Monday, October 31, 2016


Last month, St. Johns Christian Church hosted a workshop to help those of us who have compassion for the homeless people we see around us but don't know how to help most effectively (you can watch that workshop in its entirety here).  There were dozens of takeaways that I could talk about right now, but the most fascinating and eye-opening moment came when the leader asked us, "What does a homeless person most need?"
Many of us said things like "food," "shelter," and "money."  The leader said that yes, those are all needs, but there is one need that is far above all others.  The thing a homeless person most needs is a support network.  He mentioned that the lack of a support network is the reason people become homeless, and the reason they stay homeless.
I mentioned this recently while I was teaching a class at a local drug and alcohol rehab center. Multiple hands went up immediately, and people began to share some incredible stories.  While these stories were wildly different from one another, almost every story had the same two elements:
1. I had no support from anybody
2. When I found this place, I was welcomed and accepted.  People talked to me as a person.
Friendship is powerful.  Support is powerful.  Support keeps people off of the streets.  Support helps people with crippling drug habits.  Support brings people hope.
I wonder how many times we've thought to give money or food to homeless people as a quick fix, when what is really needed is support.  Do we throw food and money toward the needy to "make the problem go away?"  Could we perhaps give a listening ear?
If I learned someone's name and talked with him or her whenever he or she was around, it could possibly be a great help.
People need to be seen as people, not as a nuisance.
Let us lend our support.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016


Behind anger tends to be fear.

As a pastor, I am often exposed to people's anger.  Often this anger is directed at me; other times, it's directed at another member of the congregation; sometimes it's toward another third party.  Whatever the case, I'm their pastor, and their problems are my problems.  As I walk through life with people, and as I live in their world, I experience the troubles, the anger, and the fear that they experience.
This usually takes a long time.

I know church leaders (very effective church leaders) who keep a tight schedule and whose visits are short and to the point.  I am not that kind of leader.  If somebody is angry, I do attempt to visit them quickly and address the anger.  However, I'm not just looking to diffuse a situation quickly.  I want the person to whom I'm speaking recognize the root of their anger.  Usually I find that behind their anger is something else.


When I listen to somebody who is angry with a significant other and I allow them to speak for some time, it becomes clear that there is some kind of fear behind the anger.  Fear of the relationship ending.  Fear that things aren't moving forward.  Fear that the relationship is stagnant.  Fear that the trauma the person experienced as a child when they heard their parents fighting is coming true in their own life.

When I speak to somebody who is angry about something I've said in a sermon, as I listen it becomes clear that this person is angry about what I haven't said.  "Why didn't you address abortion?"  (inner monologue: "Because it was a message about stewardship").  There's often a fear of something being talked about in the world that concerns this person--something that I didn't address in that week's sermon.
Fear dictates many of our reactions as humans.
Fear is not a bad emotion.  In fact, fear is life-saving at times.  Fear causes us to look both ways before we cross the street.  Fear causes us to duck under something or throw our hands up if we see someone with a gun.  Fear causes us to study hard when finals are approaching.  Fear causes us to use a walker or a cane when our legs are not working in the ways that they should.  Fear is a motivator, and it can be very effective.
Unfortunately, fear can also lead to uncritical thinking.  It can lead to unnecessary or unwarranted outbursts. 
Fear is what drives America to attack it's enemies with drone strikes which can and have caused the deaths of civilians. 
Fear causes people to demonize, vilify, and throw baseless accusations at another group of people simply for wanting a particular person in the White House. 
Fear causes people to put many who are mentally ill into prison instead of giving them the help and support that they need and deserve. 
Fear causes Christians who believe in a God who cared for the oppressed and the alien throughout the Old Testament (see Exodus 22:21, Exodus 23:9, Numbers 9:14, Jeremiah 29:10-14), and who was himself an alien (Matthew 2:13-18), to want to shut refugees out of the country.
We think that most of these examples are motivated by anger, but in actuality they are motivated by fear.  Fear of the unknown.  A desire for safety.  Fear of what could be.

The anger and pushiness expressed in many of these conversations seems to come from a person's fight-or-flight response.  (I'm no brain scientist, and this explanation is probably going to make some people cringe).  When a person is thinking critically, they use a different part of their brain than when they experience terror.  In moments of terror, people tend to act from the brain stem and/or the hypothalamus.  This part of the brain controls the instinct to flee or fight.  A caveman when facing a large animal and armed only with a stick will not have time to ponder the ethics of whether or not he should cause harm to the animal.  A modern person facing a man who is high on crystal meth and ready to attack does not have the time to reason with the man.  He needs to defend himself or flee.  The brain stem is useful from a survival perspective, and we are lucky to have it.

On the same token, if somebody is incredibly angry with one of us, and we try to reason with them, they may not be in the state of mind to reason with us.  It does not necessarily mean that they are crazy, or unreasonable, or stubborn.  It may simply mean that they are thinking more from the brain stem than other parts of the brain.  When I talk to people who are angry, I find that more often than not, the emotion behind that anger is fear.  When I allow someone to talk for around an hour without pushing back, I find that they are often afraid of something.  Once we've established "the problem behind the problem," the real conversation can begin.  They move from thinking from their brain stem to thinking with other parts of the brain.  If I were to spend the entire conversation berating them for their "stupid opinions," they would probably continue to think and act from the brain stem.

I recently had a conversation with a homeless man outside of our church building.  I was heading to the garage to check on something when I met this man.  I casually said to him, "How's it going?"
"How's it going?  I'm going to throw myself off of the St. Johns Bridge, that's how it's going."
As a pastor (and as a human with decency and a desire for people to continue living), I had a responsibility to talk further to him.  I also legally needed to report this conversation (which I did).  I couldn't simply say to the man, "Oh, well, I hope you get better."
I sat down next to him.  "Talk to me.  What's going on?"
"What's going on is I'm going to kill myself."
"Look, I love you and I can't let you do that.  Talk to me.  What's bringing you to this decision?"
"I'm going to kill myself. You can't talk me out of it.  I'm throwing myself off of the St. Johns Bridge."

This was going nowhere, so I tried something different.
"Do you have family here?"
"Not here, but yeah.  I lived with my mom, but she and the rest of my family don't want anything to do with me."
"Why not?"
"'Cause of the drugs.  I've been clean for a long time.  Haven't used crystal for a while."
"Great.  That's good."
"I mean, I used it three days ago, but that was just to try it.  I've been clean for a while."
"So you used it three days ago?"
"Yeah, and I shouldn't have, because it messes me up."
"It messes you up?"
"Yeah, man.  And I can't get my stupid bike tire changed.  I have this new tire, and I don't know how to change them, and it's too hard, so I'm going to throw myself off of the bridge."
"Can I help you change the tire, man?"
"You can try.  It won't work.  And I'm so done with trying to fix it that I'm going to kill myself."

I spent the next hour or so talking with him and changing a bike tire.  ("An hour changing a bike tire?"  Yeah, an hour.  It takes me a while.)  He began by telling me why everybody in his life was terrible.  Individually.  He told me about each individual person that he was connected with, and the reasons why he hated them.  I learned about his family and the problems they've had with him.  I learned about his life on the street, the fights he'd been in, and the trouble he had simply surviving.  Each day was an incredible amount of stress.  He didn't know where he would sleep, he didn't know how people would react to him, he didn't know if he would have anything to eat, or if he would have anyplace to use the bathroom.  These fears seemed to lead him to the outbursts that I encountered when I met him.

Over the course of the hour, the suicide threats became considerably less, until they disappeared entirely.  I asked if I could get him some help.  He wouldn't talk to the suicide hotline with me, but he did take a couple of phone numbers of people who could help him.  Throughout, I reminded him that I loved him, that his family loved him, and that there was hope beyond this moment.
The initial response, the anger, was brought on by his fear of not knowing what each day would bring.  As he was allowed to talk, his fight-or-flight instinct turned into a more manageable conversation.

Had I gone outside and reacted harshly with him, this young man would not have worked through any of these thoughts; he would not have received phone numbers; he would not have heard that he was loved.  Had I gone outside and reacted harshly, I would not have learned from him how difficult it is to live on the street.  This conversation benefitted both of us, and it began with a willingness to listen.

Anger tends to breed more anger.  Perhaps one of the things that this world desperately needs is people who will listen to an angry person, and allow them to move from a place of fight-or-flight thinking to the place where they can think critically.  Perhaps instead of reacting harshly or explosively when a friend lashes out at us, we can allow them the space to work through their emotions.

Listening is powerful.
Listening mends relationships.
Listening opens doors to further conversations.

