While Jesus Slept Outside on a Bench, We Went Inside to Ring Gongs and Clang Cymbals

A homeless camp being bulldozed (HT for the image)

Keep It Covered

She had one sock raised higher than the other, which I thought was a little strange. She came to the rear of the church building to the little room where I was passing out sample size toiletries and the like to people experiencing homelessness who were coming to use the showers. This is a great ministry an urban congregation offers to their downtrodden neighbors three Sunday mornings a month, along with access to a clothing closet and a free hot breakfast. The missional community I’m a part of from Mill City Church volunteers at this ministry once a month, and my job this past Sunday was to serve in the shower area. This brings me back to the woman I met whose socks were not at the same height. She asked me for the usual items she’d need if she were going to take a shower- soap and shampoo, etc., but she wasn’t taking a shower; she wanted to take them with her. We also had toothbrushes and toothpaste, some razors, etc. to give out, and lotion. She kept looking for a particular kind of lotion, which it turns out she had found to be most helpful with the very bad eczema on her leg. It was so bad she had been hospitalized for it recently, and the doctor told her to keep it covered or it would get infected and she’d be back in the hospital. It’s hard to keep your eczema covered when you live on the street, but she was trying- hence the raised sock. She was older than me, I’m guessing in her 50’s or 60’s, and naturally there’s a lot more to her story. We didn’t talk long as she was looking for the lotion that would help her most, but I did learn that she had been “staying” at an “artist’s camp” somewhere- obviously an outdoor encampment of people experiencing homelessness, but had left one day to visit her daughter. When she came back, the city of Minneapolis had come in and bulldozed the camp. All her stuff was gone or destroyed. She was most upset about the two sleeping bags she had recently been given that were now gone. She said a young man came around doing homeless outreach and gave them to her. She said he told her they were donated, but they were nice; so she thought he must have bought them and given them away. They were now gone along with any toiletries she might have had with her belongings. So she said she was “starting over,” and she wasn’t the only person I heard say that. Before she left she asked if she could keep one of the towels and a washcloth that are there to be used for the folks using the shower, and are not supposed to be given out. As she said, she was starting over.

I’ll Just Start Over

The church that offers this ministry three Sundays a month goes a step further and will wash whatever the people who use their shower are wearing. They can come back in subsequent weeks and pick up their washed clothing. The clothes are in plastic bags with the person’s name written on the bag with a Sharpie, hopefully. As I was working last Sunday, I had a few people ask me for their clean clothes; so I went through the bags a few times. Some didn’t have a name, or had “no name” written on them. Those will likely be donated to the clothes closet the church runs to then be given away to others. I was able to find the person’s bag I think two of the times I was asked; another time I could not. That gentleman- whose clothes I couldn’t find- explained it had been a few weeks since he left his clothes to be washed, and he hadn’t come back he said because “honestly last week I was high on meth and I didn’t think it would be appropriate for me to come.” I couldn’t find a bag with his name on it. He said it was no big deal, that he too would “just start over.” He may have only had the clothes he was wearing; I don’t know. He wasn’t too attached to the clothes he had left to be laundered, though. He was willing to start from scratch, perhaps for the umpteenth time.

I saw an older couple come through. The woman in the couple seemed to be in poor health, with the guy doing some caregiving for her, even as both lived on the street. I saw a family come through- a mom with teen and tween boys, a younger girl, and a toddler. I thought I heard the girl call the woman “grandma;” so I can’t say for sure what all of their relationships with one another were. The young men played basketball for a while in the nearby gym. At one point the woman sent the toddler into the gym and as she walked away, over her shoulder she hollered for the boys to “watch him.” I don’t know if that message was ever received. Soon the toddler got in the way of their game, and the oldest (teen) boy bounced the basketball off the toddler’s head to get him to move. It wasn’t vicious, but it sent a message. Later in their game the younger (tween) boy fell, hitting his arm hard on the gym floor, hard enough he started to whimper, if not cry. I asked if he was alright, and he didn’t respond. The teen just looked at him. His attitude could have been interpreted as cold, but I suspect their life is such that the teen knows if the tween is to survive, he’d have to learn how to not let a little pain bother him, or at least not to expect anyone to rescue him if he gets hurt.

