Church Under the Overpass (pt. 5 Grading on the Curve)

When I was in high school, a couple different times a teacher might give an assignment (or a test) that the majority of the class botched.  When this happened, the teacher presumed it was a sign that he/she failed to instruct the class properly on the assignment/test, and this would explain why so many in the class did not get a passing grade.  One of the ways this was handled was to grade the class on a curve, which had the effect of giving everyone (or most of us, anyway) a passing grade.

In this series, I still want us to think biblically, but I have introduced the metaphorical notion of grading the churches depicted in Yankoski’s book, Under The Overpass, and thus reflect on the churches we attend likewise.  We started this series noting that Yankoski sensed the call on his life to pursue this adventure while in the worship assembly – at church.  Then we looked at a handful of churches that, if we hold a Matthew-25 plumb-line next to them, totally fail.  After that, I offered a couple of posts (or a split post) depicting some humble individuals who take on the Matthew-25 style ministry from the heart and thus I metaphorically suggest they are like after school tutorials.

In this post, I want to cover the middle ground.  I will not reproduce the story Yankoski tells about standing in line all day at an outreach church hoping to get a bed for the night and discovering they ran out at the end of many long hours waiting.  This was the result of an obvious dilemma; the church ran out of resources before they ran out of needy people.  It just happens, sometimes.  I am not excusing it, but I can plainly see that it can happen alright.  This was particularly difficult for Yankoski and his friend because they realized after it was too late, that if they had not gambled on the church’s charity, they would have been able to find a better spot to spend the night.  But because they wasted the whole day in line, they were stuck with the sorriest deal: no place to lay their heads.  (It might be good to reproduce that story, actually, because most casual readers have no idea about these dilemmas.  And with no insight into them, then tales of a homeless person turning down an offer of charity might seem crass – like as if they really want to live this way.  But if you know that the homeless often are forced to gamble like this by “the system”, then you can see why they view life as a giant crap shoot and then don’t invest too carefully in their own future.)

The story I reproduce in this post has some similarities with the one I reference in the previous paragraph.  I think that will be clear.  But it is a different story.  I want to point it out because we really must acknowledge that the church in this story is providing a real service to the poor.  But it manages to be somewhat of a drudgery.  I think the poor are getting the crumbs from the master’s table rather than joining the feast at the King’s Table.  This is sad.  I think the church, of all people, can do better than this.  I don’t want to kick this ministry in the teeth, but there is definitely room for improvement here.  Thus, when grading on the curve, this church gets a passing grade, but perhaps the teacher is really “being nice”.  I will be happy to discuss ways to improve on it in the comments upon request.

Let us join Yankoski again, this time in the chapter entitled Washington D.C, under the heading “Most Important Meal Of The Day” starting on page 67:

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, especially when you didn’t eat the night before.

In D.C., the only place we found to get breakfast on Sundays was at an Episcopal church in the heart of the city.  The old church’s oak pews were at least softer than concrete and seemed almost welcoming after a night on the sidewalk.

Each morning, a female priest spoke briefly on the passage of the day while more than a hundred homeless men and women sat scattered through the sanctuary, enduring the mandatory service.  Some rocked slowly back and forth.  Others talked to themselves or coughed incessantly.  Some slept quietly, others snored loudly.  Some escaped to the sounds of heavy metal in their headphones.  Some actually listened, and you’d hear an occasional “amen” ringing out through the expansive sanctuary, usually well after the priest had begun her next sentence.

One Sunday, the priest offered communion, and about forty of us ragged souls walked up and kneeled down around the pulpit.

I knelt next to a huge man who had been seated in front of me.  His broad shoulders and large, rough hands told of a lifetime of hard labor.  The wrinkles in his weathered face were thrown into dark relief by the dirt that had collected in them.  His long graying hair and beard were stained and thick with debris.

As I knelt beside him, he started coughing violently, a thick gurgle rising from his lungs between convulsions.  He braced himself against the floor with both hands until he could regain his composure, then he wiped  his eyes, shifted back to a kneeling position, and waited.

The priest moved quietly around the circle, leaning down to each person.  “This is the body of Christ, which was broken for you,” she said, looking each in the eye.  Then she came around again with the cup.  “This is the blood of Christ, which was shed for you.”  The white of her cloak shone brilliantly against our filth.

By the time she brought the cup to the big guy next to me, he was back on his hands again, struggling for breath.  She stopped directly in front of him and waited for him to rise.  When he could look up at her, she held the shining silver cup as he put it to his lips.  I heard him swallow, and as he handed the cup back to the priest, two drops of wine ran down his mustache and disappeared into his beard.

The priest wiped the cup where he had received and stepped in front of me.  “This is the blood of Christ…”

I’d never taken communion on an empty stomach before.  The cup burns when you’re hungry.  It goes deeper, quicker, when there’s nothing to stop it.

The priest moved on, and with a deep sigh, the big man next to me crossed his chest and pushed himself to his feet.  I rose, too, and before we walked back to our seats, we caught each other’s gaze and nodded.

– – –

My call number that morning was 124, which meant I’d be the 124th person to be served breakfast that day.  A long wait, but we were hungry.  Sam was number 125.

He dropped into the pew behind me and we both began journaling amidst the homeless buzz of the sanctuary.

Ten minutes passed.

Twenty-five.

An hour later, number 123 was called.  My big communion partner rose to walk forward.  Then Sam and I got called and we walked forward, too, to give our names and social security numbers to the church worker at the door.

At the next number, 126, we heard a yelp and laughter from the back of the church.  Looking back, we saw a tall man, deeply bent with age, limping hastily down the center aisle.  He only wore one shoe, which seemed to be on his good foot.

It was Josh, a guy we’d met just before the service.  When Josh reached the man collecting names and numbers, he paused.

“Name and social security number?” the monitor asked.

Josh replied, or seemed to, but what he actually delivered was an incomprehensible torrent of words in no particular order.  The monitor simply shrugged and drew a line through the box next to Josh’s number.

Then Josh spotted Sam and me.  “Hey!” he called out excitedly.

“Hey, Josh!”  Sam and I both said, turning to greet him.  Josh was clearly delighted that we remembered him.  Sam asked how he was doing.

“Well…,” Josh said thinking for a moment, then he launched into a five-minute volley of more garble.  Whatever he was saying took so much effort that a lot of spit came flying out at the same time.  Along with the awful stench of his breath.

We kept what distance we could, while doing our best to listen.  When Josh finally stopped, I gave him a huge smile and said with as much enthusiasm as possible, “That’s amazing!”

By now the line had snaked closer to the kitchen and we could smell breakfast.  But then we heard disheartening news.  “Gentlemen,” a deep voice announced, “we’re out of orange juice and biscuits this morning.”

Of course, eating for free at a mission or a church means you aren’t really in a position to complain.  But, man, it was a bummer to walk into the dining room and see others with two glasses of orange juice and three biscuits!  The leftovers for us were green scrambled eggs, grits, and lukewarm water.  Still, I was so hungry that even the grits looked superb.