For a better (though not perfect) explanation of the fight-or-flight instinct:

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Brown, Caffeinated Blood of Christ

The morning of 9/29/16, 9 AM

I came to the church this morning with a plan.  I showed up at 9:00, and had a Skype meeting at 9:30.  I went into my office to grab my Bible, and planned to go to the prayer room of our church for the 30 minutes before my meeting.  As I walked into the office, I looked outside the window, and as usual, a homeless person was sleeping in our alleyway.  There is almost always one or more homeless people in this alleyway at any given moment.  It has an overhang, and is surrounded by fences or walls, so it is pretty well shut off from everything around it.  In addition, there is an outlet in this alley, so people can charge their cell phones.
The compassionate side of me wants to let them stay.  After all, it is about as safe a place as they are going to find.  On the other hand, whenever people are in this alleyway, we end up with loads of garbage in the alley.  There are two gated areas which are often used as restrooms by some folks.  A lock on these gates is ineffective.  These gated areas have also become storage areas for some folks.  We find these areas filled with items, from bikes, to mattresses, to boxes full of knickknacks.  Most disturbingly, we have found used needles in this alleyway.  Not only is this unnerving, but it's terrifying when you consider that small children and families walk through this alley on a regular basis.
Still, my heart hurts for these folks, and I'd like them to have a safe space.  Compassion and the need for safety often battle inside of me as I consider the homeless who use this alley.  I have noticed lately that I often address the homeless folks outside of our building in one of two extreme fashions: either I will respond with kindness and compassion, or I will respond in a terse fashion ("You need to get all of this stuff out of here now").
This brings me to this morning.  A young man is sleeping in the alley.  There are blankets and a mattress that have been thrown away four times this week already and keep reappearing in the alley.  There is garbage surrounding the young man.  I have 30 minutes until my first meeting, and another meeting across town that follows this first meeting.  If I ignore this man and allow him to sleep, this alley will remain full of garbage, blankets, the mattress, and again, possibly needles.
If I'm lying, I'd like to say that my concern for the children who walk through this alley is what resulted in my response.  If I'm being truthful, I was annoyed that I had to deal with this on an already full work day.
I walked outside, woke the roughly 20 year old guy up, and told him to get the stuff out of the alley.  Bleary-eyed, he responded, "Oh, yeah, I mean, I'll make sure it's out."
"No, seriously, get it out.  Throw it away or take it with you, I don't care.  Just make sure it's gone."
"Yeah.  I'll do that."
There's a long pause as I walk back to the building.  I'm out of view of the young man at this point, but I can totally hear him say "Hey, do you know what time it is?"  I pretend not to hear him and go inside the building.  I don't have much time.  I have to pray before the day begins.  My morning devotional and prayer time is incredibly important.
I take my Bible up to the prayer room, turn on a lamp, and sit quietly in a chair.  For about three minutes, I can't think of anything else but this young man.  I have neither the ability or the desire to pray for anything at all.  I just keep thinking of this young man in the alley.  Not compassionately, though.  It's more annoyance at the interruption he has caused me.
After a few minutes, after I have centered myself and can focus on the Almighty, I think to myself, "God, speak to me this morning."
There are not many moments in which I sense immediate answers to my prayers, but in this case, my lack of compassion and Christ-like love for this young man became apparent.  I could not pray in the traditional sense, knowing that I had lambasted a young man for the crime of trying to sleep.
I poured two cups of coffee and brought them outside.  I offered him one, and apologized for my terseness five minutes prior.  He told me that his name was Tony, and that he had recently lost his job.  As we continued to talk for the next half hour, he told me about how he has had a hard time holding on to a job, and the difficulties he's had since leaving his mother's home.  We discussed his love of disc golf, and drank our coffee.
He asked when our church meets, and I asked him if he believed in God.  He said that he hadn't been to church in many years, but he believed that there was a God.
It was a simple conversation, but an important one.  It was a reminder for me that behind the mattress, and the blankets, and the garbage, and sometimes the needles, there is a person.  Each week at church, I commune with dozens of people at the table, remembering the body and blood of our Lord and Savior.  As I drink the shot glass of Welch's grape juice, I remember the ways in which Jesus has pulled together people of all backgrounds and all nationalities at the table.
Here, in the alley, among the garbage and cigarette butts, I drank the brown, caffeinated blood of Christ, and remembered that in Christ, I am one with this young man.