More happened that morning, of course, but those are the stories that stand out, now a week later. What, then, am I to make of all this? Am I to make anything at all, or is my role simply to show up when I can and love the people in front of me as best as I can, whatever their circumstances? I’m me, of course; so I can’t help but think about the implications of it all. One thing I was struck by was how willing the folks I served that morning were to simply “start over” with possessions as basic as having more than one set of clothes. Of course this may be a willingness born of necessity, but it was there nonetheless. This is one of the gifts the materially poor have to offer we who are materially rich. I and my family have been struggling to learn how to store up treasure in heaven rather than on earth, and have therefore been working through what it looks like to hold possessions loosely, recognizing that everything belongs to God, not us. The materially poor do this as a matter of necessary habit. We do well when we do likewise. This is at the heart of our recent efforts to “get small.” We know that we follow Jesus more closely when we do so from “under,” not “over.” Those on the margins of society- the poor, the disenfranchised, the dominated- not the dominators- they are much more ready than we who are privileged to both receive the good gifts God the Giver wants to give his children, and to embrace, I think, a kingdom that is not of this world.

The Gospel Breaks Out

An old acquaintance of ours recently posted a link to an article and YouTube video featuring Jim Carrey talking to a group of formerly gang involved and incarcerated folks who are part of the amazing Homeboy Industries. In our acquaintance’s intro to the link/video, he said:

Throughout history, when God’s “official” messengers get off track and begin to seek power, spew condemnation, and set up walls of exclusivity, God gets his message of grace, truth and forgiveness out in unconventional ways. I think I see that happening more lately in this day and age.

Meet Jim Carrey, preacher of grace. This is powerful. Praise God.

Here’s Jim, in his own words:

 

If you’re short on time, just watch the first half of this 7-ish minute video; if you get nothing else from this post, but watch that, my “work” here is done. Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, says: “Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.” Indeed, as I said above and keep learning, the poor have much to teach us. When I was a student at Luther Seminary, I had a great old prof.- Dr. James Nestingen- who always talked about the “gospel breaking out.” In Lutheran theology, there’s much talk of “law and gospel,” of sin and grace. The law serves to show us our sin- to highlight the condition in which we are caught in which we are unable to live and love as we should- and the gospel is the good news that God has already saved us, that we are set free from this entrapment. Too often this gospel word can get cloudy, muddled, and muddied, lost amidst all the other things would-be “Christians” dare to say on behalf of God. Too often the good news that we have been set free from a life enslaved to sin and death gets lost in the midst of the condemnation of others, and especially in the midst of our own self-condemnation. In such times, Dr. Nestingen would say, the gospel “breaks out.” Good news of God’s grace comes from unexpected places. When “professional” would-be Christians bless the greedy violence of empire and insure their place within the fold of worldly power….

 

Image HT

 ….rock stars remind us that while “God may well be with us in our mansions on the hill,” we can far more readily find him with the poor, with the sick and suffering, among the ravages of war, and therefore “God is with us, if we are with them:”

Image HT

Ironically, as we drove to Mill City Church‘s worship gathering this morning, we passed a scene not entirely unlike the one above in our own NE Minneapolis neighborhood. A man was sleeping on a bus bench, kind of like this:

HT for the image. The irony in this picture defies words.

Instead of continuing on our way and attending the worship gathering, which we did, no doubt the best worship we might have given this morning to Jesus- that (homeless) “preach of peace-” would have been to be good Samaritans and stop and render whatever assistance we could to our bench-sleeping neighbor. Instead, it was more important to us to go hear a sermon that would in some way, I hope, touch on how to follow Jesus by loving our neighbor, never mind the one we passed by who, just like Jesus, had no place to lay his head. Thus, if the mission of the church is, like Jesus’ mission, in no small part to proclaim good news for the poor, the irony of a person experiencing homelessness sleeping on a bench festooned with an advertisement for the “new life” that comes through the covenant to be had among God and his people is no greater than that of I and my family this morning ignoring an opportunity to love an actual neighbor so that we could go hear about how to be in right relationship with God and our proverbial ones. Even worse, if we meet Jesus among “the least of these,” we skipped right by him this morning on that bench, preferring to meet him in a more comfortable setting, among other privileged people like us.