Or at least they did until the four of us–Josh, the big guy, Sam and I–sat down at the same table, and Josh let loose with another muddled diatribe aimed at the big guy.  With Josh to my right, and the big guy across the small table one seat to the left, the directions of Josh’s torrent of words and spittle was directly over my breakfast.

I laid down my fork in disgust.  First no biscuits or orange juice.  Now, the fine mist of Josh’s spit piled up on my arms, my tray, and my grits.

Sam looked on amused while I tried to shield my food from further damage.  When Josh finally ran out of gas, I wiped off both arms with a sigh, looked at Josh, and said, “Is that so?”  I was no longer in a mood for manufactured enthusiasm.

Nothing left to do, I figured, but grab my fork and dig in.  And I did.

As Sam and I were leaving, one of the kitchen crew was scrubbing tables with a steaming rag that smelled strongly of bleach.  I noticed another server about to empty a plate with two biscuits on it into the trash.

“Hold it!” I yelled, pointing to the biscuits.  “I’ll take those!”

“You sure?” she said as I walked over.  “They’re half-eaten.”

“Yep.  Couldn’t be happier,” I said with a smile, grabbing both of them and shoving one into my mouth.  On the way out the door, I gave her a muffled thanks over my shoulder.

A hungry man can be a fast learner.  When you come to a table with nothing but need, you are grateful for things you might have pushed aside before.  And when you kneel, hungry and broken at His table, you receive a grace from Him you might, at some other time, have completely missed.

You’ll know this grace when you take it.  It goes deeper, quicker, and it burns all the way down.

Church Under The Overpass (4b TUTORIALS)

Getting back to our series of tutorials… Yankoski has a couple more tutors to introduce to us.  In the chapter entitled “San Francisco”, under the heading “The Other Jesus Guy”, beginning on page 138, Yankoski tells us this story:

The four-inch gash across Link’s forehead was evidence of Marco’s displeasure. ….

The day before, Marco had unleashed more violence, this time beating Link with a three-foot lead pipe.  Even though Link was more than twice Marco’s size, he had suffered terribly while other park people watched.  This end of Golden Gate Park was Marco’s domain.  No one questioned his “justice,” not even Link.

Tonight, Sam and I were back in the park, sitting in a circle that included both men.  What brought the group together this night was Link’s bottle of whiskey, which was making the rounds Link was already well under the influence, but when the whiskey came by he was ready for more.

Lifting the bottle, he said somberly, “This is for my brother who died two days ago when somebody stabbed him in the stomach.”

He poured out a few drops on the concrete, then tilted his head back and took a long drink.  Everyone in the circle nodded silently.  Toasting street family members who had died was an important drinking ritual here.

When he put the bottle down, Link’s face was streaming with tears.  He offered the bottle to us, but we declined.  Earlier we had passed on an offer of a bong.  Even in his blurry state, Link seemed to notice.

“Do you know th’ other Jesus guy?” he asked.

“Who, him?” I replied, pointing to Sam.

“No, the other Jesus guy!?”

“What other Jesus guy?” I asked.  Maybe this conversation would take his mind off of his brother.

“You know, th’ other guy who doesn’ drink or get high.”  Link was slurring.  “He comes roun’ here.  Brings pizza, hamburgers …”

Another guy in the circle piped in.  “That guy’s awesome!”

We said we hadn’t met him.  “But I’d sure love to,” Sam said.  “When does he usually come around?

“How should I know?”  Link mumbled, then he got up and stumbled away.

– – –

The next evening, just before Sam and I left the park to panhandle, the “other Jesus guy” arrived.  We saw him parking a small car across the street.  When he called out to a few park people, they cheered and shuffled over, returning with twelve boxes of pizza.  While a group gathered to chow down, “the other Jesus guy” joined us.

“I’m George,” he said.  “Are you guys new around here?  I don’t remember seeing you before.”

“Yeah,” Sam said, “We’re just sort of passing through.”

“We came in on the Greyhound about two weeks ago from Portland, but we were in the Tenderloin for a while,” I added.

“Wow!” George said, eyebrows raised.  “Tough place!”

Later, when the pizza was gone and the three of us were walking the empty boxes to a dumpster, we had a chance to talk more.  I asked George why he came to the park.

“What do you mean?”  George looked confused.

“The pizza, hanging out down here, being nice to the people no one else cares about.  All of it.  Why?”

“I figure they’re hungry, and hey, everybody likes pizza, right? said George.  But he looked uncomfortable with the question.

“That’s the easy answer,” said Sam.  “What’s the real reason?”

“Okay,” George said, realizing we were serious.  “You really want to know?  I do this because my faith tells me to.  The Bible clearly says, if you see someone hungry, feed them; if you see someone naked, clothe them.  Those words weren’t written for us to make books and sermons about.  They’re written so people don’t go hungry and naked.  And they require action from all followers of Christ, not just the rescue missions.  Anyway, that’s how I see it.  So I’m trying to live my life that way and be pleasing to Jesus.”

“Whew!” I said, inspired.

“Do you know what they call you around here?” Sam asked.  “The Jesus Guy.”

“Highest compliment I could ever receive,” George said with a big smile.  “But you know what?  I’ve never once come down here and preached.  At least not in the typical fashion–you know, with yelling and Bible thumping.”

Sam and I took a few minutes to tell George about ourselves, and that we shared his faith.  We thanked him for his powerful witness for Christ in the park.

“Isn’t it amazing,” I said, “that when we live as we’re called and do what we’re commanded, the gospel does get preached–one way or another?”

“I think so,” said George.  He was scanning the park.  There were the usual strollers and losers and drunks and punks, the usual American riffraff.  But George was looking the place over like he owned it, like it was his own backyard.  “Live as you’re called, and the good news will go forth.  I like that.”

“Remember that the poor are people with names,” writes Bryant Myers, author of Walking with the Poor. “[They are] people with whom and among whom God has been working before we even knew they were there.”

For Sam and me, George was proof that God was at work in Golden Gate Park.  The rest of the evening, instead of feeling oppressed by the violence, cursing, and drunkenness all around us, we felt the presence of Christ.  One of His disciples was actually invading this brutal corner of the world with the good news.  We prayed that one day soon Link and Marco and the others would open up and take it in.

 

_____________________________________

 

We meet our final tutor in the chapter entitled San Diego under the heading “Freedom Rings” on page 201.  In this story, Yankoski reveals a homeless man showing hospitality as follows:

One evening Doug introduced us to Rings, a kindhearted old chain smoker who lived in the cab of his pickup truck.  Doug wanted to show off his other Christian friend.  “Rings is the best Christian man in the world,” he said proudly.

When Rings heard that we, too, were believers, he was excited.

“You guys are an answer to my prayers,” he said.  “Do you know that?”

“How?” Sam asked.

“I’ve been told by God to feed the homeless in this town,” he said through a cloud of smoke.  “Heck, I’m homeless and He feeds me, so I feed others.  But I’m getting too old and tired.  I needed some help, so I prayed, and along came you two!”

