Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Most Important Ingredient

The main characteristic of a successful worker with the needy is endurance. For the most part, helping the needy is a much longer, more complicated process than most people would ever think necessary in our fast-paced, direct society. There aren’t twelve steps to escape homelessness nor five easy lessons to learn how to help people on the street. So if our friend isn’t making the progress we thought they should, we could show this frustration and our friend could feel blamed by us that they aren’t where we think they should be. If it seems like the need never ends, just get comfortable and enjoy the ride.

One thing that might help is to remember that the goal of our friendship is not to make our friend middle class, but to help them follow Jesus with whatever resources is available to us. So we are not here to create change in people’s lives, but to be available for when God needs someone He can use. So let’s not measure our success in ministry by how many people got off the street or who came to the Lord. Rather, we need to measure it by how much we see God using us in other people’s lives. Our ministry is as much a transformation of ourselves as well as others.

You've Got A Friend: Christian Ministry To The Homeless

What exactly is involved in being a friend to the homeless? Am I being asked to surrender all my possessions? Will I have to give up my privacy and security? No, not at all (at least, not much). Being a friend to the homeless isn’t all that different from having any other friend who might have more needs than most. Perhaps you won’t gain a lot of support from your friend. At the same time, however, you might be surprised at how insightful your friend is!

Christian ministry to the homeless:
is about building trust. We want to develop a positive, trusting relationship with our street friend, despite all the obstacles which hinder that trust.

involves learning. Our street friends have a different way of life and a different way of thinking about life. We need to be in a position to learn their thinking rather than criticize it. If we learn the way our street friend thinks, we will be in a better position to help them.

requires listening. The most important thing we can do is help our street friend know that they are important -- enough for us to hear their trials, difficulties and emotions.

is supportive. When our friends on the street are down, we want to encourage them. When they are in crisis, we want to give suggestions for solutions; many times they don’t know what to do.

makes connections. We want to let our friends on the street know about those who might help them. Some of them will give them survival support, while others will supply counsel or wisdom. We also need to keep in regular contact with our street friends, and go out to do things with them, such as eating together, doing something helpful together or just having fun.

provides opportunities. We need to provide opportunities for change or help so that our street friends know what the possibilities are and how they can take advantage of them.

offers mediation. We can offer to communicate between our street friend and others who might be trying to understand them, but with difficulty. If we have listened well, we might understand our street friend better than the social workers or doctors who have been assigned to them. Sometimes we have to explain what our street friend means, in a language the workers can understand.

is empowering. Our support and listening, in fact, all that we do, is geared toward helping our street friend do what they need to do themselves. We don’t want to be doing things for them, as if they were a child, but give them the opportunity to help themselves be who God wants them to be.

involves prayer. We must pray for our street friend regularly, allowing God to hear the needs and cries of one for whom no one else is praying.

The Christian minister to the homeless is not:

a mentor. To be a “mentor”, many people believe, is to assume that we are running our own lives perfectly and, thus, we are helping “the helpless” get their lives straightened out. We need to be humble, recognizing our own failings and our own position as a peer, not a leader.

a parent. We cannot be a replacement mother or father for our street friend. We are not there to command or to provide for them. We are there to support, not to be an authority.

a police officer. It is not our task to punish or judge our street friend if they do something self destructive or illegal. We should certainly encourage them not to go on a path of self destruction, but we want to be the agent of God’s grace, not judgment.

a housing supervisor. We are not to tell our street friend how to live, how to keep their house or who they let stay with them. We can, however, make suggestions, give our own opinions, and then pray, allowing God’s Spirit to speak to them.

a policy provider. We are not there to make rules for our street friend. But we may encourage them to establish their own rules that make sense to them.

a judge. If someone thinks differently than we do, it is not our job to determine what their relationship to God is. We allow God to speak to them and just encourage our friend to seek God.

an enabler. We do not want to provide the means for our street friend to do something against God or against those they know. If we provide money thoughtlessly or help our friend destroy themselves, then we are not being a minister, but a destructive agent, even if it feels that we are “helping” them.

Jesus. We cannot save our street friend, or determine the means by which they must be saved. Jesus is the only One who saves, and the Spirit is His representative to all people. We must allow the Spirit to do His work, while we provide support for what the Spirit is doing in our street friend’s life.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Tip #1: Don't Give Junk

What many do, when giving to the poor, is think, “What have I got that I can’t use? I’ll just give that to the poor.” Thus, giving to the needy ends up looking like a rummage sale. And you know how you go to a garage sale and a lot of the stuff you think to yourself, “Why did they ever think this would sell?” Frankly, there’s a lot of stuff that shouldn’t even be given away. Go to any organization and they will tell you about the laughable stuff people have “donated” probably because they didn’t have enough room in their garbage can.