Give Away Your Shirt(s)

During that worship gathering we skipped out on loving our neighbor in order to attend, Jesus drove home the point. I didn’t get to hear all of Pastor Michael’s sermon due to an unruly 6 year old (mine :/), but the passage he opened with was in itself sermon enough for me, from Luke 3:

…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
    every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
    the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’”[a]

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah.

Just like a valley is exalted when it is filled in, again and again the way of Jesus is revealed to be a way that exalts the poor, the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the sick and in prison- those on the margins. Just like a mountain or hill being made low, likewise the way of Jesus is revealed to be a way that humbles the rich, the oppressors, those who can easily access worldly political systems, the well and those who can easily access healthcare, and those who leverage the language of “law and order” to maintain their systems of power and control. In case the point is missed, John makes it plain. To we rich (do you have more than one shirt? I do), he says:

“Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none…”

To we well-fed he says:

“…anyone who has food should (share with the one who has none)…”

To tax collectors, he says:

“Don’t collect any more than you are required to.”

The importance of God’s economy is so very important that to soldiers, instead of addressing the violence of their occupation, he makes an economic appeal:

“Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

I was able to be present toward the end of the worship gathering, when we sang the Chris Tomlin version of Amazing Grace, which quotes this part of the original:

The Lord has promised good to me
His word my hope secures
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures

If you hear those words as I do, Jesus is still making his point. God the Giver has promised good to me. In other words, he who causes bread to rain from heaven and supplies enough for today, day after day after day, promises to continue to give us this day our daily bread; so we need not store away “bread” for tomorrow here on earth, where thieves break in and steal and “moths and vermin destroy.” The point is again reinforced in the lyric above with the reminder that the Lord “will my shield and portion be.” Jesus is our “portion;” he gives us enough, and we need not violently defend the good gifts of God the Giver, because Jesus is our “shield” too. He has defeated the power of violence by surrendering to it; thus, it was put to death with him on the cross. As a result, violence has no more power over us than death or sin does.

Again and again I see more and more every day the interlinking of violence and the world’s economy, and conversely how both are put to an end through Jesus’ death and resurrection. If we live as part of God’s economy in which there is more than enough for all; if we share freely and give to those who ask, what reason would anyone have to take up arms against us, and what reason do we have to take up arms ourselves?

Am I saying (repeatedly now) that following Jesus is mostly about how we order our economic lives and whether or not we reject or embrace violence? Yes…and no. To speak of the creator God is of course to speak about cosmic, spiritual truths that defy any words we might seek to ensnare them with. Who God is and what God does, and who we are and what we ought to do in response, is a sublime mystery. But if the gospel is true, God has chosen to reveal the fullness of who he is in Jesus, the one in whom all things hold together. It can be said, and I have often said, that God hides. We do not find him where we expect to. But that it not to say that he cannot be found. God, after all, can be found “in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house.” He can be found “in the cries heard under the rubble of war.” He can be found lying defenseless in a manger, or on a cross.

God may very well be found in me, and in you.

Because God chooses to be with us, how we order our lives and live in relation to one another matters profoundly, and we ignore at our peril the fact that in John’s ministry and in that of Jesus himself, both lead with literal “good news” for the poor. Most of us spend the majority of our days pursuing economic activity. We work. We spend. We consume. We buy, and we sell. We barter. We support the bottom lines of multi-national corporations, or resist them. Likewise, most of us spend much of our days deciding whether or not to live peacefully together. We honk at the person who cut us off, or not. We return a smile, or we don’t. We respond to a harsh word with one of our own, or we swallow hard and forgive right then and there by choosing not to retaliate. We consume violent media, or try not to. Often, the two are inextricably intertwined. The cheap shirts we buy at Target and Wal-Mart may have been made by basically enslaved people half a world away who are prevented from leaving their workstations by violence or the threat of violence. The taxes we dutifully pay to our government support the ever-growing military-industrial complex, and are used to rain death from the sky around the world, all in the name of “keeping us safe” or “defending” (our) freedom.