When Rings got too excited, his chest would start rattling, then he’d roll into a round of deep coughing.  If the bout went on long enough, he’d start cursing under his breath.

“Pretty amazing how God works,” I said, while he recovered.  Sam and I were happy to meet Rings, too.  With the exception of Doug, we hadn’t met many Christians on the streets recently.

Over the next minutes, Rings told us about his personal feeding program and invited us to help him out the next day.  We said yes, and agreed to meet at 6:30 A.M. for coffee.

As Rings left to sleep in his truck, a tear rolled down Doug’s cheek.  “That man gives me hope,” Doug said, wiping his cheek with his dirty hand.  “He’s dry.  He used to be a heavier drinker than me but he’s dry now.  Jesus sobered him up, just like I want Him to sober me up.”

Doug walked away mumbling a prayer.  Sam and I headed for the cliffs for the night.

– – –

The next morning, Rings didn’t arrive until almost 7:30.  But we didn’t mind.  Waking up in a truck cab every morning at his age was probably taking its toll.  So we waited.

Rings couldn’t even talk until he had downed two cups of coffee and smoked his way through three cigarettes.  We waited some more.

Finally, after an intense bout of coughing, Rings looked up with a twinkle in his eye.

“Well, boys,” he said.  “Like I told you, you’re the answer to my prayers.  I got a check yesterday, and my coolers are all empty in the back of my truck.  When we finish our coffee, we’ll go to the store and buy enough food to cook up a feast.  The folks down at the park will be speechless!”

This last thought gave him so much obvious pleasure, he started to laugh, and that led to more coughing, and eventually to more cursing.

I was impressed that a guy living in a truck cab would consistently give his entire (measly) government check to feed others in similar straits.  Most homeless  people we’d met blew their checks on booze and drugs within a couple days.

I gave him time to regain his composure.  “Rings, who are you, really?”  I asked.

I’m just a man,” Rings said with a wink.  “Jesus saved me.  Been a trucker, a carnie, a door-to-door salesman, a husband, a father.  I’ve been in jail, been an addict, been a drunk.  Now I follow Christ.  All that I have is His.  If He can save me, He can save anybody.”

We asked him to tell us more, but Rings had other plans.  “It’s been a crazy road, that’s for sure,” he said.  “But come on–the road up ahead is always better than the road behind.  Let’s get started.”

With that, he finished a last swallow of coffee and jumped up from the table. 

We walked out to his battered pickup, piled in, and drove off to a nearby supermarket.  There we bought a hundred dollars worth of eggs, milk, orange juice, pancake mix, steak, tortillas, and butter.  Then we headed for the beach.

– – –

Jesus fed thousands with a boy’s lunch.  What a sight that must have been!

Rings fed twenty or so that day out of the back of his truck.  And what a sight that was, too.  Hungry, forgotten people stood around in a circle in the foggy morning air watching an old man hunched over his propane stove cooking and smoking, cooking and smoking.  I don’t think an eye ever left the chef’s hands as he worked.

A few cigarette ashes floated down on the food.  “A little seasoning,” Rings pronounced.  “That’s all, a little seasoning.”  I looked at Sam and we both shrugged.  After surviving for a couple weeks on corn tortillas and peanut butter, Rings’ culinary creation smelled to us like a million dollars.

When the tailgate feast was ready, and the first man stepped up to take his plate, Rings had a speech ready.

“Do you know why I do this?” he asked his attentive audience.  “I do this because Christ pulled me out of the mess I was in.  Then He told me to do this.  You want to be free?  This is freedom!  Enjoy!”

And breakfast was served.

I was in Prison and you visited Me

We interrupt this series to bring Lucio before God in prayer! Won’t you please visit Loiter Larry’s post and leave a prayer for Lucio. You must leave the prayer with me on my blog since Larry has disabled comments. But I think this will be an encouragement to Larry and hopefully to Lucio at some point too. And I know it is to me.

Loiter Larry

My heart breaks for Lucio.  I don’t really know his story.  I know what they said in the papers and on TV.  “A homeless man was arrested on charges of attempted kidnapping.”  The face under the headline was familiar.  That’s my friend.  I know him.  I pray for him every day.

I already believe he is addicted to street drugs.  I have seen him when he was high.  He could not remember me when he was high.  But I prayed for him.  I could be wrong, but I really think he is a psych patient – probably self-medicating while drifting on the streets.

So I went to the jail and visited him.  I did not ask.  I did not ask any questions.  Well, I asked one.  But I did not ask if he did it.  I did not ask what he did.  I did not ask why.  I feel terrible…

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Church Under The Overpass (4a-TUTORIALS)

In the final analysis, I don’t feel qualified to actually grade churches the way a school teacher evaluates a student’s academic performance with A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s, and F’s, but it seems clear to me, based on Yankoski’s accounts, that the churches featured in the previous post all failed miserably.  I can say this much, IF I were Drew, or the security guards at the TV-show church, and I recognized my church on the pages of Yankoski’s book, AND (assuming I was familiar with Matt. 25 as well) I really thought about the words of Jesus, THEN I would see the need to repent OR face eternal destruction.  Like Yankoski said, he and his friend, Sam, “made it easy for them”, and “this is not complicated stuff”.

As I continue reproducing Yankoski’s account of his interactions with various churches, let us hold to that grading metaphor a little longer.  If these churches represent failing grades, then perhaps as disciples (“disciple” means “student”, btw), these churches need some after-school tutoring.  With that idea in mind, I now highlight passages from Yankoski’s book that tell of unlikely individuals (some from among the ranks of the homeless themselves) who step up in their own broken way, empowered by their own steam and desire to do good, and demonstrate both thinking and service “outside the box” so to speak.  Perhaps, if yours is one of these failing churches, you can learn from this extracurricular instruction, and let God “out of the box” you currently imagine him trapped in.

Our first tutoring session appears in the Portland chapter under the heading, “Worship Under A Bridge” and going under the next heading just after it “Sugar Man’s Gospel“.  We catch these stories starting on page 99:

About a week later, a drop of water fell from high above and smacked me on the forehead.  When I opened my eyes and looked up, the evening stars had given way to heavy clouds.  Portland’s skyline painted their undersides in a pale amber.

Another drop of water hit the wood next to me with a louder slap.  Then another.  And another.

Sam and I were stretched out on a dock at the far edge of a marina in the Willamette River.  Suddenly I heard the rush of rain advancing toward us across the river, and as it drew nearer, drowning out the sound of traffic on the freeway high overhead.

“Sam!” I yelled, scrambling out of my sleeping bag and hurrying to collect my stuff.  “Sam!” I yelled again, “We gotta go!  Now!”

Sam slowly stirred, but as soon as he heard the rain approaching, he hit high gear.  In seconds, we had our packs on and were running towards the cover of the Hawthorne Bridge a couple hundred yards away.  Despite our best efforts, the rain overtook us.

By the time we trudged under the bridge, we found it crowded with homeless men and women huddled in cardboard boxes.  They sneezed and coughed.  When we didn’t see anyone we recognized, Sam and I decided to keep going down river.  We finally found a dry spot under a flight of stairs.

