ill-prepared at the beginning of winter.
Then he looked at the front of the sanctuary. There was Jesus, arms open, heart exposed. David snorted in disgust. He was raised to not worship idols, he mused. Nevertheless, there was something peaceful here. He felt at ease.
The cops reached the door and were pounding at it. “Let us in, or we’ll break it down!” David turned toward the door in fear. It wasn’t solid—they could break it, if they wanted. He spun around, scanning the room. Where to hide, where to go…
Suddenly, strangely, he remembered his dream. David, the warrior, his namesake, running to the sanctuary of God, only to pray from deliverance from his enemies. He wouldn’t escape, even though he could. He even endangered his men, because he was certain that God would deliver him. If only he would pray.
As the cops pounded on the door, David went to the front of the sanctuary, bowed his knees, turned his face away from the painted Jesus, and began to recite the words he had memorized as a child in Sunday school, “O God, thou art my God. Early will I seek Thee. My soul thirsteth for Thee, my flesh longeth for Thee in a dry and weary land where no water is…”
There was no hope, there was no escape. There is only God in this place. So only He could provide peace.

Father Ahim hid. He didn’t hear the homeless man come in, for he was sleeping under a pew in the middle of the sanctuary. His sleep was fitful, for he was constantly being awakened by unpleasant dreams. Finally, just as he dozed in restful slumber, there was pounding on the door.
“We know you’re in there! Open the door, or we’ll break it down!” O God, the priest thought, they know I’m in here… they will capture me and kill me before the king…wait. He came to his senses. That was a dream. But the banging seemed so real…
Again, Ahim shook in shock. This was real, not a dream. He remained silent for a moment, attempting to interpret the surreality of the moment. He remembered that he came to the sanctuary around midnight to pray for his sins. “Lord,” he begged, “Help me to not be such a hypocrite. Help me to control my mind, my actions. Teach me to love you. To love others.” After a while praying, he slept. So like the disciples, he thought. Could you not even remain in prayer one hour? Yet in his dreams he was being chased by soldiers, and they were so close. Yet in his dream he prayed and cried out to the Lord for help, confident that he would be delivered.
And now he is awakened by banging. Who desires in the sanctuary at this time of night?
Then, from the front of the room, he heard a gruff, low voice growl, “I remember Thee on my night bed; and meditate on Thee in the night watches.” Psalm sixty three, the priest remembered briefly from his life in the community of Foucauld.
“Who are you?” the priest asked across the room. The kneeling form jolted, surprised at the voice from nowhere. His head spun around, seeing no one. “Who is there?”
The priest got up and sat on the pew. “I am Father Ahim,” he stated carefully in his French accent. “Are you in trouble?”
To answer for him, the police yelled through the door again, “This is your last chance. We will have to break the door down now.”
“Hmmm, yes.” The priest stirred, fearful of what might happen to him should these violent men enter. “Who are they?”
“Cops,” the dirty man almost spat. “They chased me out of my camp in the woods.”
Ahim noted the sense that he had put in the back of his mind now—the smell of excrement and, strangely, a perfumed shampoo. Almost as if the man washes his hair daily, but missed the rest of his body for a month.
A loud bang came from the back of the room as the police made their first attempt to open the door. The man looked at the passive figure of the priest, “Don’t you think you should do something?”
The priest smiled, “Oh, the doors are strong. They should keep for a moment. Please, why do they chase you?”
“Hell, I don’t…” the man pulled up short. “Sorry.”
Ahim smiled, “’Hell’ is a biblical word as well, you know.”
The homeless man continued, “I mean, I don’t know. I was just sleeping, and they came out. I heard their dog outside…” Another bang on the door, and the man flinched, “so I ran away, out the back.”
“Ah, hmmm.” Father Ahim got up, “Let me speak with them.”
The man got up, with his hand trying to stop the priest, “You don’t want to go out there. They might do something to you.”
The priest smiled again and went to the door. He unlocked the door, opened it, and shut it behind him. “Excuse me, what is the problem?”
The two officers stood back, one tallish and dark-skinned, the other short and skinny. The tall one was rubbing his shoulder. “Look, we know you’ve got someone in there and we have to bring him in.”
The priest smiled, “Yes, there is someone here, but I am counseling him.”
The short cop scoffed, “At 1am?”
“My office doors don’t close.”
The short cop stepped up to the priest and tried to look imposing, “We’re going in to get that guy.”
“I do not allow you in.”
“We have every right to come in.”
“And I have every right to stop you.”
“You are obstructing justice! I will arrest you right now!”
The priest smiled and just stood there between the cops and the door. Oh, please, he thought. Arrest me. Please. It would look so beautiful in the headlines tomorrow.
The tall cop showed some reason, however, “Look, we don’t want to cause trouble. And we don’t want to violate your sanctuary. So if you could just ask him to come out, we promise not to do anything to him. We just need to talk to him for a minute.”
The priest looked directly at the tall cop, looking sternly. “And what of his blankets, his tent? What will happen to those?”
The tall cop had enough of a conscience to look abashed, “Well, we will have to confiscate those.”
The priest replied shortly, “Then you have caused enough harm. Do you have any further business here?”
The short cop stepped forward as if to speak, but the tall cop but his hand on the man’s shoulders and pulled him back. The tall cop said, “If you don’t mind, we may come by tomorrow to see how you are.”
The priest smiled and replied, “Please. You are welcome anytime. Just as long as you give no threat.”
The cops walked away and Father Ahim went back into the chapel, locking the door behind him.

As the priest was gone, David continued to pray. He didn’t know the right words, so he recited Psalm 63 and then the Lord’s Prayer. And then Psalm 63 again. Just as he was finishing, “every one that sweareth by him shall glory: but the mouth of them that speak lies shall be stopped,” the priest returned. Alone.
Hope mingled with the deadening fear in his gut as he asked, “So. What happened.”
The priest said, “They have gone. But I fear your camp will be taken immediately.”
David grunted. “My stuff was history from the time I ran away from it.”
The priest nodded. “I suppose so. So what are your plans?”
“Well,” David began hesitatingly, “I was hoping that perhaps I could stay here tonight and leave early in the morning.”
“I’m afraid that would be impossible. Prayer group at 6am.”
David was abashed. Why the hell was the priest there that night anyway? I could have snuck in and no one would have been bothered. Why is everyone so opposed to just letting me have a little peace? Enemies on every side. And what have I done? Nothing. What crime is it to sleep outside…
The priest looked a bit shocked and said, “Excuse me,” in his funny accent. That was when David realized that he was speaking aloud. “I’m sorry, Father. I shouldn’t have said anything. If you could just give me five to make sure the cops are gone then I’ll be one my way…”
The priest repeated, “Excuse me, but you interrupted me with your speech. As I was saying, it would be impossible for you to stay in the sanctuary, but you could stay in my rooms. It’s cozy, but we should be fine. And if you were willing to work, you could stay there for a bit with me.”
David was shocked, but he didn’t hesitate in answering, “Well, yeah, I’m willing to work. In fact, if you’ve got tools, I could fix your place up a bit. I’m a bit of a handyman, actually…”
The priest said, “And, perhaps a cleaner?”
David said, “I can clean, if that’s what you mean?”
The priest said, “Good. Perhaps you could begin this evening by cleaning the excrement off of the rug of the chapel?”
David looked behind him and noticed the partial footprints of his shit that had followed him from his camp. “Oh, I’m sorry. I’ll clean it up…”
“Yes, yes, of course. And I will help. I am a cleaner, myself.”
In the midst of their scrubbing, the priest asked him, “So, what is your name?”
“David, Father.”
The priests’ eyes widened and he said, “Interesting. I was just dreaming of the ancient king of the same name.”
David stopped scrubbing for a moment and looked at the priest. He didn’t want to reveal that he also had a dream of David. It just seemed too freaky.
“And there was also a priest that helped this king, after running away from soldiers. Strange, isn’t it?”
David was startled, but wasn’t ready to open up to this stranger, as nice as he seemed. “Maybe.”
“I think perhaps we were meant to meet.”
David thought so too. And he also was confident that his prayer was answered.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Fred Huber is the most humble man I have ever met.

He says that he wants to remain “uncomely”. And to this purpose, he lives somewhat like a monk. He would fast every Sabbath. He sleeps on the floor, with just his blanket for warmth. He wants to sincerely remain submissive to authority, whether that be the governmental authority, or an elder in the church. (I don’t really count as an “elder” because I’m just not old enough.) He speaks little, although a giggle at his thoughts would sometimes come forth without notice. I would pick him up for a church service and he sits in his seat in silence, unless I ask him to read a Scripture passage. Fred doesn’t say much at all, unless asked a direct question.

When Fred is asked a direct question, not many people actually understand his response. His answers seem esoteric, clouded in mystery. When someone wanted to transfer $140 dollars to his account, he hesitated and wondered if $70 would do. She balked at this, thinking that his answer was crazy—why would he want less money. I suggested to Fred that she put in $120—because, in Fred’s thinking, 7 and 12 are good biblical numbers, while 14 is an unknown number and thus suspicious.

Fred is very religious, in both the positive and the negative senses of the word. As a response to the biblical mandate, “Give to those who ask of you,” he provides something to everyone on the street who asks him for something—no matter whether they are a drug user or a woman with a child trapped in poverty. Usually this is a dollar or a bus ticket. For this purpose, whenever he takes money out of the bank, he always wants it in ones, no matter how large the sum. He keeps the Sabbath holy by not shopping from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset, nor taking public transportation, for which he would have to pay, nor would he cook.

Fred tries to get up before sunrise every morning (which goal he doesn’t always achieve) to read the Scripture, usually the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount. He honors God by praising Him every morning, he honors his parents by asking others to pray for his family. He covets nothing, and even what he has—which he obtains by gifts he did not ask for—he gives away to those who live with him in his subsidized apartment complex.

Fred lives almost the perfect Christian life— meek, caring, visiting the sick, giving to those in need, obedient to the Scriptures, not greedy, lustful or hateful. Everyone loves Fred for his gentleness and inner peace.