Sure, God wants to heal our broken hearts, make us whole, and bring us into right relationship with God’s self and with one another, and with God’s good world. The good news is that God has done this, and still is. Just because this is so, we are entrusted with the family business of reconciliation. We are charged with the sacred task of practicing resurrection. We are to live as if God’s other-worldly kingdom really is upon us, already. We don’t have to serve Mammon anymore. We can freely give to those who ask of us. We can share with one another in radical, counter-cultural ways that can’t help but facilitate the gospel breaking out. Following Jesus means following him into such a life. Maybe we just need to be willing to start over. The poor can show us how. We just have to believe that another world is possible, but that’s not so hard to imagine, is it, especially if even in this world Bono is among our most truthful prophets and the good news of God’s grace keeps breaking out such that even Jim Carrey can be heard proclaiming it.

No Rival

I’ve been spending my lunch break lately in Luther Seminary‘s (my alma mater) Chapel of the Cross, where this challenging-and-inspiring-all-at-once piece of art can be found.

Jesus’ rail thin body still hangs from a cross in Minneapolis, a discomfiting sight that begs a lot of questions. Among them are: Did this really happen? Are we capable of such violence? As I wrestle with these questions, I’m reminded of my privilege. Far too many around the world know such violence all too well, and all too often Jesus seems far away from them. Meanwhile, I’m struggling to write. I start posts, and don’t finish them, or scrap them and start over. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say; the torrent of observations, reflections, and new learning continues much as it has, especially over the past year or so, and I clearly have no deficit of words to offer in response to all that I’m learning. Nonetheless, I find it difficult to produce the volume of writing that I had been for a while. I think some of this has to do with the time, energy, and effort involved in putting into place all that we’ve been learning. In short order over the past few months we’ve moved, the kids have started new schools, I’ve started a new job, we switched banks, and more recently, we gave away the newest of our two vehicles and I’ve begun biking to work. Here’s “my” bike parked at work:

This bike was a gift from a fellow member of Mill City Church whose health prevents him from using it any more. Having it allows me to bike to work, and freed us up to give away the vehicle mentioned above. So I’m doing this all wrong if I’m not using my time spent on it every day to pray both for the person who gave me the bike and the family we gave the car to.

Meanwhile, truth be told, I’m tired.

I think some of my struggle to write also has to do with just what I’m learning, I suppose. The way that we’ve been talking about what God is teaching us and calling us to is to say that we feel called to “get small,” to give up some of our wealth, position, privilege, and power so that we can experience the generosity that God wants for us both as givers and receivers. We experience it as givers when we lean into God’s economy and give freely to those who ask for anything from us, remembering that everything belongs to God and nothing is truly ours, that God asks that we acknowledge our dependence on Him by asking for what we need for today and no more. When we do this, what once we would hold on to for tomorrow or in case of a rainy day or so that we can retire, etc., now becomes a blessing we’ve been made stewards of for the sake of others, making us conduits of God’s provision. Likewise, the “smaller” we get- the more money, privilege, and power we give away- the more ready we are to grapple with our own need and the more likely it is that we will be open to receiving through others God’s provision and blessing for us.

As I keep saying, we wasted two full decades as adults hoping God would see fit to give us a little more, to bless us with enough money to pay down our debt so that we could be more generous and faithful. Living within our means was thus to be achieved by hoping God would increase our means. When we did get a raise or a new job with more pay, our selfishness grew right with it, and still we found ourselves struggling to keep up as the debt kept growing. We’d go through cycles of  being a little more restrained and paying the debt down, only to find some circumstance or situation that provided a convenient excuse to revert to our more selfish ways, and thus the debt would accumulate anew. Sure, some of those situations involved outbursts of generosity on our part, but they were always the exception to the rule, and they usually gave us fodder for trying to bargain or negotiate with God, believing that our hospitality or generosity had somehow “earned” us the right to expect more from God.