We crawled under the stairs and spread out our bags.  As long as the wind didn’t blow too hard we figured we could stay dry.

Just as I was drifting off, Sam jolted up and announced, “We need to go back under the bridge, bro!”

“What’s up?”

“I just had a rat two inches from my face!  I woke up and it was looking at me!”

“Really” I asked, amused.  “A rat right there in front of you?”

“Yeah!  It was flippin’ huge!  I say we go back to the bridge.”  Sam was not in a mood to negotiate, and I was too exhausted to argue.  Once again, we gathered our belongings and headed for the bridge.  Fortunately, by then the rain was slacking.

As we reached the bridge, campers were leaving in droves, some jumping around to try to warm up.  We plunked down our stuff near three guys who were staying, and one of them asked, “What kind of guitars do you guys play?”

“Yamaha,” I said.  “Simple but good.”

I opened the tattered case, which was held together with duct tape and staples.  The guitar itself was scratched and covered in grime.  The strings had taken on an odd, thick sound, I think from the dirt that had worked its way into the windings.  I handed over the instrument, and the guy began to play.

“What’s your name, man?” I asked.

“Brian,” he said, stopping for a moment to shake my hand.  “Good to meet you.”

“Likewise,” I said.  In the background, one of his friends was trying to wrap himself more tightly in cardboard.  The other was packing a colorful glass pipe with marijuana.  After about five minutes, the guitarist handed my instrument back to me.

“What music do you play, bro?”  he asked.

“Actually we only play worship music,” I said.

“Huh? said Brian.  “You mean like Jesus stuff?”

“Yep,” replied Sam.

The guy with the dope let out a laugh and lit up, inhaling deeply and staring at me through the smoke.  I thought I’d try to make friends anyway.

“I’m Mike, man” I said, extending my hand in his direction.

“Slant,” he said, doing the same.  “Good to meet you.”

“Well, let’s hear something,” Brian said, encouragingly.

Sam and I laughed.  “We’re honestly not very good.  We usually just mess around.”

“That’s okay.  I’m no good either,” Brian said.

Sam grabbed his guitar.  As we tuned up, Slant inhaled deeply again, and held his breath for a long time.  We started to play the Jars of Clay’s song “Worlds Apart.”

We sounded terrible, and I broke a string in the middle of it, but Brian didn’t notice.  He closed his eyes and tapped his foot to the music.  We finished with a final strum, letting the music fade away into the sounds of rain and the river.

“That’s amazing,” Brian said, is eyes still closed.  He took the bong from Slant and inhaled deeply.  When he offered the pipe to Sam, Sam declined.  “No thanks.  We don’t smoke.”

Brian’s eyes opened.  “You guys don’t smoke?  And you only play Jesus music?”

“Yep,” we said, nodding.

“Huh…,” mused Brian.  He thought a while, pulling back the pipe to get a better look at it.  Then he handed it back to Slant.

“Hey, can you teach me to play that Jesus song?” he asked.

-Sugar Man’s Gospel page 102:

Portland was the best city for panhandling.  On some weekend nights we pulled in more than we needed for the entire week.  Sam and I found we could survive on three dollars per day by eating at the rescue missions and riding the free trains around downtown.  On busy evenings we pulled in as much as forty dollars, and put excess funds toward Greyhound tickets to our next city.

But after we had saved enough for bus fare, we struggled for ideas of what to do with the rest.  We ended up deciding to use it to buy food that would help us build friendships among the other street people.  Friends are good to have, especially on the streets.

One sunny day we walked into the dusty park under the west end of the Burnside Bridge carrying five extra burritos from a nearby Mexican restaurant.  We started talking to Bruno and Theresa, a young homeless couple we had met a few days before outside a pizza shop that threw out leftovers every night just before closing.

We pulled out burritos for ourselves and gave them both burritos as well.  They were amazed that we had bought extra with the intention of sharing.  Their excited yells drew over another guy, who gladly accepted and quickly devoured a burrito, and left.  About five minutes later, he came back and tossed a small zip lock bag at our feet.  The bag contained two tightly packed nuggets of marijuana.

“I take care of those who take care of me,” he said.

“Bro, thank you,” said Sam, “but we don’t smoke.”  He handed the bag back.

The guy was dumfounded.  “Ah, well, that’s cool,” he said finally.  “Thanks for the burrito.”

Just then, a ragged cheer went up as a bearded guy wearing a floppy canvas hat and a bright tie-dyed shirt skated into the park.  He was singing loudly and balancing a large cooler on the front of an old, beat-up dolly.  Poking out of his ragged shorts were unnaturally skinny legs attached to clown-sized shoes.

He stopped in a shady area near the center of the park, opened his ice chest with a wave, and proclaimed, “Open for business!”

“That’s Sugar Man,” said Bruno, disinterestedly.  “He knows everybody.”

People wandered over to rummage around in the ice and pull out cold sodas, placing crumpled dollar bills into Sugar Man’s hand.  He was selling twenty-five-cent soft drinks for a dollar.  Not a bad business.

He stood there by his dolly and ice chest in the center of everything, yelling hellos and pushing his goods for abut ten minutes.  When business slowed, he convinced a woman lying under a nearby tree to come and watch his ice chest so he could visit.

Sugar Man began wandering around the park talking to different groups, spreading cheer wherever he went.  It was amazing to see so much life come from such a small, thin man.  Everyone seemed to know him and appreciate him.

After about fifteen minutes, Sugar Man made it around to us.  Bruno and Theresa introduced him and he sat down, eager to get to know someone new.  We offered a burrito, but he declined.  “Too many Coca-Colas,” he said with a wink over his shoulder to the woman standing by his cooler.  His laugh revealed badly decaying teeth.

“Of course,” he continued, “I’ve done more drugs than you can name.  But since we’re talking about names and times, and lives and rhymes, who are you and where’d you from come?”

I found Sugar Man absolutely fascinating.  His sentences were as colorful as his shirt, the words twisted together, lyrical and a little crazy.  Listening to him felt like being stuck in an odd dream during an afternoon nap–I felt like he should makes sense, but I just couldn’t imagine how.  He jumped from topic to topic, connecting freedom and Hollywood, the nearby river with the president.  Suddenly he landed back on the subject of the burrito.

“Hmmm,” he sat thinking.  When he pulled on his scarce beard, the skin on his face sagged.

“What’s up?” I asked as the uncharacteristic silence stretched on.

“Why did you offer me a burrito?  I don’t know you, you don’t know me.  Why, I wonder?”

“Thought you might be hungry,” I said.

“Naw!  That isn’t it,” he said.  “Well maybe part of it, but you weren’t selling me a burrito.  You were giving me a burrito.  These people are thirsty.”  With both hands, he made a sweeping motion around the dusty expanse.  “That’s why I sell sodas here.  Because they’re thirsty.  But you knew I was hungry and you offered to give me food.  Why?”

“Well…” I hesitated.

“You’re Christians aren’t you!”  Sugar Man suddenly exclaimed.  Eyes wide, he pulled the floppy edges of his hat down around his ears and leaned forward.  “Aren’t you?”