Fred is diagnosed with schizophrenia.

He has some strange obsessions, it is true. When I am to pick him up two blocks away from his apartment, it takes him a half hour to walk there because he must walk through the neighborhood, spinning around at each corner of each intersection. Every time he closes, locks or unlocks a door, he must do so twice. As I mentioned above, he has a certain numerology he works with. And he limits his eating to grains, oils and juices that are found in the Bible. Although he hasn’t gone to pomegranates yet. Maybe I should mention that to him.

Fred does hear voices. These are voices of dead family members, such as his mother or grandmother. They talk with him and joke with him and command him and color his life. Sometimes he thinks God is speaking to him. Which perhaps He is. I don’t know. But not all the time.

The only time his mental illness is problematic is when his voices give him rules that he must abide by. On occasion, they would command him to remain in his apartment, separated from everyone in order to do a task—such as to go through old mail or old papers he has stacked in piles in his otherwise neat room. He would keep himself then from church, from shopping, from friends. When this happens, I need to remind him that whoever is commanding him to go through these papers has less authority than Scripture which tells us “not to forsake the gathering together.” Fred usually pays attention to Scripture, and returns to the church at the next meeting.

At one point, Fred’s illness reached a critical point. As it is always in his mind to not be dependent on anything the government provides for him, he stopped taking his medication. The voices then told him to send the social security checks he was receiving back. Not thinking clearly, he would tear a piece of the envelope and place the mail outside the door of his apartment. Soon his electricity was being threatened and the apartment managers were questioning him about his rent. He didn’t have much to say.

Fred also began having problems with eating. He preferred to fast on the Sabbath, as I said, but his fasts would become longer and more severe. He wouldn’t eat anything all weekend. Then he wouldn’t eat any protein. Soon, on weekdays, he would only nibble on bread and sip some water or grape juice. He was becoming visibly gaunt and pale.

In the midst of this, he received a thirty day notice at his apartment due to his lack of payment. He had no plans, no options except to live on the street. If that was the case, the social workers were planning on putting him in the hospital, where he would be forced to take drugs and separated from our community for months. So we took him into our house, which conveniently was located just a half mile away from his apartment.

Mind you, this isn’t the first time this type of crisis came on Fred. Since he was diagnosed with schizophrenia twenty years ago, he has been in the hospital for at least two months eighteen times. A typical year for Fred would be like this: Around May, he would stop taking his medication. By June, he would cut back on his eating and he would deeply concern those around him. His housing would be threatened. By July, he would be in the hospital, where they would ask him to take his medication. He would refuse. At this point, the hospital staff would call security, who, bringing about four men, would hold him down while the staff would inject him with the medication. After a few times of this, Fred would submit to the medication. In a couple months they would transfer him to a transitional medical facility. Then he would be under the authority of a court-appointed worker, who would find housing for him. He would live in the housing until the court commitment would run out. Then he would stop taking his medication and the whole cycle would begin again.

He lived like this for twenty years. He called this his “trial”. He felt that this was happening to him because of his experiments with sex and drugs while he was in his older teens. So he would constantly go over his past sins, some of which were forty years old, reminding himself of them, confessing them, begging for forgiveness. He would know he was forgiven if he could just stop going to the hospital, stop being forced to take medication, stop living out these compulsions. What he wants more than anything is to be given the freedom to live by his convictions. If that conviction is to stop eating altogether, he desperately wants that freedom. But the government is persecuting him, restricting him from doing what he feels he must.

When Fred came to live with us, we had a full house, so I gave him a bunk bed above where Ian was sleeping. Fred would set his significant papers on the bed, wrap himself in a blanket and sleep outside on the ground, sometimes in the rain. He stopped wearing his clothes and would occasionally stand in the midst of the house, naked. I told him that we had girls living in the house, so he had to remain covered. It took maybe three times of saying this to him, but he understood and kept a blanket wrapped around himself all the time as he mumbled prayers, spun around and wandered in and out of the house.

His social worker and psychiatrist came to visit Fred and I. They said that they appreciated what we were doing, but if Fred showed any serious medical issues, then they would put him into the hospital. I told them I understood. I just wanted to give Fred a chance to figure his own way through these issues. No one had done that before. They hesitated, but agreed. We would all keep an eye on him.

When Fred first came to us, he would eat some bread, drink water and occasionally take his medication. Soon, he was burying his medication out in the yard. He stopped eating altogether. And he stopped drinking water. We asked him to eat. And almost forced him to drink. We gave him water a number of times a day and watched him closely to see he drank. He would take water into his mouth and then spit it out as he could.

He began to stay up all night, mumbling, lying outside on the ground. A couple of us in the house would take turns watching over him, praying for him, doing quiet spiritual warfare in the name of Jesus. The stress on the household was becoming acute. Many people expressed their concern for Fred. One of Fred’s closest friends came to me in tears of rage and screamed at me in my face, wanting to know why I didn’t do more to help him.

I didn’t have much to say. I struggled, and still struggle with the battle between freedom and love. In my ministry I see many people commit suicide without intending to die. I see alcoholics become desperately sick, yet still drink. I see drug addicts OD again and again, yet they still take the hit of heroin. I see the mentally ill stop in the middle of a busy street right in front of traffic. I see diabetics gorge on sweets and breads.

What am I to do? I am not their parent, forcing them to do what is good for themselves, although they scream and lash out at me. I am not the hospital, having cops hold people down while enforcing an injection they do not want. I am not the government who has the right to commit people if they are in the place to harm themselves. And I don’t know I want that authority if it was given to me. Is it right to strip people’s freedom for their own good? Is it right to force them to live when they exist in a living hell? Is it right to violently force another to do that which I arrogantly insist upon is for their benefit? Can I know what is good for them better than they themselves?

I am just a pastor. The position of prophet is the most frustrating, weakest position of God. I am here to tell people that which they don’t want to hear, because it comes from God. But to follow God, to obey, is their own choice. If they’d rather commit suicide, even unknowingly, I cannot prevent them from that. I am helpless before the sovereignty of a human will. I am just a Mother Theresa for those slowly killing themselves. I can give them a place to die, all the while encouraging them to enact life.

I can see Fred’s urine, because he doesn’t flush the toilet. It is growing darker and has a sick smell. I know that he is dehydrating. I would know that anyway. For forty days he has stayed with us. He hasn’t eaten and his liquid intake has been almost nothing. Finally, weakened by his fast, he lays in the backyard for a full day and night, not getting up. His social worker comes to see him and he looks in his eyes. Fred’s blue eyes are dilated and almost crystallized, the blue of his iris strangely different, as if he were on a drug. They call the ambulance and take him to the hospital. At the hospital, they declare his kidneys to be in renal failure. They put him on an IV and force him to take psych meds. He is too weak to resist, so the security need not be called.

Today, Fred is placed under the authority of a permanent court worker. She makes sure that he always takes his medication, she receives his check and pays his bills. Fred still wants to reduce his medication, but his court worker has the final word on that. I pick him up for church, and we call each other throughout the week. But we don’t have the deep open conversations we used to.

Because last year, when he came to live with us, a year after his kidney failure, he stayed with us again. This time, though, when he stopped eating for a week and stopped drinking for a day, I took him to the hospital myself. He allowed me to do it, but he only agreed because otherwise the police would cuff him and force him to go. The hospital made us wait for four hours in the emergency waiting room. When they looked at his records, before speaking to him, they immediately put him on a hold, which gives them the authority to force him to take whatever treatment they wanted to give him.

When they determined that he had to take his psychiatric medications, I was there when the security people arrived, held down his struggling body, and the staff injected him with a needle.

Fred still participates in our community. He still serves in the church, cleaning up and reading Scriptures. But he will never share with me again his innermost thoughts. Or share what the voices in his head are telling him. Because I forced him to have his freedom restricted. I have become one of those who care for him, but in his eyes are just wrong-minded. For a moment, just a brief moment, I became an authority instead of just a prophet. I did it to save Fred’s life. I took the arrogant position of “knowing” what is right for someone else. I set aside the humility that Fred demonstrates in his life, the example he gives me. Did I do what was right? If, given the option, would I do it again? God alone knows and will judge me accordingly

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Grace of the Boorish

Anawim is all my wife’s fault.

Look, I grew up in a normal middle class life. I had no thought or experience in having strangers in my home, or sharing meals with them. It wasn’t MY idea. Even when I listened to Keith Green, the prophetic musician who encouraged us to take strangers in our home, I didn’t understand really what he was saying there. My idea was to be a missionary—a relatively safe, but radical, undertaking suitable for a young, fanatical follower of Jesus. Although this involved much sacrifice, the sacrifice of one’s private space was not one I was ready to make.

Diane, however, had grown up in poverty. Not extreme poverty, mind you, but poor enough that pancakes was as much as they could eat a number of nights a week. Diane was often in charge of the smaller kids, making sure they got fed and put to bed at night as her mom worked hard every evening to provide for them as a waitress at a local bar. Certainly they didn’t take strangers in during those lean years. But poverty is the source of dreams for many, and so it was with Diane.

She had two heroes, or, dare I say, heroines, that inspired her. One was Florence Nightingale, who sacrificed her life and well-being for the sake of the sick and needy in a country far from her own, and so created an approach to health care that was compassionate and successful. The other was Jo, from the book Little Women. Jo was a teen tomboy when introduced, but she later ran an orphanage, welcoming the homeless and helpless. Some combination of this was Diane’s secret ambition for her life. But she knew it wouldn’t really happen. Such projects required a lot of money, which she did not have. But, again, the poor often have dreams that become reality in ways we would never expect. Without such dreams, Dickens wouldn’t have had anything to write about.

When we married, I did not know about these secret dreams. Early in our relationship, I was the talker, the dreamer, the visionary. My dream was to orchestrate a team to do compassion and spiritual ministry in Bangladesh. It was to love the impoverished in word and deed in one of the poorest countries in the world. We would sacrifice our lives, our middle class values and give ourselves to the poor in some far off space. That was all in the future, mind you, but I wanted us to prepare for the future now.

Diane was with me. She was ready to do this ministry as well. But the future didn’t excite her so much as the people who were around us right now. So only a couple weeks after we were married, we took in our first homeless man. His name was Roger, he had a slight developmental disability, and he had just gotten out of prison. Oh, and he was irritating. Really annoying. I mean, he didn’t have any idea of acceptable boundaries and proper communication. I mean, he was nice and all, but just not the kind of guy I’d want to hang around for long. Like two minutes.

So, of course, Diane invited him home to stay with us.

I tried to tell her all the reasons why this wasn’t a good idea. After all, our apartment was small. And we were just figuring out how the two of us were going to live together, let alone having another person with us. And Roger was just so… well, just… so like… Roger. I wasn’t sure I could live with him.

I explained all my reasons logically and succinctly. She understood and agreed with all of my excuses. But in her eyes, I could see her silent accusation, “Yeah, but what would Jesus do with Roger? Would He throw Roger out on the street, when all he needs is a week and he would be on his own? What about all of your ideals about sacrifice for God’s ministry? Hasn’t God put Roger in our laps so we could help him? Where is your compassion?” Mind you, she would deny saying any of this. She didn’t say any of this. But I know it was what she was thinking. So, against my better judgment, I agreed.

That experience was as miserable as I thought it would be. Roger was boorish and invasive. I couldn’t wait for him to leave. And soon, he did. That was a relief. We could put that part of our lives behind us.

And so we did. Until we and our Bangladesh team rented a house together for ministry purposes. We intended to have guests stay with us who were in need. And we did—a Nigerian woman who was waiting for housing stayed with us for a while. We also had a Vietnamese family live with us. Those were good experiences. But living with each other was something else.

The biggest clash in the house was between the two Alpha Males of the group—myself and Randy. Randy had some pretty strict moral ideals that were hard to live with—strict accounting of the team money and getting up early, waking me up a full ten minutes before I was ready to awake. Why, I wondered, couldn’t he be more thoughtful, more considerate of those in the house?

I really liked Randy, actually, despite his many insensitivities. And so I would show how I liked him. I used to tease him terribly with jokes that he found it hard not to take personally. I would laugh at his embarrassments and make fun of him before others. Of course, I would never think of myself as insensitive—not like him. After all, I was only bugging one member of the household, while he was irritating us all. Eventually, he left us without giving us much reason. I could never really figure out why.

Flash forward again. Diane and I were getting final preparations ready for Bangladesh, which meant, getting the support required. We had a team leader, a Bangladeshi with our missions group fully behind him. And we were staying in our churches “mission house” which housed missionaries temporarily while they were in the States. One of our missions board called us up and said that she had a friend coming to Portland and wondered if we could put her up for a few days. Sure, we told Karin, we’ve got an extra room right now.

And thus did Merilyn come into our lives. For a number of years. To this day, actually.

Merilyn always did the right thing. You could just ask her, she’ll tell you. In every circumstance, no matter how many personal boundaries she had to cross, she could always show you how her motivation was right.

When she invited our children to do that which we told them not to, it was because she disagreed with our values.
When she stayed later than we asked her to it was because we didn’t ask her to leave.
When we asked her to leave she was offended because we were being rude.
When she was rude, it was because she was telling the truth.
When we told her the truth, she was offended because it wasn’t a truth she accepted.

I asked the Lord to allow me to tell Merilyn to leave and not come back. He politely ignored me.
I begged the Lord to let me yell at Merilyn, to tell her all the negative things I thought of her and to invite her to stop calling. The Lord told me “No.”
That was frustrating. Doesn’t the Lord understand, I argued to myself, how miserable she was making us? How frustrating she was? How difficult she made our lives? How impossible she sometimes was?

It was at this point that I had the realization: Of course God knew. Not only did he know, but he planned it. That sneaky, divine Jerk! (I say this with all respect). He had every intention to make me miserable. It was His desire, from the foundation of creation to put in my path people who would irritate, confound and frustrate me.

Frankly, this became my primary ministry.

I have to say that I truly love Merilyn now. Yes, she is still irritating to me, but there is some consolation to that, because I irritate her just as much. And yet we talk and we try to get along and though our different values have sometimes rubbed each other raw, we have grown because of each other. She calls me her “annoying brother who I still talk to.”

And she is the sister without whom I would not be what I am. Without Merilyn, without Randy, without Roger I would not have been able to accept or appreciate Byron or Bryan or Will or Randy or Gary. Without Merilyn, I would have thrown out of my house the man who would preach at the top of his voice across the living and dining room. Without Roger, I would have found the man who stripped himself nude in the middle of my house unacceptable for my household. Without Randy, phone calls or knocks on the door in the middle of the night would infuriate me.

I deeply regret my attitudes toward Roger, towards Randy, toward Merilyn. And I deeply appreciate their input in my life. Without them, I wouldn’t have understood that dealing lovingly with irritation is a part of my share in Christ. Without them, I wouldn’t have understood that Jesus’ most difficult command is probably better translated, “Love those who annoy you.”

Without my acceptance of them, without my joy in all those who break the rules of polite society, especially the rules I hold fast and dear, I would be a much poorer man. I would be flat, the hollow man, my chest filled with straw instead of a heart.

Praise God for the annoying. May we all receive the understanding of what a blessing they truly are.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Inviting the Homeless into Our Homes

Good Morning Steve,
My name is Devan and I met you at the Mennonite Church USA conference this past July; I attended your lecture on gods and theology in the ancient world, and I sat with you at Willard Swartley's lecture on peace and justice. I had a chance to talk with you a little bit about your ministry and church for those experiencing homelessness. I was very intrigued and wanted to hear more but, alas, I was only in San Jose for 2 days.

I have, for a few months, been considering doing a similar ministry. Generally, my neighborhood doesn't have many chronically homelessness folks residing in or around it given that it is far from most of the human service agencies. Nonetheless, my neighborhood is known for gang violence, is one of the poorest in the city of Buffalo (with a 30% poverty rate, most of which is concentrated in blocks surrounding my home), and has a lot of youth who are steps away from serious incarceration or death. Many of them are in and out of homelessnesses from month to month. A ministry down the street from me (it's a thrift store) offers job training and steady pay to teenagers in the neighborhood - even if they leave for two weeks and come back needing more money - and some of the folks who work there have increasingly been asking me to get involved by mentoring those youth. I know that, eventually, this will mean making my home a place for them to come and feel welcome and get some food and have a chance to have someone listen.

I thought perhaps you would have some insight about how to safely open my home in that way. How did you do it? What are the anticipated challenges? Even if folks are coming into your home like that, there are still boundaries set I assume? What are they and how did you communicate to the folks you were welcoming how to respect those boundaries? Has anyone stolen things from you? How have you responded to this? I know this is a lot to ask, I appreciate any insight you are willing to give.
Shalom, Devan

That's great that you're thinking about such a needy and challenging ministry. I am actually sitting here thinking, "How WOULD you start a ministry like that?" The way we started was so "easy" and God-driven, it just started itself. But if you are really open and friendly to the kids, then you should go far.

And, yep, we've had stuff stolen from our place. One time we had a checkbook stolen, and we ended up losing a thousand dollars-- which, as you know, we couldn't afford. The lesson we learned from that is: Don't tempt people by having stuff out that is easy to steal. But we never pressed charges against anyone. Heck, we didn't know who stole the checkbook, anyway, and we wouldn't want to even file a police report because we don't want to be the cause of someone being sent to a place where they could learn worse things than on the street.

There was another guy who stole from us. He was a kleptomaniac, actually-- actually diagnosed. As soon as he stole something, he felt guilty and then would give it away. I just asked him to apologize to whomever he stole from and then he was welcomed back. He did. Another who stole from a church that we were meeting at didn't and I haven't seen him since. It's hard to draw that line, but there is a basic rule of the street-- you don't shit in your garden. Meaning, you don't do something bad to someone who is helping you. So, when the street ethic is the same as the biblical ethic, I try to support that.

Keep your eyes open and listen carefully. Thats the main thing. Assume that you don't know anything about anybody when you meet them and you will learn something surprizing and new. For most folks on the street-- unless they are deeply involved in a gang-- they are isolated and feel out on a limb. So be open about yourself. Most folks on the street can read somone who is being falsely sincere. And other folks will think that a person is being insincere when they aren't. Just be yourself as much as you can, share your opinions if you think they agree with them.

Try to build trust. Trust is earned, not given. And you are asking folks to come into your place, which is a foreign world to them. Welcome them, but don't overwhelm them. Treat them as you would an immigrant from another country. Be careful about their concerns and try to ask them about what their needs might be. They probably won't ask you for anything, so be generous.

Give whatever things of substance you can, but try to avoid giving money. If folks have addiction issues, then even if they have the best intentions and are sincere, they will use the money on their addiction. If you give clothes or blankets or anything, make sure the tags are off and there's no reciept, so they can't just return them and use the money for something that won't help them.

Now, do you have kids? I do, and that offers another level of challenges, but I won't get into it unless you have some. Actually, is there anyone living with you at all?

Ummm. I'm sure there's pleanty more I could say. But perhaps you were thinking of stuff that was more pratical. Have you got any questions? If I know, I'd be glad to answer, or at least give a thoughtul opinion about that of which I am clueless.

May God grant you peace and fullness in this ministry.

Steve K

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Double Life

I was getting to know a couple new to the Mennonite church who was beginning a church in Bend. In talking about my ministry, one of them mentioned, “How do you live with that? I mean, you must be a very compassionate person and yet so many people suffer.”

I had to think about that. I wonder if I am a compassionate person. Certainly my first reaction to people is not compassion. You can ask folks who call me, asking me to do them a favor, or who interrupt me in the middle of one task for another. I am, to be kind, grumpy. I am not caring about their issues, really, although I try to listen. I certainly wouldn’t say that compassion is my middle name.

There is a set of personality tests, based on characterizations of Carl Jung. They are called the Myers/Briggs or the Kiersy/Bates Tests. They divide people by four opposing characteristics: Introvert/Extrovert; Sensing/Intuitive; Thinking/Feeling; and Judging/Perceiving. I am, in the lingo of these tests, an INTJ. This means that I am first an Introvert—this means that I obtain my energy by being by myself and I am drained by being with other people. It means that I am iNtuitive—that I see the most important reality as being that which is not seen or felt. It means that I am Thinking—that I consider logic as more important than emotion, in myself or others. And that I am Judging—that I see things as right or wrong, that I tend to finish what I start and timeliness is important to me.

In other words, I am some kind of Spock, ignoring people’s feelings, but with my head in the clouds. I am a judgmental jerk and I’d rather that everyone just left me alone. Not exactly a compassionate guy.

The tests emphasize plurality. They want everyone to recognize that everyone else is different, but we are all human, we are all okay. Of course, if you look at my profile, perhaps you would think that I’d be better left in a laboratory or a monastic cell with the key dropped down a well with a sign placed at my door, “Please do not disturb, madman with smallpox inside.”

And, honestly, I find that my initial reactions to folks aren’t characterized by compassionate feelings. My initial thoughts in meeting someone with a need is, “Why don’t you leave me alone, can’t you see I’m busy now?” Or perhaps the Republican line, “You caused your own problems, why don’t you find a way to get out of them?” Or maybe, “Would you just grow up!” I suppose it is good that I keep my thoughts to myself.

So, in reality, my basic nature is that of the judgmental jerk. This applies to myself as well. I beat myself up for the smallest sin, and if I get caught up in a habitual sin than I just wish I could tear my heart out of my chest. I look down on others’ sins, especially those who claim to be Christians. I focus on righteousness, on the right and wrong, on choosing the ethical above all else. I am Immanuel Kant, I am the ethical Spock, I am your dad when he told you to get him a stick.

So you would think that working with the weakest people in the world wouldn’t be my first calling. Wouldn’t I be judgmental against them? Wouldn’t I consider them beneath my notice? Wouldn’t I be overwhelmed by the crises? Well, yes. Except for one thing.

As a Christian ethicist, I am focused on obedience. Obedience to the God I have devoted my life to. Others, who have not devoted themselves to God, need not follow my ethical demands. But those who are committed to the Lord, I have higher demands for. But the one who saved me from myself is Jesus.

Somehow, for some reason, God only knows, I have devoted myself to obedience to the Author of compassion in the West. Jesus is the one who told us “You without sin cast the first stone.” Jesus commanded us, first and foremost to “love your neighbor.” Jesus is the one who commanded all his disciples to “Sell your possessions and give to the needy.” Jesus is the one who said that the repentant is to be forgiven even seven times in a day. Jesus is the one who welcomed sinners and the outcast to form his own church. Jesus is the one who, out of compassion, fed the multitudes, taught the multitudes, healed the sick and raised the dead.

Jesus led the most radical lifestyle of them all. So radical, and so committed to true righteousness was he that the religious leaders of his day had to have him killed and discredited.

So I am committed to righteousness, to an ethical life—the ethics and righteousness of Jesus only. You can have Moses, the lawgiver and David, the warrior, if you want (Although I note that they weren’t raised from the dead). But I chose Jesus, the compassionate; Jesus the friend of sinners; Jesus the political radical; Jesus the evangelist; Jesus the healer; Jesus the lover of all humanity.

Thus am I saved from myself. I am judgmental, but Jesus teaches me to accept. I am an introvert, but Jesus teaches me to love my neighbor. I am a thinker, but Jesus teaches me to respect others’ feelings.

I truly am living in another world. The world around me teaches me to look at people as they are and to judge them for what they should be. Jesus teaches me to look at people as to what they could be and to take them by the hand and to, step by step, show them the way.

So I live a double life. In my heart, I am still a judgmental jerk. I’m only human and that’s my human side, my flesh that is eating me from within. But outwardly, more and more each day, I pray, I am Jesus. Not in looks, but in actions, words and desires.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Tough Love

I remember when I first had Bryan stay with us. Short, shy, somewhat paranoid, but desperately loyal. Really screwed up. Sometimes he couldn’t give you a coherent sentence. He had a stealing habit that never ended—never from individuals, mind you, only big stores because that wasn’t really stealing. He made me so mad sometimes at how morally idiotic he was.
I remember one time how he would go into a fast food place and ask for a “complimentary cup.” They would give him a water cup and then he would fill it with soda and go for seconds. I told him that it was stealing and he said, “No, it’s not. I asked for a complimentary cup didn’t I?”
He was a homeless drug addict, using mostly meth. He would help us out in the kitchen sometimes, when we met in the Salvation Army building. Nice enough guy. Had two boys whom he missed desperately.
One day he was sleeping in his van and God gave him a vision. He saw Jesus, holding out his hands to him and calling him to come. He told me about this and I told him that Jesus had put his mark upon him. He said, “But I’m stuck on drugs. I don’t know what to do.” At this point I gave him my first lecture (one of many, I’m afraid): “Look, you can keep the way you are and die, a pointless existence. Or you can come to Jesus and I will help you in every way I can.” It was about a week later he lost his van and called me up in desperation to get some help.
I put him in a Christian treatment house and paid $400 for him to get in. A pretty good treatment, but difficult to live through. Finally, Bryan got kicked out after a few months because he refused to “rat out” one of his fellow roommates. So he went back out on the street to use meth.
There is one thing about Bryan that has saved him again and again—the Holy Spirit. The Spirit just convicts him, and if there’s one thing that Bryan can’t handle is conviction. He’s ready to confess and repent at the drop of a hat. So he couldn’t stay away for long, with the hand of the Spirit so heavy on him. So he came to me and I welcomed him in.
This is what I was thinking, “He’s already got a job and a good start, so we’ll have him in for a few months and then he’ll get out on his own.” Diane said, “We’ll see.” Oh, I was so naïve. But naïve or not, I knew that if I sent him back to the street he would use and die in a short time.
But how was I to know that he would stay with us for seven years?
It didn’t take long for him to lose the job and for us to set him up permanently on the porch of our two bedroom apartment. Others would come and go, but Bryan stayed. Well, kind of stayed. He would sometimes go back out for a week, then come back, red-faced and repentant. He would help me out on runs, and eventually became our babysitter.
His main characterization was losing control, giving into drugs, having the Spirit convict him and then he would repent sincerely and passionately. But never permanently. Any job he had was just money in his pocket which he couldn’t control. If he didn’t use, he would drink alcohol. Eventually his drug habit disappeared and it was replaced with a drinking habit.
Nevertheless, he was always there when we needed him. He was ever faithful to the work he would do for us, even if he didn’t feel well enough to do it. He was an integral part of our house. I couldn’t imagine him leaving, actually. What would we do for babysitting? Who would cook Wednesday’s meal?
But eventually, events came to a head. Bryan’s drinking was getting worse and it was affecting others in the house. Maybe it always did and I was just too blind to see it. I liked him so much and he was such a part of the house. But one day, after a binge that everyone noticed, I gave him a 30 day notice. I said that he had to change or he had to leave. Usually when I gave him an ultimatum, he stepped up to the plate and did as I asked. For a while, anyway.
This time he wouldn’t. Or couldn’t. I don’t know which. I know he doesn’t know. Thirty days went by and he still went out once a week to drink. At the thirty day mark he helped me fix my van (again). He said, “So what about that letter?” He was staying overnight at someone else’s house and I told him, “Let’s talk about it tomorrow.” He didn’t show up the next day. Or the next. I talked to him after a few days and said that he would have to move.
He and I wept. We just couldn’t handle it. When Diane saw him next, she wept as well. Bryan got his stuff and moved to a tent in someone’s backyard. It was so hard. Possibly the hardest thing I have ever done in my first 12 years of ministry. And I hope I’ll never have to do anything again so gut wrenching for as long as I live.
One of the strangest thing in this whole episode is my kid’s reaction. I took them aside and told them that Bryan was moving out for good. They just shrugged and went back to what they were doing. They seemed so callus, so hard hearted. Is this the kind of kids I was raising?
Especially Mercy. How could she be so accepting of this? Bryan helped raise her for her first 6 and a half years. She never knew the family without Bryan. And this was just normal, everyday stuff? Perhaps, I thought, it is because we have had so many people live with us for a day, a week, a month or a year and then leave. Maybe they just assumed that he would leave too. Still, I was wondering, did I raise unfeeling monsters?
Then, about two months after Bryan had left, he and she were playing at church. Bryan eventually moved into the church, he got out his anger against me and we have a more mature relationship. He asked for forgiveness for his drinking and he said that since he left the house, the compulsion to drink was just about gone. For the first time in his life, he can say no to both alcohol and drugs and not even feel a twinge. God has taken possession of him and won’t let go. Not that He ever would.
Anyway, Bryan and Mercy were playing ball for about an hour. I picked my family up, and Bryan stayed at the church. All of a sudden, it hit Mercy and she just bawled. I asked her what was wrong, but she couldn’t speak. But Diane and I knew. She wasn’t any kind of monster. It just took her a bit to process. Now she knew that Bryan was gone forever because he was staying and not coming with us as he had done her whole life.
To do the right thing isn’t easy. This is not to say that I’m a believer in “tough love”. Usually I find that “tough love” is just an excuse to lay down the hard line that the victim of such “love” can’t live up to. Tough love usually is a setup for failure.
But I remember Sarah at one point telling Abraham that he had to send Hagar away. Abraham didn’t want to do it, but he was torn between what was right for Hagar and what was right for Sarah. God commanded him to listen to his wife, and that God would help Hagar. At first, all went the very worst. Hagar and her son, Ishmael, were dying of thirst. But God, at this point of crisis, proved Himself reliable.
This is how I really see tough love working. Doing the hard thing, not because you want to but because God is telling you to. We can do it if we have God’s assurances that everything would turn out according to His plan. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. There will be tears and broken hearts. But if the pain turns to rejoicing and righteousness, it is all good in the end.