Why is it different this time around? Maybe it won’t be, I will admit. The lure of Mammon is strong. It’s tempting to want to fall in line and be a good consumer. All I can say is that there is a depth to both our learning this time and our willingness to do the hard work of following Jesus instead of Mammon. Our minds have been renewed, and thus we are being transformed. Things we thought we really needed (smartphones, two cars, more than 1200 feet of living space, etc.) we’re learning that we don’t, and we’ve given them away. Forgoing those things, coupled with forsaking our retirement plans and savings accounts- which we came to see as “treasure stored up on earth” instead of in heaven- has opened our eyes anew to just how much God already has blessed us, just how much he’s been trusting us with all along. No longer willing to hoard God’s goodness, in probably less than four months we’ve wiped out much of our personal and consumer debt, and expect to have much of the rest of it eliminated in less than a year. All this capacity being created in our budget will very soon mean that we can give a large percentage of our income away, and/or have the capacity to work less so that we can give a large percentage of our time and energy away.

All of this represents our effort to live as participants in God’s economy rather than capitalism or any other system this world can dream up. In God’s economy there is always enough. The hand that guides God’s economy is visible, not invisible, and it has nail marks in it. God’s economy is one of giving and sharing, of blessing and being blessed. In God’s economy we give to those who ask from us so that we might be children of our Father in heaven, because whatever we have to give was already given to us in the first place by our good, good father, and it was meant for the blessing of all. Thus, if we have two coats and our neighbor has none, we are called to give him (at least) one along with our apology for hoarding God’s provision that was meant for him. If we are so rich that we can poison our bodies with carbonated, caffeinated water while our neighbors around the world die because they lack access to clean water, or sometimes water at all, then we are most faithful when we skip the soda aisle and make a donation (at the very least) to a water relief agency.

Astoundingly, this is but one of the two big revelations over the past few months that we will likely spend the rest of our lives trying to respond to. In the first, we were broken to realize that we were wholehearted consumer capitalists but lousy lovers of God and neighbor. After all, the love of money really is the root of all evil, for the first part of the Great Commandment is to “love the Lord you God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.” I can’t love God with my whole heart if part of it can’t stop thinking about my Amazon cart. And I can’t love my neighbor very well either if I won’t think about the modern-day enslaved persons that made the cheap clothes I got from Wal-Mart, or if I can’t come up with resources to bless my hungry and thirsty neighbor around the world while I throw away nearly half the food I buy, in part because I eat out three times a week.

The other big revelation that we’ll be trying to respond to probably for the rest of our lives is simply that Jesus really is the Prince of Peace. He really meant that we shouldn’t kill one another, and that we should turn the other cheek when confronted with violence. He really meant that we have not been given a spirit of fear and that nothing, not even death, can separate us from his love. And if it’s true that we not only shouldn’t commit adultery but shouldn’t lust after one another, isn’t it even more so that we not only shouldn’t kill one another but shouldn’t entertain ourselves with killing every time we watch TV, go to a movie, or play a video game? Isn’t it true then that we likewise shouldn’t participate in violence vicariously with our tax and gas dollars as our Mammon-loving economy and warmongering country trudges along, raining death from the sky around the world in the name of “freedom-“ to buy cheap gas?