Sam and I nodded.

Sugar Man let out a whoop, stood up, spun around once, and sat back down.  “So tell me about your journey,” he said, taking off his hat, seemingly settling in for a long story.

Sam and I looked at each other a little bewildered.  No one from the streets had ever asked us that.  But over the next few minutes Sam and I explained where we had come from, how we had become Christians, and then described in general terms that we felt called to travel on the streets for a while.

“That’s good, that’s really good.  These streets are rough.  They take their toll on you…”  He trailed off, his mind drifting.

“What’s your story, Sugar Man?” Sam asked.  But Sugar Man just stared blankly into space.

Suddenly he leapt up and began pacing back and forth, really worked up about something, breathing hard.  “You know what my story is?” he yelled.  “It is the story of David and Goliath!”

Sugar Man then proceeded to act out the biblical account for us.  Every moment was filled with so much energy and drama that others wandered over to witness the one-man show.  After ten intense minutes in which Sugar Man picked up and threw stones, enacted cutting off Goliath’s head with a stick, and wept face down over his failure as king, he stood to address his audience.  Looking every listening man and woman in the eye, Sugar Man said, “And the moral of the story, kids, is that David had to learn to trust God.  So do all of you.”

With that, he pointed to those watching, took a bow to the loud applause, and came back to sit down again with our group.

“You guys are my brothers in Christ,” he said.  “I know it.  The Bible tells me to love my neighbor as myself.  Not even my brother, but simply my neighbor.  You share more with a brother than simply with a neighbor and I’m supposed to love a neighbor more than myself.  So, brothers, those I love more than my neighbors, more than myself in fact, what do you need?  Anything I have is yours because you call Christ Lord same as I do.  You need a car?  I’ve got one.  It’s yours.  You need cash?  I’ll give you everything I’ve got.  Place to stay?  We’ll work that out.  So tell me, how can I serve you?”

While Sugar Man talked, Bruno had been packing a large glass pipe with marijuana.  When he was satisfied, he and Theresa lit up.  Bruno took a long pull and handed it to the person seated next to Sugar Man.  Just as Sugar Man finished asking how he could serve us, he got the pipe, smoked it, and offered it to us.  We both shook our heads, causing everyone to pause.

Sugar Man let out an exasperated sigh and filled the air with thick smoke.  “You guys don’t smoke?”

“Nope,” I said.

“You guys do any drugs?”

“Nope.”

“Amazing,” he said, shaking his head and chuckling.  “Amazing.”  Then he reached for the pipe, took another enormous pull, and sat back.  His eyes glazed over.

Sitting there with Sugar Man, I felt my carefully established definitions of a Christian crack and expand.  Here was an admitted addict and user openly proclaiming Christ in his community and asking how he could serve us.

What do you do when a good tree bears bad fruit or a bad tree bears good fruit?  Look harder.

What’s your definition of a Christian?  Is it broad enough to encompass the drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, and broken people of the world?  Jesus said that he came to heal the sick.  Drug addicts are messed up just the same as liars are messed up, just the same as all humans are messed up.  We all need Jesus.  We all struggle with personal ways in which sin plays itself out in our lives.

What’s worse? To not do dope or to not love your brother?  Why do we kick drug users out of the church while quietly ignoring those who aren’t dealing with other, equally destructive sins?  Why do we reject the loving, self-sacrificing, giving, encouraging, Jesus-pursuing drug addict but recruit the clean, self-interested, gossiping, loveless churchgoer?

Which one do you suppose Jesus would rather share a burrito with under a bridge?

Church Under The Overpass (pt. 3)

In keeping with the unifying theme for this series of posts, I am reproducing passages from Yankoski’s book, Under The Overpass, and looking at his interaction with the church specifically.  But as part of that process, I am asking you, my readers, to hold in your mind the Judgment scene Jesus paints in Matthew 25:31-46.  This, being a Judgment scene, calls for us to weigh the treatment of the poor in the balance as the deciding factor for Judgment.  In a day-n-age when Christians are trying so hard to be “non-judgmental”, this might be an uncomfortable exercise, but so is loving the poor.

In the passages I have chosen today, Yankoski depicts church experiences we might term “negative”.  For whatever reasons, the church is confronted by Yankoski’s version of undercover Jesus (which keeps with Matthew 25 nicely), and chooses not to give food, water, and simple care to the poor who it turns out are Jesus dressed up as “the least of these brothers”.

I will offer more than one passage from Yankoski’s book on this post, and I expect it to be a lengthy post because of that.  But I think it is worthwhile to read it through and consider the mirror this text holds up to your church.  And keep in mind, this Judgment scene is found on the lips of Jesus who is not as non-judgmental as we would like him to be.

In the chapter entitled Portland, under the heading “Church Lock Down” starting on page 114, Yankoski says:

Early on a Friday evening, just after the sun had set, Sam and I were walking from the library back down to the Portland waterfront where we had decided the Friday night crowd would offer a prime panhandling opportunity.  We didn’t say much as we walked until we passed a church.

“Oh, my gosh!” I exclaimed, stopping, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“What?” said Sam.  Then he saw what I was looking at.  “Oh,” he murmured.

A large gray church rose up behind a wrought iron fence in front of us.  The building was old and weathered.  Above the mahogany double doors hung a sign in red letters: “No Trespassing.  Church Business Only.” A new chain and two huge padlocks secured the gate at the sidewalk.

“It would take bolt cutters and a battering ram to get into that church,” I said, suddenly angry.  “‘Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden’?  Yeah, and what, die on my front steps?”

We turned to keep walking toward the waterfront.  Sure, a church needs to protect its property, but what we had just seen seemed excessive, and sent a negative, uncaring message.

Sam was having the same thoughts.  “Let’s say your life is falling apart and you need help.  Would you want to go there?”

“Nope,” I said.  “Anywhere but there.  But the world is the church’s business–and that’s exactly who they’re shutting out!”

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” said Sam, “But aren’t the people in the sanctuary a whole lot more important than the sanctuary itself?”

We walked past a market that sold pop, beer, wine, cigarettes, pornography.  The doors were wedged open.  Ragged people came and went.

It was one of the places that never close.

 

_________________________________________

 

In the chapter entitled San Francisco, under the heading “Bloody Sandals“, Yankoski begins a story about how his sandal broke and about his attempts to repair it with some dental floss and a $1.99 sewing kit he had purchased in Portland the month before.  The repair job did not really fix the sandal, and he found himself compensating for the damage as he walked in a way that rubbed blisters on his foot which eventually broke open and began to bleed.  Further repairs of the shoe still did not achieve success, and at one point he tripped on the sandal and caused his foot to bleed rather badly.  This happened just as they were approaching a church in which they hoped to share in worship and maybe find some charity to help with the broken footwear.

We join the story just as Yankoski trips on an uneven place in the sidewalk on page 147:

Despite the intense pain, I joined Sam in a good laugh and limped the rest of the way up to the church, my broken flip-flop getting slippery with blood.