We at Anawim have been given stale bread, a mildew-y mattress, socks and clothes with huge holes in them, a backpack with the bottom blown out of it, sexy used lingerie (THAT will keep the homeless warm this winter!), and a notebook for a class on small business management (complete with hand-written notes on each page!).
Look, I’m a dumpster diver, so I know about finding gems amidst what others might call junk. But I also know just junk when I see it. And when I receive junk, then I know that it means that the giver was just getting rid of their excess, but they weren’t concerned about who would receive it. Again, we need to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes—how would we feel if we were given stale bread or clothes with holes in them? Honestly, we would feel that we were only junk to the people who gave them.

Here is my suggestion: Reuse. That’s great. Don’t waste unless you have to. Great for the environment, etc. But when you give to the poor, be generous in your giving. Give the best you have to give.

Here’s the reasoning behind it. Jesus said that if we are giving to the poor, we are actually putting money into our heavenly savings account (Luke 12:33-34). So we are only going to receive in heaven that which we give. So unless we want to live in heaven with holey socks (not “holy”), then we had best be careful about our giving to the needy on earth.

Giving to the Poor Etiquette

Giving isn’t easy. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. Everyone has a number of social rules about giving. And when you cross social lines—such as class or cultural lines—then the situation is just plain uncomfortable. So many people prefer to give through organizations, so they don’t have to deal with people face to face. And for some people, who might end up insulting the people they are trying to help, that might be best.

But in most situations it is best to give to people face-to-face. Can you imagine, if you just got kicked out of your house and needed a friend to give you some money for a bus ticket to live with some family in the next town and they responded, “I just give to the local mission”? How comforting would that be? How much love would you feel?

As believers in Jesus, we are to love those in need. Check out the parable of the Good Samaritan, if you doubt. Thus, if we see people in need, our obligation is to love—to feel compassion for them and to try to meet their need. No one can scream at you, “Love them or else you’ll be punished!” Love just doesn’t work that way. Love is something we develop over time so we can feel the emotion, not just do the action. But in order to feel love, we first have to do love.

So this week we will discuss some tips to get started. They are basic etiquette to helping the needy face to face. It isn’t a step by step guide—sorry, but you’ve got to figure that out yourself. But there are some guidelines here so we can remember that this is an exercise in compassion and meeting needs, not just charity.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

How Jesus Christ Superstar Changed My Life

Jesus Christ Superstar (1970)
By Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice

I grew up in a house that didn’t talk about Jesus. When my friends asked me if I was Protestant or Catholic, I had no clue what they were talking about. My parents didn’t talk at all about religion in my early years, to my recollection. I suppose they might want to correct me on that, but I can’t remember a single thing they taught me about Jesus or God. It just wasn’t important.

But my mom did influence me in one way. In grade school, she took me to a neighbor’s house, put headphones on my head and played for me a portion of Jesus Christ Superstar, with the original vocals with Ian Gillian. That album has haunted me for the rest of my life. The vocals are so piercing and dramatic. Sometimes the music is simplistic, but this is what a grade school kid needed.

My parents purchased the two-record set and after I got my own record player…. Yeah, so I listened to records, so what? Does that show how old I am? Well, just wait until your children finds out that you actually liked Brittney Spears before she turned herself into the latest Michael Jackson! Anyway, where was I?.... After I got my own record player, I took the album to my room and it was never seen again. I played those records, all four sides, until the grooves ran so deep that you could rest a nickel in them. I had all the lyrics memorized by the time I was in high school and I would sing the songs through from “Heaven on Their Minds” to the climatic “Jesus Christ Superstar” and I would meditate silently on the crucifixion as my mind played through the final, agonizing instrumentals.

In my early years, this was the only gospel I knew, preparing me for the real Jesus, when I finally met him. And while it wasn’t very accurate with the written gospels, it was certainly written based on it. It helped me see that the church in general doesn’t always see Jesus with a clear vision. The song “Poor Jerusalem” introduced me to the basic paradox of Jesus’ teaching, that to live and to succeed, one must die. For Jesus, this was taken painfully literally, as was made plain in Pilate’s final words to Jesus:
“Don’t let me stop your great self-destruction—
Die, if you want to, you miserable martyr.
I wash my hands of your demolition—
Die, if you want to, you innocent puppet!”

In Jesus Christ Superstar, Pilate isn’t the unjust dupe of the priests as portrayed in the gospels. Rather, he is the only one who see what is actually going on—Jesus has set himself up, manipulating the Jewish and Roman justice systems in order to have himself crucified so that he might change the world. While this is only part of the truth, Tim Rice captures one of the basic insights of the gospels: the answer to the question “Who Crucified Jesus” is Jesus himself.

The Jesus portrayed in the musical is not altogether unlike the portrayal given Jesus by the evangelist Mark. Jesus is the suffering servant, unable to meet his own needs because he is too active serving others and doing God’s will. Jesus wears himself out healing mobs of people. He deals with dissention and open arguments among his disciples. The high priests are in open opposition against him. And all throughout no one understands Jesus’ purpose of his life. He is going to suffer and die. He won’t be conquering the Romans as Simon the Zealot wants him to. He won’t be living the normal life of a teacher, as Judas wants him to. And he won’t live to appreciate his fame as the other disciples want to do. This Jesus is all about his death, which no one seems to appreciate or understand.

Finally, it comes to the final night, the appointed time of Jesus’ death. The disciples have fallen asleep in a drunken stupor after the Last Supper, Judas had an open argument with him and left to betray him (with Jesus’ sarcastic approval) and even Jesus’ best friends—Peter, James and John—have forsaken him. Then comes the most heart-felt, heart-wrenching song of the suffering man, “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say).”

The song is not completely accurate with Jesus. It tries to express doubts of God in general that Jesus never had. But it does demonstrate one difference between Jesus and the trumphalistic Christian martyrs of later centuries—Jesus didn’t want to suffer this way. He didn’t want to die this death.
“I only want to say
If there is a way
Take this cup away from me
For I don’t want to taste its poison
Feel it burn me…”

This Jesus, as well as the Jesus of the synoptic gospels, understands the suffering that is in store for him, and he frankly doesn’t want it. The “glory set before him” is shadowed by human frailty and emotional weakness. He doubts that this is the right path to take:
“I have changed
I’m not as sure as when we started….
But if I die
See the saga through and do the things you ask of me…
I want to know my God…
Why I should die?
Would I be more noticed than I ever was before
Would the things I’ve said and done matter anymore?
If I die what will be my reward?...
Can you show me now that I will not be killed in vain?”

It just doesn’t seem as clear as it had in the past. Why give up the ministry, which seems so successful? Why not just live a normal life? Why bear all the suffering? Is it really worth it all? As to all humans, the future is clouded, and the promised blessings seem unsure. Will Jesus obtain everything that seemed so clear in the time of prayer?

But the faith of Jesus in this prayer is found not in bold statements of certainly, but in simple obedience, although regretted, although agonized through. Weber’s Jesus screams to God:
“Alright, I’ll die!
Just watch me die!
See how I die!”
And the music pounds, not with a gentle surrender into that dark night, but with a sorrowful, screaming, even regretful obedience to the One who knows better for all, even if we understand nothing. One can hear Jesus pounding the ground in terrible anger over the injustice against himself he is being asked to perform.

Finally, the music quiets as Jesus quits, exhausted. He reflects on his years of agony, that the crucifixion is only the climax of:
“Then I was inspired
Now I’m sad and tired.
After all, I’ve tried for three years
Seems like ninety…
Why then am I scared to finish
What I started?”

Perhaps the crucifixion isn’t an agony after all. Perhaps it is a release. It is a rest. All the years of sorrow and suffering and service are about to cease. And in this, Jesus fully surrenders to God:
“God, Thy will is hard
But You hold every card
I will drink Your cup of poison
Nail me to Your cross and break me
Bleed me, beat me, kill me…”

The anger is still there, but so is the surrender. And this is all that God expects

Again, this prayer doesn’t fully express Jesus’ thoughts before the cross. There is no twentieth century doubt of God’s existence. But it does express the regret that Jesus himself felt. And it ends with Jesus’ willing obedience, if reluctant. In four minutes we can experience the doubts and regrets and faith of Jesus in his all night prayer.

And the way I see it, this is not Jesus’ prayer at all. It is mine. It is expressing my surrender to the life of suffering God has required of me, of my family. Sometime I regret the all-nighters of prayer and worry. Sometimes I sorrow over the deaths of those dear to me. Sometimes I fear that the difficulties I put my family through will be required at my hand.

I am not as confident of being right as everyone thinks I am. Privately, I agonize and cry out to God, wondering why things are the way they are. Why won’t people just obey Him? Why do people turn to death every day? Why does a man have to surrender everything in order to offer an opportunity to salvation of others? Why does God’s offer of mercy require a willing sacrifice?

Just as in the musical prayer, however, there are no answers to the questions. We could give platitudes, but that doesn’t help anyone actually give up their lives to God’s purpose. Rather, it is simple faith and surrender.

It has been longer than three years for me. It has been ten, perhaps more depending on when you start counting. But I feel the thirty, the ninety years, just as Rice’s Jesus does. I agonize with him. Because perhaps this wasn’t precisely Jesus’ prayer. But it is mine. When I am agonizing over my ministry. When I want to just give up and live a normal life. When I am struggling to get out of bed so I can meet more people, and give what few words of comfort I have for them. When I have little for myself, then I pray with this artificial Jesus:
“Then, I was inspired
Now I’m sad and tired.
Listen, surly I’ve exceeded expectations…
Could You ask as much from any other man?”

And when I come full circle, offering my complaint, but still recognizing God’s sovereignty, God’s superior knowledge and love, even for me in my weakness, then I can offer myself to Him, even as Jesus himself offered himself for me. But this does not exhaust my anger at the injustice of being drained of all my energy for others and not having anything for myself. And so I cry in my mind the last line of Jesus’ prayer:
"Take me now, before I change my mind…”

Or perhaps, in my more gentle moments, I might reflect on Mother Teresa’s statement, reflecting on the same truth without being so testosterone-driven:
“God says that He would only give me as much as I can handle.
I wish He didn’t trust me so much.”

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Homeless Kids

Elle asked: "Are you working with homeless kids? Are there programs connected with you that are working with homeless kids?"

I'm not sure what you mean by "kids". If you mean youth (14-21) then there are a lot of homeless kids in Portland, and a great ministy working with them is Home PDX, run by Ken Loyd. I could get you his wife's phone number, if you like. Outside In, of course, has also got a great street youth work.

But if you're talking about young kids, under 14, those are few and far between. Families who are homeless either: get off the street really quickly or the kids are taken from the parents quickly by AFS. So young kids don't stay on the street very long, with, of course, the rare exception.

There was a famous example here in Portland of a father and his young daughter (10? 11?) who were discovered by the police living in Forest Park. He would provide for them and teach her through a set of encyclopedias and other school books he'd pick up. After the police found them, they made front page news for about a week. They were offered a lot of services. Then after two weeks, they disappeared again. I assume they went back to their former life. But this kind of example is pretty rare and if they were caught again, the daughter would be taken from her father because he refused to live in a house with electricity. (It is considered child abuse to have one's children live without electricity in Oregon).

God Comes Through Again

In Southeast Portland, the facility we rent is shared with a couple other churches, who also rent the building. Last week, a computer was stolen from one of the other congregations while we were in the building. Of course, because the homeless have such a reputation for being theives, it is assumed that it was one of our folks that did it, and we were asked to not meet in the building until they locked the section where the other church met.

I fumed, I raged (to myself and to a couple people in the house), I wrote many emails. It didn't help that I was really ill this last week with bronchitis. But the manager didn't budge. He didn't want us in. He insisted that he wasn't punishing us, and I know he was trying not to be unfair. But the fact is, if we didn't meet, then people would go hungry and some would not hear the word of God that was necessary for them. And why should the many be lacking because of the evil of one-- one who we do not know the identity.

Last Sunday, we met and I decided to preach about the sitution-- "How To Respond When Falsely Accused." But the most important thing we did was pray. Not that I didn't pray before, but we prayed as a congregation for the situation to get resolved.

It wasn't five minutes after the service ended that the owner of the building walked in. He is an old revivalist preacher and missionary to Russia who loves the work we're doing. I hadn't seen him in three months and he knew nothing about the situation I'd been struggling with all week. He came in innocently and asked first thing, "How is everything with the building?" So, hesitatingly, I told him. He said, "Oh, I'll talk to my son about that" and spent the next twenty minutes telling me about revivals from the 1880s to the present day.

A couple days later, his son, the manager, said we could meet in the building. We took extra precautions, but it was a great meeting. We talked about Revelation 3 and hypocrisy.