If in the end capitalism is just another “–ism” Jesus wants to save us from, and violence is a way of life that was put to death with Jesus on the cross, then the way of Jesus insofar as it passes through the good ol’ U.S. of A. is a hard way, indeed. Some well-meaning would-be Jesus followers have the sense to wonder why they aren’t persecuted if Scripture promised they would be, and I was among them for most of my life, but no longer. If I and my family continue to lean in a direction that runs counter to the greedy (read: capitalistic), violent ways of our culture, I trust that our persecution, in one way or another, will come. Kirsten has been reluctant to explain to a member of her family of origin that we gave away a newer car we’re still paying $17,000+ for, while I wonder if I’m getting funny looks for showing up to work on a bicycle (full disclosure here: I’m not showing up drenched in sweat, but I may not smell like I’m fresh from the shower either). These obviously aren’t “persecutions,” though. What if we take the next step, however, and become war tax resisters? What if, as we plan to, we start joining with a few others to build up a mutual generosity fund out of which we’ll give away hundreds of dollars a month to those we meet around us who are in need? What if we start talking openly about our budget and finances, revealing how much we make and how we spend it, and asking others to hold us accountable to our ideals and perhaps risk such vulnerability themselves? What if the Spirit inspires us to ever more creatively subvert an economic system that keeps creating more “have-nots” than “haves?” What if we refuse to pledge allegiance to anyone or anything but Jesus and his kingdom?

A line from Hillsong’s recent song “What A Beautiful Name” keeps playing in my head and heart: “You have no rival; you have no equal. Now and forever, God, you reign.” Here’s the requisite video:

I listened to this song repeatedly in the car today (my first time driving all week!) and every time through I heard a new allusion to- or direct quote from- Scripture. I should probably write a separate post breaking all that down (scratch that- Hillsong already did; you can find it here). But right now I want to focus on the line I quoted above: “You have no rival; you have no equal. Now and forever, God, you reign.” What does it mean to declare that Someone is without rival, without equal? Every time I hear that line I think of the two pretenders who keep vying- often violently- for the throne that only Jesus can or will occupy- Mammom, and “Uncle Sam.” Singing those words- declaring that Jesus has no rival, no equal, that now and forever he reigns- has to mean something. Remarkably, I know folks who can sing those words on Sunday and then can remove their cap and place their hand over their heart to pledge allegiance to the U.S. flag on Monday.

 

I simply can’t anymore.

 

If God reigns without rival in this land that European settlers violently seized from its original inhabitants while decimating their population, then we descendants of those European settlers have much to repent of and many amends to make, and it all starts by forsaking all others and living as if God is our only true King, as if Jesus really does have no rival.

If God reigns without rival in this land that European settlers built the world’s most powerful economy in, then we descendants of those European settlers must recognize that that economy was only possible through violence- because of slavery and its aftereffects-  and again we have much to repent of and many amends to make, and we must start by forsaking all others and living as if God is our only true King, as if Jesus really does have no rival.

Living in such a way doesn’t mean attending every protest, though some protest attendance will probably be required. It doesn’t mean everyone has to quit their job, though some very well may. I did, and I can imagine it being hard to continue working for some employers when your only true King continually calls you to participate in an economy that will not only decimate your corporation’s bottom line, but even worse, may very well make it irrelevant. Likewise, I can see it being hard to continue working for some employers when your only true King continually calls you to give up violence forever because it was put to death on the cross with Jesus.

Living as if Jesus has no rival means that while all the external things out there- in the world- are in dire need of attention and there are many urgent causes to be taken up, even so the most profound change that has to occur is in our own minds, hearts, and souls. If we really do work at loving God with all of our mind, heart, soul, and strength- forsaking all others- then we begin to see with new eyes. We begin to be transformed. Things that weren’t possible before suddenly are. And none of it’s because we’ve successfully organized around all those urgent causes; none of it’s because we’ve finally achieved the social progress we were hoping for. It’s because to whatever extent Jesus has no rival, to whatever extent we forsake Mammon and violent “Uncle Sam” so that we can follow “that preacher of peace,” to just that extent we will find that we really can love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves.

I think of the anti-religious vitriol of the “new Atheists” and all the popular backlash in our culture against so-called “Christians” who are too busy pursuing secular political power to notice the neighbors they’re harming along the way. What if instead of trying so desperately hard to pass or repeal Obamacare or establish or reform “Entitlements,” what if the people for whom Jesus has no rival instead devoted all their energy to loving and serving those around them, to giving to those who would ask of them, to being people who practice a ministry of presence with profound sincerity, effort, and steadfastness? Wouldn’t people know we were really Christians then, because of our love?

Still, I remain tempted to want to be great. I like to be able to tell a splashy story about that big thing I did. I’m far too easily seduced by the proverbial search for significance. I keep hoping someone will discover my blog and offer me a book deal, or a pulpit to supply, or a writing gig. Yet that’s just the opposite of where Jesus is leading me these days. Jesus isn’t calling me to get big; he’s challenging me to get small. Jesus isn’t calling me to lead workshops and study groups; he’s calling me to love him like he has no rival, and not just to like my neighbor, but to really love them.

The great Henri Nouwen said it best:

“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them.  It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence.  Still, it is not as simple as it seems.  My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets.  It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress.  But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but you truly love them.”

Amen.

Coho

My dog died today; so I’m not much into the nonsense on Facebook. I did find myself inexorably drawn to the Facebook “get sympathy now” button, which I pushed a couple of days ago when I posted a link to the photo album I made for Coho along with a few words about the fact that she had cancer and a “hard choice would be made soon.” That hard choice came today. I can now say I’ve been present to four beings as they breathed their last, having finally succumbed to cancer. The first three were people, of course, but Coho’s death did not fail to elicit emotion. The end for Coho came peacefully as I held her, her head in my lap. It came pretty quickly too, but I had time before the sedative and euthanizing agent were given to say goodbye for as long as I liked. She’s come to know the vet’s office, and was scared when we arrived. She repeatedly went under my legs and tried to position herself with me between her and the vet staff. Finally I just got down on the floor, which she always considered an invitation to come over and be petted. I held and petted and talked to her as they placed the IV and then later, gave the drugs. I held it together, too, until the deed was done and they left, again inviting me to “take as long as I needed.” The hard parts came when her eyes wouldn’t close, then again when I tried to move her head out of my lap and onto the blanket on the floor so that I could finally stand and her head just flopped like the lifeless thing it then was, and then finally again when I collected her collar and leash. The leash usually jingles when you handle it, and like Pavlov’s dog this always produced a response, in Coho’s case excitement about going outside for a walk or drive. The stimulus-response cycle broke down this time, as Coho was no longer there behind her still open eyes to be excited about whatever the jingling leash would portend.

Coho was a great dog. We got her as a pup from the Animal Humane Society of Summit County in OH. We only went there to “check things out” and weren’t planning to adopt right then, but when we met her, I couldn’t say no. Coho had been neglected and so was a bit of a fearful dog. Things that scared her included: vacuum cleaners, laundry baskets, sudden noises, small-couldn’t-hurt-a-flea dog treats being tossed to-not at- her, and the list could go on. Most of the time it was endearing. Here she is, afraid on Christmas morning of a bone bigger than she was:

She was great with the kids (and me!). She didn’t mind being made to wear jammies, or hide out in a couch cushion fort, or snuggle with a stuffed bear, or wear sunglasses, etc.:

She was great especially with mischievous-even-as-a-baby Nathan:

 

She handled car trips and cross country moves like a pro, even when there was hardly room for her:

 

….and she was a great running buddy:

 

We had a choice, of course. We could have exhausted a lot of financial resources to extend her life. The first step would have been having her leg amputated, and then probably some chemotherapy. The cost was prohibitive, though, and quickly- much more quickly than we expected or were prepared for- the pain and loss of bone in her shoulder caused her to stop using altogether the leg that would have been amputated. As soon as I realized that we were then asking her to live as if she didn’t have the leg anymore without the benefit of the cancer being slowed down or stopped for a time- the benefit that might have come with amputation- I knew we had to act.

This act- one of kindness, I hope, even love- raises a lot of questions, but I don’t have the capacity to deal with them today. Coho was part of our family for over a decade, and while she’ll always be with us in some way, today our family got undeniably smaller.