Conversations at the front door stopped as we walked up.  I had to ask for a church bulletin from the girl who was handing them out.  She looked at us as if we had just escaped from a wildlife preserve.  But we headed inside for the service anyway and found an empty pew three from the front.  The whole room couldn’t hold more than a hundred, so our chances of going unnoticed were not good.

We still had a few minutes before the service began, and Sam had an idea.  “I’m going to ask the pastor if he can help us out with some food.  My stomach is growling.”  He got up and walked away, but was back shortly, looking disgusted.

“You wouldn’t believe what just happened,” he said.  “So, I went and asked for the pastor.  He was standing in the back, getting some coffee.  I asked him if he could help us out, if he could hook us up with someone who could feed us.  I told him we didn’t have any money, that the panhandling here was bad.”

Sam paused and shook his head.  “You know what he said?  He said, ‘That’s not what we do here.  We’re here to worship.  We can’t confuse our purpose.'”

“Wow…,” I said, slowly.

“I didn’t have anything to say to that, so I just nodded and walked away,” Sam said.

“Well, I understand his point,” I said, thinking.  “This isn’t a rescue mission or a soup kitchen.  But I was hungry.  Now I’m frustrated and hungry!”

The theme of the sermon was memorable: “Women shall be saved through childbearing.”

In Berkeley, California.

In the year 2003.

At the benediction, the pastor spread his arms wide and with a shiny smile loudly proclaimed, “May the Lord bless you and keep you!  May He turn His face to you and give you peace!”  I felt like I was going to be sick.

While people filed out, Sam and I kept our seats, journaling and trying to capture the moment and our frustrations.

After a few minutes, three guys came through the pews to talk.

“Hey guys, I’m Drew,” one guy said, extending his hand.  We introduced ourselves and told them we were living on the streets.  After that, the talk rambled around general topics.  When I could see the conversation was going nowhere, I decided to try an experiment. (I’ll admit my reaction was a little harsh, and done out of frustration, but still…)

I set my backpack on the pew between us.  Then I reached down and grabbed my broken flip-flop, and set it atop the pack.  Some of the blood was still wet, but most of it had dried, caking the sandal in a dull brown.

“Man, look at all that blood,” I said, looking to Sam and pointing to my sandal.

“Bro, does that hurt?”  Sam asked, catching onto my experiment.

“A little,” I said, reaching for my bag.  “It’s because my flip-flop is broken.  You see?”  I said, looking up at the guys and pulling on the broken tongue of the flip-flop.

They nodded but said nothing.  I pulled out the dwindling roll of duct tape and ripped off a long piece–a really long piece, stretching it loudly across in front of me the full length of my arms.

“It’s such a bummer to walk around all day with broken shoes,” I said, shaking my head.  “Bad blisters.  Bad blisters.”

For the next two minutes I proceeded to work intently on fixing my flip-flop while the men watched.  Nobody said anything.  Occasionally I would interject a comment about how lame my shoes were, how badly my foot hurt, wondering aloud if I might have to get it cut off if the gangrene got bad enough.  When I finished, I dropped the sandal and slipped my foot into it.

“Well done!” Sam said.

Drew agreed.  “Quite a process!” he said.

“Yep,” I agreed and waited.

“Well,” Drew said, looking around, “We’ve got to take off, but it was a pleasure talking with you.”  He squeezed my shoulder as he left.  “I’m praying for you,” he said.  “You too,” he said to Sam.

And the three walked away.

Shocked, Sam and I carried our packs and guitars out into a bright, sunny Berkeley day.  As we walked toward People’s Park, I broke our silence with a question.

“Why do we so often overlook obvious ways to show the love of God we so loudly proclaim?”  Without waiting for an answer, I charged on.  “If someone’s thirsty, give them a drink!  If someone’s hungry, feed them!  I mean, this is not complicated stuff.”

Sam agreed.  “Who is to show the world Christ’s love if not the church?”

“No one,” I said definitively.  Then I stopped and looked directly at Sam, who had also stopped.  “Do you feel loved?”

“Nope.”

“Do you feel fed?”

“Nope.  I’m starving!  What about you?”

“I’m starving and my feet hurt, and that guy back there knows it.  But, hey, he’s praying for us.”

 

__________________________________________

 

In the chapter entitled Phoenix, Yankoski makes this observation in the opening remarks of the chapter on page 158:

Several of the churches that we encountered in Phoenix left us thirsty too.  Of course, the body of Christ in one city doesn’t represent every city, and our experience only tells a slice of the story.  But we experienced big programs, big churches, and big talk, without much love in action, at least for two unappealing transients like us.

 

_____________________________________________

 

Picking up the next passage further down the same page (158), under the heading “We Don’t Go To Church”, Yankoski begins one of the lengthier passages I will reproduce on this blog.  But it is among the more fascinating.  For in this passage, the boys find themselves in a world of vanity that someone calls “church”.  Let’s follow Mike and Sam on this next adventure, and maybe even find the video of it (you will see what I mean if you keep reading).

Starting at the bottom of page 158:

Although Sam and I had spent every Sunday morning at a church somewhere on our travels, the lack of community was taking a toll on us.  Even at church, we felt isolated because of how we looked, how we smelled, and who people perceived us to be.  In fact, walking into a church where we hooped to find genuine fellowship only to be met by condescension or suspicion or disingenuous flattery was the worst kind of rejection.

One night in Phoenix we stretched out our sleeping bags in front of a church’s main doors hoping that early the next morning we would be awakened by a kindhearted churchgoer wondering if he could help us in some way.  A simple, obvious plan, we thought, but it didn’t work.

At about seven the next morning, while a dream of wintertime in the Rockies cooled my sweating body, a far away voiced pulled me back to reality.  “And before we read from Romans 8, let us pray together…”

Sam and I were still on the steps of the church and already baking in the morning sun.  I rolled over to look through the sanctuary windows.  A small gathering was standing while the pastor led in prayer.  The early service was just getting under way inside, but for us, the voice came from a speaker just above where we slept.

“Sam,” I said, nudging him awake.

“Yeah?”  He sat up, shaking his head.

“Did anybody wake you up?”  I said, pointing into the sanctuary.

“No way,” he said.  We both realized what had happened.  Every person inside had gone through a side door.  “Nobody woke me up.  You?”

“Nope.”

The pastor was ending his prayer.  “Lord, teach us to look not unto ourselves but unto You and unto others…”  With a loud amen that came metallically through the speaker above, the congregation took its seat and he began his sermon.

Already soaked with sweat, we decided to pack up and move on.  “Wow,” said Sam., “I thought we were making it easy for them!”

But were we?  I’m not so sure now.  I think two sleeping transients on the church steps early one morning would make most people uneasy, Christian or not.  The need is unexpected, out of place, and a little disturbing.  Yet it is exactly here, in the difficult circumstances, that Christ’s love should take risks to meet needs.  In A Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning describes what that kind of love looks like: “To evangelize a person is to say to him or her: you too are loved by God and the Lord Jesus.  And not only to say it but to really think it, and relate it to them so they can sense it.  But that becomes possible only by offering the person your friendship, a friendship that is real, unselfish, without condescension, full of confidence and profound esteem.”

– – –

One church we visited took up nearly the whole side of a mountain, with buildings spread over acres of beautifully landscaped and irrigated grounds.  We walked past large fountains spraying cool water as we entered the main sanctuary.  The place sat thousands, and it was packed.  A dozen TV cameras were pointed at the stage or roamed the aisles.

The pastor opened the service up by explaining that the ensuing worship concert and teaching service would be recorded for a DVD that would be distributed around the world.

Sam and I sat there feeling extremely out of place.  Being ripped in a moment from our sidewalk existence of nothing to do, nothing to eat, and nowhere to be and dropped into a multi-million-dollar worship “production” was too much of a shock.

The program got underway.  Everything–talent, facilities, production–was first-rate.  Cameras rolled continuously and the lighting rotated through a hundred hues while fog machines pumped a white haze across the vast stage.  The two lead singers wore flashy designer clothing that I was sure cost more than Sam and I had lived on for the past four months.

After a while, I rose to use the restroom.  I did have to go, but really I needed to escape the thundering confusion in my head.

Fortunately, the men’s room was first-rate, too.  I set to scrubbing my hands and face to the booming bass line coming though the walls from the concert.  When I scrubbed, the water in the clean white sink turned a dull gray.

Then two large men walked in.  They were dressed in black suits and wore security-police earpieces.  To my surprise, it quickly became apparent that they were there to see me.

Noticing in the mirror that neither was smiling, I turned off the water and turned around to face them.

“Gentlemen,” I said with a nod.

“Sir, did you just attempt to run on stage?” the man on the left asked.

The question seemed so weighted I had to ask him to repeat himself just to keep from laughing.  “Sir, did you just attempt to run on stage and disrupt the service?”  The man sounded somewhat agitated.

“No, sir, I did not.  I’ve been in here for the last three minutes, and before that I was at my seat in the sanctuary.”

“Are you sure?” the other man asked.

“Yes, I’m sure! I’ve been standing right here trying to clean up,” I replied.  Then I decided to go deep.  “Did you see me run on stage?”

“Okay then,” the first man said, ducking my question.  “Why don’t you finish, uh, cleaning up here then come speak to us outside.”

“Okay,” I said, grabbing a few paper towels and turning back to face the mirror.  After drying myself off, I wiped down the sink.

Only one of the men was waiting for me when I emerged, but he walked right over to me.

“Sir, I’m going to ask you one more time.  Did you try to get up on stage?”

I told him again that I hadn’t.  What was driving his question, I asked.

“Someone tried to get on stage, and the only witness said that the man had dread locks,: he replied.  “You have dread locks.”

“That’s true, but I didn’t try to get on stage.”

The man thought for a moment, then said, “Okay, I believe you.  Are you going back to your seat now?”

“Yes…” I said, feeling suddenly tentative.

“I’ll escort you back,” the man said, falling in step behind me.  When I took my seat, the security guard remained by the door through which I had entered so he could keep an eye on me.

Sam nodded toward the security guard with a questioning look in my direction.  I shook my head and told him I would explain later.  For the rest of the service, I personally felt very safe, and I observed no other criminal activity whatsoever.  Everything went smoothly–cameras, lights, singers, preacher, security guards, fog machine.

It was the perfect church program.  And now it’s available all over the world on DVD.

Church Under The Overpass (pt. 2)

Yankoski, a college student during the time about which he writes, does the unthinkable.  He gets the idea that he should become downwardly mobile and take the form of a homeless person.  A college student aiming at downward mobility?  That seems odd, to say the least.  It didn’t sit well with his parents either.  They didn’t send their son off to Christian college for him to become homeless!

Where does such a radical idea for a young American come from?

Church.

And so I will start where Yankoski starts as I reproduce passages from his book dealing with church.  In the opening chapter, entitled Twenty Minutes Past The World, starting on page 14 under the heading, A Flicker of Lightning, Yankoski offers this:

The idea had dropped into my brain one Sunday morning while I sat in church.  The pastor was delivering a powerful sermon about living the Christian life.  The gist of it was, “Be the Christian you say you are.”

Suddenly I was shocked to realize that I had just driven twenty minutes past the world that needed me to be the Christian I say I am, in order to hear a sermon entitled “Be the Christian you say you are.”  Soon I would drive back past that same world to the privilege of my comfortable life on campus at a Christian college.

Thinking ahead to my next week, I knew several things would happen.  I knew I’d hear more lectures about being a caring Christian or living a godly life.  I’d read more books about who God is and about what the world needs now.  I’d spend more time late at night down at a coffee shop with my friends kicking around ultimate questions and finely delivered opinions about the world.

Then I’d jump into my warm bed and turn out the light.  Another day gone.

But we were created to be and to do, not merely to discuss.  The hypocrisy in my life troubled me.  No, I wasn’t in the grip of rampant sin, but at the same time, for the life of me I couldn’t find a connecting thread of radical, living obedience between what I said about my world and how I lived in it.  Sure, I claimed that Christ was my stronghold, my peace, my sustenance, my joy.  But I did all that from the safety of my comfortable upper-middle-class life.  I never really had to put my claims to the test.

I sat there in church struggling to remember a time when I’d actually needed to lean fully on Christ rather than on my own abilities.  Not much came to mind.  What was Paul’s statement to the Philippians?  “I have learned what it means to be content in all circumstances, whether with everything or with nothing” (Philippians 4:11-12).

With nothing?

The idea came instantly–like the flash of a camera or a flicker of lightning.  It left me breathless, and it changed my life.  What if I stepped out of my comfortable life with nothing but God and put my faith to the test alongside of those who live with nothing every day?

The picture that came with that question was of me homeless and hungry on the streets of an American city.

Hard on the heels of the idea came the questions: What if I didn’t actually believe the things I argued with so much certainty?  What, for example, if I didn’t truly believe that Christ is my identity, my strength, my hope?  Or worse, what if I leaped in faith, but God didn’t catch me?  My mind reeled.

And then there were the practical questions.  Could I survive on the streets?  How much did I really want to learn to be content always with nothing?  What would my friends think?  What would my parents think?  My pastors?  My professors?  Would I be okay?  What if I got sick?  What if I starved?  What if I got beat up?  What if I froze?

What if I’m wrong?

Am I crazy?

Will I die?

But already, I had decided.  I walked out of church that morning seized by a big idea, assaulted by dozens of questions, and sure that I had heard deep in my heart a still, small voice saying, “Follow Me.”

I am not reproducing this passage to analyze the fact that Yankoski came to this decision, nor the way he went about it.  Those may well be important questions to consider, but I am interested in WHERE this decision happened.

It happened at church while listening to the pastor preaching the word of God.  This is a fact that almost escaped me, and I did not recall it as I began looking again at passages where Yankoski relates to the church.  But this is significant, I think.

No.  Yankoski was not formally ordained to take on this mission.  The church did not pray on it and nominate him for the job.  But as God was speaking through the pastor during the assembled worship, Yankoski was called to this mission and sent by the church despite the church anyway.  God was working amid his people to bring about this task, and it is a task that Yankoski accepted and fulfilled many years ago now, wrote a book (many years ago now) about, and is still ministering (to me at least) in the world all this time later.

In this series of posts, I will have us look closer at the church vis-à-vis Yankoski’s mission in a number of settings that will prophetically open our imagination to God’s purposes for us.  I hope you will read on them, pray about them, and listen for God’s call on your life too as you witness God’s interaction with his church from the streets.

The Church Under The Overpass (p. 1)

Last week I went to Sunday Worship at my usual church after skipping my shower for 3 days as part of a prophetic mission to bear the image of God at the place of shame, pain, and despair in my community.  It was a gap-bridging measure between my very white, upper-middle class church and the poor.  I allowed my own body odor to take over, and wore the same clothes all 3 days.  I also did my best to add the stench of street life to myself with cigarette smoke, beer, trash/rotten food, and time spent on the actual streets of Lubbock.  I wrote extensively about these things in several posts last week.

Among the considerations I wrote about, I dwelled significantly on my own feelings of shame.  It was only a 3-day stink, a far cry from the stench many of my homeless friends emit.  Yet, I really struggled to endure my own sense of shame as I anticipated celebrating Jesus’ death, burial, and especially his resurrection with the Church come Sunday morning.

I took strength, in part, from the fact that Loiter Larry had also accepted the mission assignment a week before, and he also wrote about dealing with the shame.  But in addition to that, I had read Mike Yankoski’s little book Under The Overpass: A Journey of Faith on the Streets of America over the course of the week leading up to my mission.  This book, along with Larry’s witness statement, gave me a sense of camaraderie, a sense of belonging, a sense of community – that I was not so alone after all – in my mission to be like Jesus.

Yankoski chronicles a time he and a friend temporarily lived as homeless men for 5 months on the streets of 5 American cities spread out across the nation.  He really jumped in with both feet and experienced life on the streets first hand… panhandling (begging/playing guitar on a street corner for money), becoming filthy and stinky, sleeping in the wet, the heat and the cold, exposed to criminals, rats, and roaches, eating from trash cans,  rousted by scorned rich people, security guards, cops, and churches.  By contrast, I was humbled by merely 3 days without a shower!  The mission assignment I accepted was but a tiny fraction of the one Yankoski writes of.

Yankoski’s book as a whole reads like a glorified diary.  There are all kinds of notable experiences Yankoski details.  But for my purposes, the accounts of his interactions with churches (and in some cases individual Christians) make up the heart of the book.  Yankoski, unlike perhaps most homeless people, made a point to attend worship services every Sunday while he drifted the streets of America.  And to my way of thinking, his report(s) about those interactions could easily function like a report card from school.  Some churches slammed an A+, others clearly earned their F, and one church found redemption after botching the Jesus-touch thus bringing their failing grade back up with renewed excellence.

Yankoski found his own imagination stretched in this regard by the kindness shown to him in some cases by fellow sojourners of the streets.  After accepting the charity from a drug addict who offered Yankoski and his friend anything they might need including a car, cash, a place to stay… This man would give them anything he had.  Yankoski had to reassess just what a Christian is.  He asks:

What’s your definition of a Christian?  Is it broad enough to encompass the drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, and broken people of the world?  Jesus said he came to heal the sick.  Drug addicts are messed up just the same as liars are messed up, just the same as all humans are messed up.  We all need Jesus.  We all struggle with personal ways in which sin plays itself out in our lives.

What’s worse?  To not do dope or to not love your brother?  Why do we kick drug users out of the church while quietly ignoring those who aren’t dealing with other, equally destructive sins?  Why do we reject the loving, self-sacrificing, giving, encouraging, Jesus-pursuing drug addict but recruit the clean self-interested, gossiping, loveless churchgoer?

I want to post a series of reproductions of those passages from Yankoski’s book and look at them through this lens.  Matthew 25:31-46 is a Judgment passage of Scripture, and the picture painted there, to my mind’s eye, looks like a court room scene where the poor are called by God to testify about how they were treated in this life by those of us with the power to love and care – or not.  And in that court room scene, I expect we, the defendants, will be hanging on every word they utter.

Think about that; the very people you so easily walk past, drive past, belittle, shun, run off your property, call the cops on, and/or complain about (when you aren’t ignoring them) will suddenly have the Judge’s ear at the trial of your life where it is decided whether you enter the Kingdom Reign of God with the sheep or whether you enter destruction with the goats.  And suddenly, you will be hanging on every word!

I think a series of posts featuring reproductions of Yankoski’s experiences will help you think about that.  And so we will call this series of posts, The Church Under The Overpass.

It’s A Boy!

I have good news!

Today, the Fat Beggars Home for Widows, Orphans, and Sojourners has completed the adoption process, and I have a son!  I am finally legal to tell you his name and publicize his life in social media and all that, even though he has been living under this roof as if he were my own kid for over a year.

So… without further ado, let me introduce you to Baby Agent X Jr!

I am so excited to have this child in my life and in my home.  Actually, this is the answer to many prayers.  Mrs. Agent X and I prayed four years ago asking God to give us a house and fill it with foster children – and some we can keep.  Two years ago, God moved us into his house.  (Yes, I live in the House of God!)  Then a year later, he moved in with us, and you can read in I Kings 8, II Chronicles 5, and Ezekiel 43 about what that looks and feels like (and I will say that a house full of babies looks and feels just about like that).

Now that God has blessed me with service and a place to rest in his house, has blessed me with his presence, and then has blessed me with a son too, I devote this child to God.

And I ask any readers of this blog to celebrate with me.

This is so incredible.  God is so good to me!!!

 

Prophets of Consumerist Doom

I find prophets everywhere, actually.  Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Pink Floyd… just in the pop music industry alone, I find prophets lined up cranking out hit songs.  And I think they are real prophets alerting us to real insights that we need to live our lives better.

However, by far, I find these prophets talented only in so far as they show us what is wrong with our world.  Some do it better and more profoundly than others, but almost none of them offer real insight for how to deal with our problems.  Oh sure… “All you need is love”.  I will agree with that, as far as it goes.  But this is one of those fine examples of a pithy statement that says it all at one level and yet says nothing at another.

It takes divine guidance to take prophecy to the next level, and most of these prophets are pretty good at the apocalypse (and making a buck off the process), but very few actually point the way through the mist.

My endorsement of the following video only goes so far.  I think the video does an excellent job of uncovering the problem.  In fact I think if you aren’t rattled by it, you aren’t really watching.  And though the end of the video attempts to offer a way forward, I think the answers it offers are anemic at best.

Still, I think it is a worthwhile presentation that should have us talking about our world at deeper levels than usual.  It gives us handles on the conversation.  I ask my Christian brothers and sisters to talk about how Jesus addresses the world depicted here.  Seriously.

The video is 5 years old now.  But I think it is still timely.  If you have a couple of hours to devote to it, I think you will find a lot to talk about.

Here it is: