Monday, July 27, 2015

Thoughts from Easter

What's that you say? Easter was almost four months ago? Well, I've been busy, okay? Here's what I meant to write back at the beginning of April.

In the week leading up to Easter 2015, death seemed pervasive. Among my circle of church friends alone, one young man my age lost his mother, one woman a little closer to my parents' age lost her ailing father. At my evening church I prayed with a young couple for the safe return of their missing friend, Jennifer, a UofM student; driving to work one or two days later MPR's news ticker told me she'd drowned. I struggled wondering how any of these people could possibly find hope, which is what Easter's about, in the midst of utter grief. I resolved the answer must relate to my own answer to Theodicy (God and suffering), which is: it's not about the person who is suffering, but about our communal response to that person. Because (drawing yet again from Beggars in Spain) Community *must* be the assumption, not an exception.

And so, Easter morning on Facebook, I wrote the following:

The tomb is empty. We may yet live in a broken world, a world filled with war, hatred, death, sadness, but the empty tomb brings the promise that *this world we live in is not the end*. There is something beyond the corporeal reality we know. There is Hope. And it is alive today. Happy Easter.

Easter morning I ran sound at Jacob's Well, and for weeks leading up to it I'd been assembling a special Easter pre- and post-service playlist to play while people were congregating and leaving. All were songs that, for me, summed up the Hope that lives in Easter. In case it's of interest to anyone else, here's the list:

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Gary, part 5

From April 5.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Today was Easter. I found you in one of your usual spots. But when I say "I found you," perhaps more accurately I should say I was led to you, because it was a God-thing, not a Jeremy-thing. You see, I left Easter services at Jacob's Well this morning with a sense of Call in the back of my mind, that I should find a homeless person (sorry, "person experiencing homelessness" - I'm still fighting to reign in my label-using instinct) and invite them to Easter lunch with my family. As I started driving, I realized that for each person I saw signing on a street corner today, they probably didn't have a family or a Community to spend this most Holy day with, and that weighed on my heart.

I handed out a couple ministry bags but I didn't "click" with either person enough to invite them to lunch. By that I mean I used "not clicking" as an excuse in the hopes I could get out of the lunch invitation deal (because I'm human). As I kept driving toward Mom and Dad's, though, I was frightened by a dawning realization: what if I'm supposed to bump into you? What if the Spirit planted this seed because I'm supposed to invite you to my family lunch? Remembering how awkward it was bringing you to church, I confess I committed sin against you as I started praying, "please God, don't ask me to do that. And yet, not my will but Yours be done. But please don't ask me to do that."

Nearing Hiawatha from Lake street, I had a choice - I could go straight, and get to my parents' on time. Or I could listen to the Spirit's nudge and turn south. I turned. There were remarkably few people out begging today, which, actually, I'm happy for, because again, how heart-breaking is it to not have anyone to spend Easter with :(. I reached 46th street, the median where you often stand, and there was another man there. I gave him a bag and breathed relief, thinking I was off the hook. Instead of a u-turn, though, the Spirit said turn left. And there I saw you, leaned against the stop sign in the back alley behind the Holiday station.

I'd seen you briefly last week so I knew you were back in town, but this was our first chance to talk, and for me to ask about your kidney transplant (Reader, see part 4). You told me the bad news: within a day of your surgery (though I was glad to hear you'd made it to Des Moines safely), your body rejected the donated kidney, and they had to remove it. Now you're back on frequent dialysis. I didn't know how to respond to you, so I sat in silence.

We talked a bit more, both of us waving on cars in the alley behind me who couldn't figure out that my hazards meant I was parked. I asked why you were out here, and you told me you'd lost your bank card (or something like that?) and couldn't withdraw money to pay the rest of your month's rent until you got a replacement, 10 days from now. (In retrospect I don't really understand your situation - can't you go into the bank and withdraw money without a card? But, I've never experienced what it's like to be homeless, so I guess the reason I don't understand, is because I can't share your mindset.) I asked if you were spending Easter with family, because I remembered you had a sister who lived in state. You said that's true, but she and her husband are vacationing in Australia right now, so you're on your own.

You said until you get your rent paid you're sleeping in the park, and asked if I had a blanket. Well, yes, actually. I made one specially for you. Of course I didn't know it would be you when I made it, but this past winter, on a suggestion from my friend Laura, I bought a bunch of fabric and made some tie-fleeces to keep in my car and hand out to people in need. Practical gift, no problem.

Then you did me in. I was fighting the Spirit fairly successfully, justifying how I could and should just drive away, until you elaborated on how hungry you were. There I was, on my way (late by this point) to a warm, home-cooked meal (and my Dad's a really good cook). And I knew I'd left church, Easter service of all services, with this Spirit-nudge that I'd be inviting a stranger to lunch. Like your and my other encounters, you said the specific key words that the Spirit had already been placing on my heart to be listening for.

Reader, I'd like to digress and tell a story from Upper Room. Months ago, our worship leader Stefan shared about a time he invited several panhandlers to lunch with his friends, at where he knew would be an upscale restaurant. He couldn't very well call his friends in front of his guests and say "I'm bringing homeless people to lunch," so instead (and the way he told this was much more hilarious than how I can recount it now) he dialed one of his friends, timing it carefully to give himself two seconds of talk time after he was through the revolving door but before his guests got inside after him, and in those seconds he blurted out to his friend: "I'm here and Jesus is with me." Click. The way Stefan recounted this at UR, it got a huge laugh. The really funny punch line came next, though, because Stefan's friend on the phone knew him well enough to translate that as "Stefan's bringing a homeless guy with him." </digression>

By this time, Mom was texting me asking how soon I expected to get there. So, while you were putting your stuff in the back seat of my car, I replied to her with this Stefan-inspired text:

10 minutes. Jesus is coming with me. Aka Gary, who I've blogged about. Can you set another spot at the table?

I know, because my parents told me, that this caught them rather off-guard, but they went with the flow and everyone (Mom, Dad, my aunt and uncle and cousin, and a friend from my parents' church) were all incredibly gracious when you and I arrived. And may I say, despite what you said about not feeling well today, I thought you were actually physically moving around better than I'd seen our last several encounters, and you were significantly more lucid. This is selfish, but I want to thank you for that, because it made Easter lunch much less awkward than I'd feared it would end up. Praise God for that.

Praise God also, my family made you feel welcome. My suspicion is you don't get to feel welcome very often. They showed you love. And you told me afterward you really liked the egg and ham bake Dad had made, so I know you had had a good meal. My suspicion is you don't get many of those, either.

I have another confession I need to make to you: while I was sitting next to you at the table (somewhat in awe and feeling relief of how un-extraordinary the conversation was), I prayed: "God, is this enough?" Because I know Jesus would have done more. I know Jesus would have invited you to stay the whole afternoon, instead of driving you back to the Holiday right after dessert. Yet I felt God's response to the effect of, "This is enough, this is all I'm going to ask you to do today," followed by the verse about "well done good and faithful servant" (citation: it's in the Bible somewhere).

Our table conversation was truly so uneventful, I don't actually remember much of it. I recall there was a long (and boring) conversation about sports, and it looked like you took a nap during that part (I can't blame you). We heard a little bit about your military service (Reader: Gary served 29 years active duty, which, if you're doing the math, is as long as I have been alive). And my family swapped stories about the various Triduum/Good Friday/Easter services we'd attended at our different churches. And that's about it.

After I brought you back to your corner, I came back home, and we talked about you. We talked about people experiencing homelessness in general. We talked about how to respond, how not to respond, and it was a good conversation. Thank you for that gift, thank you for opening the door to that conversation that would not have happened otherwise.

Years from now my family and I likely aren't going to remember anything else we talked about at Easter lunch, but we are going to remember this Easter that you came to eat with us. All we did was feed you a meal. I hope by doing so, though, that we also gave you a portion of your humanity back, a humanity I fear is too often robbed by the perceptions others feel toward your cardboard sign.

Gary, lest I allow any amount of pride to cloud humility, let me be quite honest about this Easter journey for me: Even though I knew inviting you to Easter lunch was something God was asking me to do (I don't want to say I was "supposed" to or "had" to, because I believe in free will), it was incredibly not-easy breaking down all the barriers of unwillingness and fear, fear of judgement, etc, that I'd set up. I feared bringing you home because I feared it would be awkward. I know I could have said no; I could have driven away and no one would have judged me for that. Heck I'm not even sure I believe God would have judged me for running (first boat to Tarshish, anyone? [Bible joke, Google it]). But after a weekend lamenting how far distant I feel from the Spirit and praying to grow closer, how could I then not follow through when I knew God was specifically inviting me into this opportunity? Am I to have just turned away? What kind of spiritual leader would that make me for my future family, or for my friends and family now? Like I told my parents afterward, I needed to do this for me, because I wanted to be able to look myself in the mirror tomorrow morning. And, I wanted my cousin Amy, 16, to see a tangible example of what living out one's faith might look like (don't get me wrong, she's got a faith of her own, and she has great faith role-models in her parents, but what 16-year-old thinks their parents know anything?). Nevertheless, like I said, it was hard.

God calls each of us to our own unique ways of renewing the world and bringing God's love into it. I, for example, am definitely not [currently in this stage in my life] called to overseas mission trips. Ministry to those experiencing homelessness and poverty, though, is one of my known-to-be-Called-here mission fields. Because of that I know I did the right thing, but it's left me with, temporarily at least, a humility that won't allow me to judge anyone else for driving away. Hopefully, over time, Jesus will continue softening my heart and growing me to be more like Him.

Lastly, I want to specifically thank someone who I've written about before, but who probably has no idea she has had this level of impact in my life. To quote a blog post I wrote last June:

... my friend Nathan and his then-girlfriend-now-wife Catherine were grabbing coffee, when a homeless man approached us. We declined to help him, but Catherine was ill-at-ease with our response, and so we went to a nearby grocery store and she bought him a sandwich and talked with him. Since that moment I've hoped my future wife will be someone like that, but why wait - I want to be that person already, before I meet her. I said to myself, "all right, let's go do this."

Catherine, by living out your faith and love for people, you've inspired me into becoming a better version of myself. Thank you. I'm very glad you and Nate and I got together for coffee that morning years ago, because your actions have changed my life.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


My first colonoscopy was as a 10th grader back in 2001. After dodging that bullet for 14 years my doctor told me I really should get another one to check up on my Crohn's, so, that happened today. Everyone says the prep is the worst, and, everyone is right. Fortunately I have a great manager who let me take yesterday afternoon off to spend at home... "cleansing".

The good news: my colonoscopy is over. (and I have a wonderful father who took off work to drive me and wait for me)

The better news: it wasn't nearly as bad I as I'd feared it could have been.

The even betterer news: the doctor said "the quality of [my] prep was excellent".

And the bestest news: "No findings of active inflammatory disease at any level." Praise God. (I'm pretty sure I even said that in the exam room when he told me, though with the partial sedation it's a little fuzzy). I mean, I still have Crohn's, it's a lifelong and [currently] incurable disease, but at least it is under control! I'm only a couple degrees of separation from people who's Crohn's is greatly impactful, if not debilitating, in their lives. I'm very lucky. So I say again, praise God.

Lastly, a special shout out to the staff at the Minnesota Endoscopy Center (right off University in St Paul) : every one of your nurses and doctors that interacted with me had *exceptionally* good bedside manners. They were very friendly, patient, and most importantly: made me feel *completely at ease* from the moment I walked in the lobby door, through the moment I left. Thank you.

Now it's time to eat something. Dad bought me Subway on the way home, so, om-nom-nom!

(and then, sleep)

Friday, March 06, 2015

Out In The Cold

I wrote some blurbs on Facebook about Out In The Cold, but it deserves a full-fledged blog post, too.

Out In The Cold is a documentary about homelessness in Minneapolis, and we just finished shooting Wednesday (two days ago). For the movie, my friends John and JD put themselves out on the street to live homeless for seven days. While John and JD are the main "characters" in the documentary, it's really about telling the stories of those who live experiencing homelessness day-in/day-out. John and JD got to hit the "off" switch after a week, and go back to their homes and jobs. People truly experiencing homelessness don't have that privilege. We want to bring light to their stories.

My involvement started in November at an Upper Room social gathering. Talking about filmmaking with my then-acquaintance-now-friend, JD (I'm pretty sure he has a real name, but no one knows what it is, so we call him "JD"), I asked if he had any fun projects coming up, and he told me he was in pre-production for Out In The Cold. At this point I believe I began gesticulating wildly (cue Lost In Space robot) and asked how I could get involved, because homelessness and beggars are issues I care about passionately. Long conversation short, I came on board as line producer, aka, a "details man", for the production.

We enlisted dozens of volunteers from Upper Room to serve 4-hour shifts as production assistants during the shoot, to help collect release forms, carry equipment, drive getaway cars, etc. I scheduled them as best I could to give us 24-hour coverage, especially on the riskier nights that John and JD would be sleeping outside. We also made an appeal at Jacob's Well, and several people offered donations on the spot, which was incredibly humbling and affirming.

Two Mondays ago, the crew met to iron out any last minute details; on Tuesday they shot some interviews and B-roll, then on Wednesday morning, John and JD began their adventure. I didn't have spare vacation time to take the whole week off work, so I worked my normal 9-5, and then joined the crew each evening to help "on set" (downtown Minneapolis), and then take care of dumping/backing up footage & sound, as well as daily paperwork, sending call sheets for the next day, and dealing with receipts and money. Despite missing the daylight hours of shooting, I actually did get to spend a considerable amount of time with the crew, and we got along exceptionally well (I'd never met the camera operator or sound mixer before our Monday pre-pro meeting). And by "exceptionally well" I mean we had a blast. There was a tremendous amount of mutual respect, and we shared a lot of laughs along the way, too.

Even though I couldn't take the entire week's shoot off from work, it was important to me to be there when John and JD first set out, so I arranged with my manager to take a few hours off Wednesday morning. After shooting a "last breakfast", while the crew packed their gear for the day, John and JD and I circled up and I prayed over them for the week ahead. It was important to me partially because I felt guilty not being able to be there during the days, but moreso because I saw this relating to my dream job (that doesn't exist yet) of being a movie set chaplain (even though this isn't overtly a "Christian film").

For several nights during the shoot, JD had pre-arranged for he and John to sleep in one of the downtown area shelters, but other nights they slept outside in their sleeping bags. Night 1 went without incident - the boys were plenty warm and found an overpass that sheltered them from the wind. Night 3 they did not fare as well; around 10/10:30 they were showing early signs of hypothermia (apparently John said something about his scarf tasting like peanut butter, or rubbing peanut butter all over his face - there is disagreement about what was actually said), and so JD called our overnight PAs, parked in a warm car just a block away, to evacuate them. This quote-unquote "failure" was emotionally difficult on John. On the one hand, our emergency planning worked correctly - we'd staffed PAs for the overnight with explicit directions to check in on the boys often, and they were there to evacuate them immediately. More importantly, pride didn't get in the way, and neither JD nor John "tried to be a hero." On the other hand, this epitomizes the difference between a film project simulating homelessness, and people who are experiencing homelessness for real. JD and John had the privilege of pulling the eject lever, and they were safe. I wrestle with knowing not everyone can do that.

On Saturday, JD left to attend a mandatory workshop for a grant he'd applied for to help fund the movie, and I got to spend the day (starting at the inhuman time of 6:30 a.m.) with John and our crew, Ben and Matt. Since I knew we'd be spending a lot of our day outside, I clad myself in long underwear (purchased during a late-night adventure to a sketchy Kmart the night before) and multiple layers of shirts and coats. For the majority of the day I actually found myself quite comfortable. The morning started slowly, but in the afternoon we interviewed a man signing at a freeway exit, John got some free coffee and a sandwich from the Basilica, and we hung out in the skyways for a bit to warm up. We captured some really cool footage of a phenomenally talented street musician (skyway musician?) named Quinn outside of Macy's. He wasn't homeless, but we interviewed him anyway. One of his insights particularly caught me: he said it's usually the poor people who will throw a few bucks into his guitar case, because they understand what it's like to be in need; rich people just want to hold onto whatever they've got. I don't think he's wrong.

After Quinn we talked in the skyway for probably an hour with a man who'd been in and out of homelessness for 41 years since the age of 9. He didn't agree to be on camera, but was willing to share his story with John offline. And I definitely think he had one or two screws loose (specific example: he said he could always read people, and followed this by saying John was an alcoholic... which isn't anywhere near truth, so...), nevertheless it was a fascinating conversation. He also gave John a pointer on a heated stairwell in the skyway system where John and JD might be able to sleep at night (which they did, two nights later).

At this point, a "man in black" appeared from nowhere and asked us to move along with our camera equipment; he touched a weird key-like thing to a panel in the skyway wall, and then when we looked back, he was gone, poof, disappeared. This became the source of many-a-joke for the afternoon.

Leaving the skyway, we made our way toward the Target Center, where John signed for half an hour at the 394 exit. (behind-the-scenes story: while we were shooting, the Target Center security/anti-terrorism folks came and talked with us about our camera; they were all very professional and courteous, and never actually asked us to leave, since they figured out pretty quickly our camera was aimed across the street, not at their building. Matt the sound mixer and I were amused how incredibly quickly the security manager's interest collapsed when I started talking about homelessness and the documentary. I guess, thanks for figuring out we're not terrorists!).

When John talked about his experience signing, what was fascinating to me is he said people deliberately avoided eye contact with him. There were a couple people who gave him money, and they would say something like, "I'm sorry I can't give more", but then even they would break eye contact and stare straight ahead. I'm guilty of doing that, too, if I'm honest. The most extreme example John told us about was one woman, when she saw John in the left lane, stopped, backed up, and shifted lanes right, to avoid the situation.

Soap box moment: money is really tight for me right now, so I get it about not wanting or not being able to hand out cash to beggars. I'm not advocating one way or the other. But dear Reader, something FREE you can give, is dignity. You can look someone in the eye and acknowledge they are human. That doesn't cost anything. If you feel safe doing so, roll down your window and ask what their name is. Or heck, if you've got extra time on your hands, park your car, walk up to them and ask for their story.

After leaving the Target Center, we stopped at a Starbucks to warm up and de-caffeinate in their restroom. John found another friend to talk to, a crotchety janitorial guy who John said was nice, but like I said, my impression of him was very "get off my lawn." While John talked to him, we observed a young woman sitting behind them dressed ... scantily. In the safety of retrospect, now I actually wish I'd tried to engage her in conversation, because some day I'd like to get involved in the ministry of the XXX Church. I digress.

On our way to meet back up with JD, we interviewed a couple folks on the street, the most memorable for all of us, was Monty. I sure hope a lot of his interview makes it into the final cut of the film, because he was so eloquent in his story. Monty had experienced homelessness twice in his lifetime, but now he has a home, a career, and a family, and he was much better dressed than any of us. My take-away from our conversation with him was, "if I've been homeless for years and you yell at me 'get a job', how am I supposed to do that when I don't have the right clothes, or the interview skills to go in and make a good impression to actually get a job?"

That night we met a couple in their very early twenties who've been homeless for one month, trying to make their way to her dad's home west of Minnesota. We talked with them for a long time, and our whole crew really felt connected to their story. It was one more reminder to me that you never know someone's background until you ask - people enter homelessness from so many different avenues. After their interview, I told them what an inspiration they were to me - they weren't married, they'd not made the "for better and worse" vows, and yet they were truly living out those words; it was deeply heartening to be witness to their story.

On Sunday, I joined the crew in the afternoon between my church services, and to my delight they'd successfully made contact with David, a panhandler I met last month, and he was showing them around. After we wrapped with David, the crew grabbed thai food for lunch, while John ate his peanut butter and jelly sandwich, made using the food he'd bought his first day being homeless. I'm in awe of John, because he had the option of us feeding him "real" food, but he insisted on going method. In his words, the rest of us can do a lot of different jobs on the movie (camera, editing, producing, etc) but he felt he brought only one thing (being the subject of the documentary), and so he was going to do that one thing as best and all-out as he could. We (the crew) all admired and tremendously respected his grit, and we repeatedly said this even behind John's back.

By Monday night, we were all really worried about the shelter where John and JD would be staying that night, because apparently everyone they'd talked to on the street had told them "don't stay there, it's dangerous." On our way there we were heckled by an intoxicated fellow who'd only recently left homelessness, and was clearly very bitter about his poverty as compared to our relative wealth. As we walked away, I told him, "I know you're in no place to receive this right now, but I will be praying for you." Maybe that sounds judgmental and holier-than-thou; for me it came from a heart of sadness seeing his situation, and knowing that he was right to say I couldn't understand what he'd been through. I meant what I said sincerely. He of course, did not receive it well.

For all the warnings and the jokes-not-really-jokes we made about getting shanked at the Monday night shelter, it turned out rather anti-climactic. I'm pretty sure we saw at least one drug deal go down on our way in, but aside from that when we were inside we felt relatively safe. Just in case, though, we did have two PAs circling the block in their car as a quick getaway vehicle. We "tucked-in" John and JD and then the crew and I left. The boys were still alive next morning so... that was a good thing :)

Having spent the weekend helping on set, coming back to work Monday morning was hard. I wrote something on my Facebook wall, and it still holds true:

After spending the weekend on the streets with Out In the Cold, it's challenging coming back to my comfortable 9-5 cubicle job. I'd say "first world problem" except, the problem with that is, poverty and homelessness *IS* a first world problem. I met it face to face, through the stories of Robert, Tim, Monty, Mikal & Judith, David, and so many more.

After production wrapped Wednesday afternoon, the crew went out for drinks, and I joined JD later in the day after I got off work. In addition to discussing with JD the deeply philosophical question, "how is it a lot of these guys experiencing homelessness have girlfriends, and we don't?", it was a good time to come down off the high of the film, and share thoughts. For me, some of the most rewarding moments were hearing how the interviews affected our two crew guys, who are awesome people but still hired for the job, not necessarily emotionally invested like JD, John, and myself were. Yet I think they became emotionally invested, and were touched by the stories they heard.

Practically everyone's asked, "when will the movie be done?" JD's goal is to be accepted into an Oscars-eligible festival, which would include Sundance, South by Southwest, the Twin Cities Film Fest, and a few others. Sundance's deadline will be in August/September timeframe, so that's what we'll be targeting, at least for now.

If you're interested in following the film, check it out on Facebook at

And now, if you'll excuse me, I've been around people non-stop for the past week and a half, and I desperately need some introvert time to recharge. If you need me, I'll be at home, staring at a wall.

Monday, February 16, 2015


Today is a "feel good about myself because I'm doing good things that make me look [from outside appearances] like a 'good person'" day. (please read that and the next few sentences tongue-in-cheek, with a hint of egotistical truth) Driving home from donating blood (because I'm a good person), I saw a panhandler across the intersection just as I was turning onto the freeway entrance ramp, and felt the Spirit nudging me to do something about it (because I'm a holy person). Using my GPS I went out of my way to backtrack and finally parked, grabbed a "homeless bag" of goodies (I really really need to rename those) and walked up to him.

David and I shook hands and talked for... maybe 15-20 minutes? It wasn't very long, but long enough for my ears to turn red (sorry Mom, I forgot to wear my hat), and my body to start shivering. As my friends know, I don't really wear coats, so I typically find myself ill-prepared for standing in sub-freezing temps for any length of time longer than it takes to walk from my car to a building. Anyway, I asked David to share his story. He started, then stopped abruptly and asked "you don't have a camera on you, do you?" I assured him I did not. (And funny aside: I actually forgot my voice recorder at home this morning, so I couldn't have been recording even if I'd wanted to!)

David is part (or wholly?) Native American, and grew up in "nord'east" Minneapolis, and in fact his parents still live here. I'm guessing he's mid-forties. He told me the reason he signs at this particular corner is because, for him, it's a memorial site, sacred ground. He had another friend experiencing homelessness who died last October, near this corner - the cops found him alcohol'd to death under a van in a parking lot, probably he crawled under there to stay out of the rain. David put a small bracelet on the fencepost at this corner as his own memorial.

I never blogged about it, but back in December I joined my friends JD and John to observe the Homeless Memorial March put on by Simpson House, a march down Nicollet Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, during rush hour, to remember those who passed away this past year either while experiencing homelessness, or who had experienced it in the past. When David told me about his friend, I wondered if I'd heard his name read at the memorial service. (If you're interested in joining next year, here is more information about the March, scheduled for December 17, 2015).

I digress. David told me he just checked out of rehab (meth) this morning, and is staying on a buddy's couch for the next few days, and planning to move to Albuquerque in early March. "Good!" I said. "Get out of this cold!!" He told me about a typical day signing (this was a new vocab word for me - when you see someone on the side of the road holding a sign, they call that "signing". I hadn't known. It sounds much nicer than pan-handling, or, begging), shared some funny stories about *good* encounters with police officers, about how much he makes in a day (today so far, after 4 hours: $13. Other days, like Christmas, $170 in three hours), and about witnessing multi-car accidents on the freeway on some of the icier days. Oh, and something I found fascinating: he said when he's signing and there are several beggars there, they'll take turns, like swap out every half hour, to be fair with each other... and so they don't get into a fight :/

He told me about his friends and their tent city, and that they keep each other safe by sticking together at night. He told me his parents are giving him the "tough love" right now, and that's part of why he's moving to New Mexico. (aside: having read the book "Boundaries", if I knew more about his history and his parents, I might actually/probably side with them, but, that didn't need to affect our interaction for today). And he told me about his bouts with frostbite.

We talked briefly about faith - I'd mentioned it was a "God thing" that I'd stopped, and he agreed about how "God works in mysterious ways." David had grown up Catholic, and I'm Lutheran (albeit in recent years moreso Pentacostol-Lutheran, if such a thing can be labeled). I asked him if he was going to stay clean, now that he's out of rehab, and he said of the drugs, yes, of the liquor no. I confessed to him "man, if I were in your shoes, I'd be drinking, too."

Eventually I left. I got to leave homelessness behind, get back into my nice, warm, too-expensive car, and drive back to my house, to be warmed by my new furnace. For now I choose not to feel guilt over this, but I will at least acknowledge my privilege that I get to walk away from homelessness, and hunger.

For me, interacting with David was much less awkward than talking with Gary, mostly because David didn't have the physical limitations/issues that Gary does (by the way, no new updates from Gary, part 4, yet:(. And in fact, talking with David didn't seem weird. I mean, granted, it's not like he's my best friend and I'm going to open all my darkest secrets to him, but, he was honest. Every beggar I've ever talked to (Matt, Gary, and others just for a few seconds with my window rolled down waiting for the light to turn green) has always been incredibly straightforward when I've asked them "what's your story?" I suspect when your dignity gets beaten down that far, there's very little you care about hiding anymore.

Now, if I were in your mind, Reader, I'd be asking me, "Why? It's one thing to give a beggar a dollar, or even a bag with water bottle and cereal bars, but, why, when it's freezing outside, would you park, and strike up a conversation?"

If you've read many of my previous posts, you already know that to answer those questions, I'm going to re-quote Beggars in Spain, which has been the most influential book in my life, second only to the Gospels:

What the strong owe beggars is to ask each one why he is a beggar and act accordingly. Because community is the assumption, not the result. And only by giving non-productiveness the same individuality as excellence, and acting accordingly, does one fulfill the obligation to the beggars in Spain.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Gary, part 4

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

I saw you across the Hiawatha and 46th intersection, pan-handling from the median, as I turned toward home. Toward my fully furnished, food-laden home. I decided to be interruptible, to let this be a God-moment. I didn't know it was you yet - in fact my *expectations* were that you'd be a nameless stranger begging on the corner, that I could hand you a "homeless bag" (I really need to come up with a new name for those), and that when the arrow turned green, I could drive away, feeling good about myself because I'd stopped and acknowledge your humanity, but then not have to follow through in any depth. Those were my expectations, and if I'm bold enough to admit it, those were my hopes.

And so, uncannily reminiscent (in retrospect) of the night we met, I turned at that same corner, went down Minnehaha, came back on Hiawatha, and got into the turn lane.

I'm at a loss to fully describe what emotions took place when I started to recognize your unkempt, graying beard, and the eyes hiding above it. Excitement at the opportunity for redemption from my previous failures. (see "Gary, part 3") Dread at the reality that encountering you again might mean bringing you to church again. (see "Gary, part 2") Joy akin to finding a long lost friend. Relief that you were still alive and relatively "okay." Hope that our story, yours and mine somehow Divinely intertwined, was not yet over. Peace and a sense of resolution because I could finally hear what happened in the chapter after our last meeting.

I rolled down my window, and fumbled out what I think were truly genuine words about being glad to see you again. I'm pretty sure they were genuine, anyway. I'd reached acceptance from my failed attempts to contact you, but I still felt somehow incomplete. Enough "I"s.

You shook violently, muscles spasming, probably because the temperature was at the freezing point. The arrow light had just turned red, so we had some time to talk. You told me you'd been hit by a drunk driver 7 days ago. He drove for an entire city block with you still on his hood/windshield, before he was stopped by police. He's in jail now, while you spent a week in the hospital, recovering.

The light turned green. I turned and parked at Walgreens, and came back to stand with you. Why are you out here? I thought you moved into your apartment? You did. But you have no food. Your check from the VA won't come until the 15th - because of the snow out east, 1,500 veterans' snail-mail checks got delayed getting mailed, and you were one of them. You've set up direct deposit for next month, but that's no help right now.


And here my greatest worry this morning was running late to my car's oil change appointment. Thank you for the reality check.

I thought about offering to go grocery shopping for you, but before I could offer you said there's a woman in Des Moines who wants to give you a new kidney, and your sister is going to come down from International Falls to drive you there, tonight. Maybe. If she gets off work in time. Otherwise you don't know how you're going to get there. You've been waiting for a kidney a long time, and if this doesn't work out, you told your sister you might put a gun to your head to end it, because you don't have much (any?) hope left to keep you going. You weren't melodramatic about it, you weren't asking for a pity-party, for you this was just a matter of cold facts.

The doctors want you in Des Moines by 9 p.m. so they can get you checked into the hospital and prepped for a 3 a.m. start to surgery. I briefly considered what it would look like for me to drive you myself, but asked instead if there was a bus or train or something that ran down there. Apparently there is! It costs $45. Which is another reason you're out here begging today. No food, and no bus fare.

$45 is a lot more do-able than a 4.5 hour (x2) drive. I offer, "If you want to take the bus, I will buy your ticket." Unspoken were the words, "even though I mostly trust you, by buying the ticket myself I know exactly where the money is going." A gift with strings attached. You say they only take cash, something about no credit card readers on most of the busses, and the ones that do have them, the credit name needs to match the ticket holder's name. That's fine, we can stop at an ATM on the way; I re-iterate that "if you want to take the bus, I will do that for you." You agreed.

While we were standing on the median, a driver-by rolled down his window and handed you his pocket change. You told me later you knew him, that he'd only come off the streets recently himself. I don't know the right vocabulary right now for the emotions that evoked.

I'm also left to my own imagination wondering who may have been influenced, or who I may have indirectly ministered to, by the act of standing out on a median of a very busy intersection, talking to you for over a quarter of an hour. Who may have seen that and been moved, or a seed planted? I will never have that answer, and I'm okay with that, because I can choose to imagine at least one person was affected by what they saw. I hope, anyway, because if we're not spreading good, and if there are no hearts open to being changed, then that is a sad world indeed.

You jaywalk and I follow (is it mean of me to think briefly "no wonder you get hit by cars"?), you struggle up the grass to the parking lot where my car waits, blame me that you stumbled backward and fell to your knees (sorry, guess I'll stop trying to help), and finally we make it to my car. You warn me that your walker's wheels are muddy, so I lay down a blanket on my back seat before you fold it up and stick it inside the car. You're remarkably ... "proud"? might be the word? You don't want help, you want to do as much on your own as you're capable of. I guess I can identify. I'm impressed. You might be a beggar today, but with an "I can do this" personality trait, I don't believe you are by choice.

Standing outside my car, you light up a cigarette, and explain it's going to be your last one. Like, ever. Because you'll be spending the next 30 days in the hospital, and they won't let you out for a smoke break. Your New Year's resolution was to quit smoking, and today's the day.

All-told you were remarkably more coherent today than the last time we talked. Maybe it's the hope of a new kidney tonight? Or maybe it's that you're more comfortable around me after a few encounters?

We stopped at the bank for me to get cash, then onward to the UofM medical buildings. You tell me how you've been on anti-rejection meds for the past three months. You're generally excellent at giving directions, though we did have that one disagreement when you claim you said "turn left here" and I definitely heard you say "turn left up there at <street name>" but whatever. I learn your other sister is moving back from Germany soon to live with you in Minnesota and help take care of you. All in all it kind of sounds like your life is coming back together.

I dropped you off and got your walker out for you. You got out of the car all on your own, despite your weak legs. Definitely an encouraging sign. You've got fight left in you. I asked if you could ask the hospital in Des Moines to call me after your surgery, so I know how it went. Unspoken: "so I know if you survived." You said you would. Time will tell on that; who knows what rules they have, so even if you ask maybe they won't be able to. But I hope to hear. I ask you how much money you want, and hand you enough for the bus fare, and a little extra for food.

And somewhere in our parting comments, you mentioned how you liked my morning church, Jacob's Well, and wanted to come back. I told you to call me when you're back in town, and I guess I'll wrestle through the implications of that in a month.

I feel at peace with our story. Not just acceptance at my own inability to change the situation (as before), but true peace, a sense of completion, resolution. Maybe our story will continue, maybe not. But I do thank you Gary, because you have expanded my comfort zone. I mean, you still make me feel uncomfortable, but... less so than I did before. And I believe that's what they call "growth."

May God travel with you and bring you healing. Amen.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Gary, part 3

From January 18.

Part 1 | Part 2

You called and left me a voicemail at 6:30 this morning. (my world rarely exists that early). I'd wondered if you would call. I woke up and saw the voicemail from an unknown 612 number, and I figured it was probably you. The first of many confessions: I confess I dilly-dallied listening to my voicemails, because not knowing was infinitely safer than knowing that you had actually called to ask if you could come to church with me.

Eventually I listened to to your message; you said you'd be out at the usual place. And I struggled. Actually I struggled all morning not even knowing for sure what the voicemail was. Because I realized I want a safe life. I want a comfortable life. I don't want to be pushed outside my comfort zone, and you push me outside my comfort zone. When I'm at church I want to do the things that I want to do and see the people that I want to see. I resolved that if I did bring you today, I would be selfish and tell you "I'm going to help tear down today, and I'm going to visit with my friends" and the killer is, I know you would have been okay with that.

I left home later than I'd planned, and plugged in my iPhone and listened to two songs, Brand New Day and Lord of Lords, and I was crushed by their lyrics:

This is our time, this is our time
To make a new tomorrow
This is our call, this is our call
Can you hear the sound of change
Kick down doors, tear down walls, bring light to the shadows
Will you join me in the streets, living out what you believe,
Cause it's who you're meant to be
Will you love a broken world, til the people are restored
And His truth is reigning

followed by:

I am Your servant
Come to bring You glory
As is fit for the work of Your hands

and I knew the answer to "what would Jesus do?" He'd be out there on the corner with you, He'd be talking to you there, He wouldn't be questioning it at all, it would have been an automatic response, but for me it is so hard. Crying from and cursing my naïve prayers in which I'd begged for a Spirit-led life, I realized my "default" action (the action I'd end up taking if I failed to make a conscious decision) was: I had to pick you up. I drove down to 46th, drove past the gas station, and you weren't there. I was later than you'd expected me, so I drove toward your new apartment, supposing maybe I'd find you walking that direction. No joy. I came back, parked, poked my nose in the Burger King, in case you'd gone inside to warm up. I couldn't find you.

I must make another confession: I felt relief. In fact I was hugely relieved. And I am so, so sorry that my response to not finding you resembled joyful peace instead of lament. You are a human being, and you deserved better. Once again I found myself praying: "Jesus, I'm sorry I'm not You." The more I read the Gospels the more it has become abundantly clear that Jesus loves and cares for the poor and the outcast. How then can I call myself a follower of Jesus if I do not follow His model?

So here we are. I can't call you back, because you don't have a phone, and you've called me from a different number each time. (actually, I did try: one number was answered by a squealing modem; another turned out to be the corner gas station, and so I asked the attendant that, if he saw you, to ask you to call me; and the third was some random dude's cell phone who'd let you borrow his phone only once, and was quite flummoxed why I was calling [understandable, sir - I readily admit it's a weird introduction to say "Hi, my name's Jeremy, and I gave a pan-handler my number and he used your phone to call me, are you still in contact with him?"]).

I've struck out. I don't have much left in the way of options for finding you. Worse, I feel like I bait-and-switch'd you; while bringing you to church with me once may have been being the "hands and feet" of Jesus for that one day, I know my behavior after that fell far short of ideal, and I'm sorry.

Despite my failure, I will allow myself at least a little bit of Grace, because of this: Monday, the day after I didn't bring you to church, I had a phone call with one of the pastors about his upcoming sermon, and he asked about you. He'd seen us together last Sunday, and he said he was moved, and challenged, and inspired. It left him asking a lot of questions about his own walk of faith. And from the comments on my Facebook wall from my previous blog posts, I know he wasn't alone. I've long believed (and experienced) that God brings people into our lives who will inspire us at exactly the right moment, often in a permanently life-altering way. Gary, whether we meet again in this life or not, you were a rock tossed into my life's stream, causing a splash, causing ripples, and permanently altering the face of the riverbed.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Audiobook reflection: Looking for Alaska

At the end of November I finished another John Green novel called Looking for Alaska (John Green also being the author of The Fault In Our Stars [which I read in 2014 but didn't blog about] and co-author of Will Grayson, Will Grayson, which I read not long ago). The story follows teenager Miles (nicknamed "Pudge," because he's actually very skinny) during his junior year at a boarding school away from home. He befriends prank-loving fellow students Chip ("The Colonel") and Alaska, and they have many adventures... I make it sound like an after-school special, but it's not, I just can't say much more than that without giving away half the story.

This author has an hilarious and often hyperbolic writing style that frequently cracked me up, even though I was listening by myself. For example, this quote:

He told me this while ripping through his duffle bag, throwing clothes into drawers with reckless abandon. Chip did not believe in having a sock drawer or a t-shirt drawer; he believed that all drawers were created equal, and filled each with whatever fit.

When I heard that, I thought to myself, "this reminds me a lot of how the author in Will Grayson, Will Grayon described his characters." Then I remembered, oh, right, same author! Not that I'm the pickiest critic ever, but seeing as this is book #3 of his that I've read in 6 months, I think that says something.

Much of the book's conversations and inner-voice monologues revolve around these two central quotes: Simón Bolívar, "How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?" and François Rabelais, "I go to seek a Great Perhaps." In a rather flippant way, I think those quotes aptly express the human experience: how do I deal with life, what is my Calling, what is my potential, where does it all lead?

While L4A can be vulgar, I agree with the author's comments that I found quoted on the Wikipedia article:

"Some people say, 'You wrote a dirty, dirty book.' But there are very old-fashioned values and even a lot of religion in it.... There are some adults who think that the only kind of ethics that matter are sexual ethics. So they miss everything else that is going on in the book."

The characters behave realistically, and more importantly, the story addresses some heavy hitting issues, like (spoiler alert) death. The book is divided roughly in half, with each chapter heading reading either, for example, "51 days before," or, "3 days after," with the central unifying event between those two halves being the death of one of the main characters' friends. Journeying with them on their paths toward healing is a powerful experience as a reader. I think this quote in particular captures something of what it's like to lose someone you care about:

I have lost something important, and I cannot find it and I need it. It is fear like if someone lost his glasses, and went to the glasses store, and they told him that the world had run out of glasses, and he would just have to do without.

What I really like, though, is that the author doesn't rush the characters through mourning. They get half the book to work through their five grief stages. I don't think enough stories give that necessary space.

On a last, happier note: I loved the religion teacher, Dr Hyde, who garnered a number of my favorite quotes (below). Also the narrator's choice of old-man voice for Dr Hyde was quite amusing, really helped sell his "get off my lawn" attitude.

My favorite quotes

"So this guy... François Rabelais. He was this poet, and his last words were, 'I go to seek a Great Perhaps'" That's why I'm going. So I don't have to wait until I die to start seeking a Great Perhaps." - 5:05
He told me this while ripping through his duffle bag, throwing clothes into drawers with reckless abandon. Chip did not believe in having a sock drawer or a t-shirt drawer; he believed that all drawers were created equal, and filled each with whatever fit. - 17:08
Her library filled her bookshelves, and then overflowed into waist-high stacks of books everywhere, piled haphazardly against the walls. If just one of them moved, I thought, the domino effect could engulf the three of us in an asphyxiating mass of literature. - 23:36
"Have you really read all those books in your room?"
She laughed.
"Oh, God no. I've maybe read a third of 'em. But, I'm going to read them all. I call it my life's library. Every summer since I was little, I've gone to garage sales and bought all the books that looked interesting, so I always have something to read. But there's so much to do! Cigarettes to smoke, sex to have, swings to swing on. I'll have more time for reading when I'm old and boring."
She told me that I reminded her of the Colonel when he came to Culver Creek. They were freshmen together, she said, both scholarship kids with, as she put it, "a shared interest in booze and mischief."
The phrase "booze and mischief" left me worrying I'd stumbled into what my mother referred to as "the wrong crowd." But, for the wrong crowd, they both seemed awfully smart. - 33:03
You can say a lot of bad things about Alabama, but you can't say that Alabamans as a people are unduly afraid of deep-friers. In that first week at the Creek, the cafeteria served fried chicken, chicken-fried steak, and fried okra, which marked my first foray into the delicacy that is the fried vegetable. I half expected them to fry the iceberg lettuce. But nothing matched the Buffrito.... A deep-fried bean burrito, the Buffrito proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that frying always improves a food. - 37:55
"My name... is Dr Hyde. I have a first name, of course, so far as you are concerned it is 'Doctor.'" - Dr Hyde, 57:55
" may be smart, but I've been smart longer." - Dr Hyde, 59:03
This teacher rocked. I hated discussion classes. I hated talking and I hated listening to everyone else stumble on their words and try to phrase things in the vaguest possible way so they wouldn't sound dumb. And I hated how it was all just a game of trying to figure out what the teacher wanted to hear and then saying it. I'm in class, so teach me! And teach me he did. In those 50 minutes, the old man made me take religion seriously. I'd never been religious, but he told us that religion is important whether or not we believed in one, in the same way that historical events are important whether or not you personally lived through them. - 1:00:14
I learned that "myth" doesn't mean a lie. It means a traditional story that tells you something about people and their worldview, and what they hold sacred. - 1:01:41
"Jesus, I'm not gonna be one of those people who sits around talking about what they're gonna do. I'm just gonna do it! Imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia.... You spend your whole life stuck in the labyrinth, thinking about how you'll escape it one day, and how awesome it'll be, and imagining that future keeps you going but you never do it. You just use the future to escape the present." - Alaska, 1:42:25
[Alaska] said that it was sexist to leave the cooking to the women, but better to have good sexist food than crappy boy-prepared food. - 2:54:58
People, I thought, wanted security. They couldn't bear the idea of death being a big black nothing, couldn't bear the thought of their loved ones not existing, and couldn't even imagine themselves not existing. I finally decided that people believed in an afterlife because they couldn't bear not to. - 3:11:23
...he really didn't seem worth hating. Hating the cool kids takes an awful lot of energy, and I'd given up on it a long time ago. - 3:31:43
There comes a time when we realize that our parents cannot save themselves or save us. That everyone who wades through time eventually gets dragged out to sea by the undertow. That, in short, we are all going. So she became impulsive, scared by her inaction into perpetual action. - 3:50:40
I thought, that is the fear. I have lost something important, and I cannot find it and I need it. It is fear like if someone lost his glasses, and went to the glasses store, and they told him that the world had run out of glasses, and he would just have to do without. - 4:29:38
She had proved to me that it was worth it to leave behind my minor life for grander maybes. And now she was gone, and with her, my faith in perhaps. - 5:25:02
You left me perhaps-less. - 5:25:31
"Karl Marx famously called religion 'the opiate of the masses.' Buddhism, particularly as it is popularly practiced, promises improvement through Karma. Islam and Christianity promise eternal paradise to the faithful, and that is a powerful opiate, certainly, the hope of a better life to come. But there's a Sufi story that challenges the notion that people believe only because they need an opiate. Rabi`a al `Adawiyya, a great woman saint of Sufiism, was seen running through the streets of her home town, Basra, carrying a torch in one hand, and a bucket of water in the other. When someone asked her what she was doing, she answered, 'I am going to take this bucket of water and pour it on the flames of hell. And then, I am going to use this torch to burn down the gates of paradise, so that people will not love God for want of heaven or fear of hell, but because He is God.'" - Dr Hyde, 5:27:48
The Buddha said that suffering was caused by desire, we learned, and that the cessation of desire meant the cessation of suffering. When you stopped wishing things wouldn't fall apart, you'd stop suffering when they did. 6:11:21
We'd failed, maybe, but some mysteries aren't meant to be solved. - 6:41:46
"You need not specifically discuss the perspectives of different religions in your essay, so no research is necessary. Your knowledge, or lack thereof, has been established in the quizzes you've taken this semester. I am interested in how you are able to fit the incontestable fact of suffering into your understanding of the world, and how you hope to navigate through life in spite of it.

Next year, assuming my lungs hold out, we'll study Taoism, Hinduism, and Judaism together."

The old man coughed, and then started to laugh which caused him to cough again.

"Lord, maybe I won't last! But, about the three traditions we've studied this year, I'd like to say one thing: Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism each have founder figures, Mohammed, Jesus, and the Buddha respectively. And in thinking about these founder figures, I believe we must finally conclude that each brought a message of radical hope.

To seventh century Arabia, Mohammed brought the promise that anyone could find fulfillment and everlasting life through allegiance to the one true God. The Buddha held out hope that suffering could be transcended. Jesus brought the message that the last shall be first, that even the tax collectors and lepers, the outcasts, had cause for hope. And so that is the question I leave you with in this final: what is your cause for hope?" - Dr Hyde, 6:48:32
"After all this time, it still seems to me like 'straight and fast' is the only way out. But I choose the labyrinth. The labyrinth blows, but, I choose it." - The Colonel, 6:51:08
He was gone, and I did not have time to tell him what I had just now realized: that I forgave him, and that she forgave us. And that we had to forgive to survive in the labyrinth. There were so many of us who would have to live with things done and things left undone that day, things that did not go right, things that seemed okay at the time because we could not see the future. If only we could see the endless string of consequences that result from our smallest actions. But we can't know better, until knowing better is useless. - 6:54:46
Thomas Edison's last words were, "It's very beautiful over there." I don't know where "there" is, but I believe it's somewhere, and I hope it's beautiful. - 6:59:57
"I was born into Bolívar's labyrinth, and so I must believe in hope of Rabelais's Great Perhaps." - The Author, 7:03:03

Monday, January 19, 2015

Gary, part 2

From January 11.

Gary came to church today.

You called me last night around 9, asked if that offer to bring you to church was still good; I said yes, and you said you'd be in the usual place.

When I picked you up, I became grateful for my dull sense of smell. You had trouble moving, struggled again to put on your seatbelt. You hadn't had breakfast yet, so I gave you one of my "homeless bags" to munch on a cereal bar. You got to see me hand out a couple more during our drive. I got a quick update from you, too: you'll be moving into your apartment Monday morning - literally 24 hours from now your life will be different.

We got to church awkwardly early. No one at Jacob's Well shows up on time (granted: hyperbole), but we were like, 15 minutes early. I clearly miscalculated this. If I'm honest, I was hoping we could sneak in unseen. You wrestled your way out of my car. When we got in the door, I introduced you to ... was it Melissa? Someone. "This is my friend Gary". You mumbled something incomprehensible, because the band was still rehearsing and the music drowned your words. You meandered painfully slowly to the coffee table and poured yourself some of that black bitter water.

We found a seat in the corner where you could stretch out your legs. Is it wrong I'm grateful you didn't want to sit in the front row? I told you you were more than welcome to refill your coffee during the service; what I didn't anticipate was your difficulty navigating stairs - you less-so walked down and more-so fell-down them, but maintained vertical-ness with assistance from your bent and dented cane (apparently another taxi hit you in the last few days, adding another reminder of life's unfairness to your already-battle-scarred cane).

You talked to me a little too loud during the songs - or maybe, just maybe, I was being extra sensitive and fearful of people judging me. (why? because I'm overly concerned with other peoples' perceptions of my delicately crafted external persona; because I live in America and that's what we do).

I was eternally grateful when my friend Chris came and sat with us, so I wasn't alone.

In his sermon, Greg told us a story about his family driving back from Wisconsin 15 years ago. They were already running late, traffic was backed up, but they still stopped to help an old man change his tire on the side of the road. 15 years later none of them remember where they were coming from or going to or what happened because they were late, but they ALL remember stopping to help that man. This was, as Greg called it, one of those "damn you Jacob's Well!" moments :) Seemed timely. I think I just took a crash course on learning that lesson for myself.

Church ended, I wanted to catch up with a couple people, you said take my time, while you downed some more of that gross black caffeinated liquid. You handed me your cup to throw away, and said you'd meet me at the door. I came back to see you eyeing up the steps, bracing yourself, and performing your [scarily dramatic, Gene Wilder/Willy Wonka-esque] fall-rather-than-step act. Well, except I'm sure it wasn't an act. You stuck your landing, vertical still, a good 6 feet from the base of the steps. So awkward. I look around. Yep, people saw. Awkward awkward awkward.

Melissa came up and asked if you were new, and gave you a small bag of chocolates as a "welcome to Jacob's Well" gift. At which point you decided you couldn't wait 1 minute 'til we got to my car, but instead needed to stop walking, open the bag [agonizingly slowly] and eat them right there, in the middle of the exit pathway. I admit: I just wanted to go, I just wanted to get myself out of that situation. Because I much prefer ministering to people of my own financial class. It's easier, it's less scary, and it's less uncomfortable. You pushed my comfort zone.

I had to buckle you in and get out to close your car door for you. On our ride back you asked about my evening church; I tried nonchalantly to say "I'm meeting a friend beforehand for a movie," aka, 'please don't ask me if you can come with, please please please...' Because I was embarrassed. That whole comfort zone thing, remember? And you telling me about your medical issues, how much your stomach hurt, how you'd started bleeding again last night (don't know where, don't really want to know, just please don't bleed on my 1-year-old car! #firstworldproblem), and how you expected to end up in the ER [again] today, and maybe it's all hyperbole but it makes me uncomfortable and I'm not used to dealing with this!

Yet at the same time... I know that the Jeremy today has seen tremendous growth from the Jeremy of ten years ago. I remember in 2004 when I met my friend Matthew, he would stop and help people on the road, all the time. He told me he actually expected he'd die in the midst of trying to help people, like breaking up a bar fight and getting shot, or getting hit on the side of the road trying to help a stalled vehicle; for all his human faults, I have always admired about him his willingness and constant availability to offer help. I also always thought, "I can never be that, that would scare me too much." And now, slowly, I am becoming that person.

Last week, I was driving home, it was close to or past midnight, and I stopped to fill up with gas. A couple mid-late-twenties men approached me asking if I had jumper cables. Based on how they were dressed frankly I thought they were hoodlums looking to jump me instead of their car, but turns out they were actually nice people truly just trying to get their car started. I didn't have cables, but I did happen to have a portable battery jump-starter thing my Dad got me for Christmas, that I thought I'd never use. Well, two and a half weeks post-Christmas, on a bitterly cold night, it enabled me to help some strangers in need. Thank you, Dad.

So here I am, becoming who I want to be, inspired by people like Matthew, and Darrell. To some degree, living out Matthew 25:34-40 (the whole "whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me" thing). I still find myself praying, "Jesus, please forgive me, because I'm not You. I know You would have put your hands Gary and healed him, and invited him to Your home, You would have said 'let Me take care of you,'" and I couldn't bring myself to do that, because there's still a lot of selfishness in me. So, Jesus, I know I didn't ace this one. Probably only got a C-. But that's a few steps above an F, so let's call that progress, okay?

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Audiobook reflection: Predictably Irrational

Way back around Thanksgiving I finished reading (aka "listening to") Predictably Irrational, a book about "behavioral economics," or, "human judgement and decision-making," written by professor of psychology Dan Ariely. For a more complete description of his experiments and conclusions from the book, check out the Wikipedia article, or the book's website,

Some points that jumped out at me:

  • Pulling bandages off patients slowly causes less overall suffering [for the patient] than ripping them "quick like a band-aid." (the author himself was once burned head-to-toe, so has personal experience, in addition to his scientific research, to attest to this)
  • The idea of a "hot state" vs a "cold state," with regards to anger, arousal, road rage, etc. (hint: always better to make decisions in a cold state, aka, not in-the-moment; this can be applied to interpersonal relationships as well as purchasing decisions)
  • Perceiving ownership: once you perceive ownership of a thing, it becomes a real loss psychologically to lose it, even if you never actually owned it. For example: bidding in an auction, you start to think of the thing as yours, emotionally disposing you to fight for it when another bidder outbids you - even though you don't own the item yet, you perceive a "loss" of the item when you're outbid. Other examples included having a 30-day free trial, or a money-back-guarantee.
  • Owners attribute higher value to an item than non-owners. For example, a house owner views his/her home with a higher value than a prospective buyer, partly because of their emotional investment. Same with a car. Dan proposed a goal challenging himself to approach everything as a non-owner. This is something I'll need to bear in mind next time I'm buying something expensive, or trying something out (such as right now, as I've engaged in a 30-day free trial of Amazon Prime).
  • He oft used the word Orwellian, which is a phenomenal word and I must start using it more myself.
  • Regarding prescriptions and over-the-counter medications, " get what you pay for. Price can change the experience." (meaning psychologically, not in actual quality of the medicine)
  • They saw similar results in studies conducted with pain meds, drinking wine, and eating food - the presentation (such as using the right wine glass, or charging more for a brand-name medication) changes our perception of quality, even while in their double-blind taste tests of the same, participants reported no differences.

My favorite quotes

Humans rarely choose things in absolute terms. We don't have an internal value meter that tells us how much things are worth. Rather, we focus on the relative advantage of one thing over another, and estimate value accordingly. For instance, we don't know how much a 6-cylinder car is worth, but we assume it's more expensive than the 4-cylinder model. - 22:27
Most people don't know what they want unless they see it in context. We don't know what kind of racing bike we want until we see a champ in the Tour de France ratcheting the gears on a particular model. We don't know what kind of speaker system we like until we hear a set of speakers that sounds better than the previous one. We don't even know what we want to do with our lives, until we find a relative or friend who is doing just what we think we should be doing. Everything is relative, and that's the point. Like an airplane pilot landing in the dark, we want runway lights on either side of us, guiding us to the place where we can touch down our wheels. In the case of The Economist, the decision between the Internet-only and print-only [subscription] options would take a bit of thinking. Thinking is difficult, and sometimes unpleasant, so The Economist's marketers offered us a no-brainer: relative to the print-only option, the print and Internet option looks clearly superior. The geniuses at The Economist aren't the only ones who understand the importance of relativity. Take Sam, the television salesman. He plays the same general type of trick on us when he decides which televisions to put together on display. A 36" Panasonic for $690, a 42" Toshiba for $850, a 50" Phillips for $1480. Which one would you choose? In this case, Sam knows that customers find it difficult to compute the value of different options. Who really knows if the Panasonic at $690 is a better deal than the Phillips at $1480? But Sam also knows that given three choices, most people will take the middle choice, as in landing your plane between the runway lights. So guess which television Sam prices as the middle option? That's right, the one he wants to sell. - 23:43
It has been shown repeatedly that the link between amount of salary and happiness is not as strong as one would expect it to be. In fact it is rather weak. Studies even find that countries with the happiest people are not among those with the highest personal income. Yet we keep pushing toward higher salary. Much of that can be blamed on sheer envy. As H. L. Mencken, the 20th century journalist, satirist, social critic, cynic, and free-thinker noted: "a man's satisfaction with his salary depends on" - are you ready for this - "whether he makes more than his wife's sister's husband." Why the wife's sister's husband? Because - and I have a feeling that Mencken's wife kept him fully informed of her sister's husband's salary - this is a comparison that is salient and readily available. Now that you know this fact, and assuming that you are not married, take this into account when you search for a soul-mate. Look for someone who's sibling is married to a productivity-challenged individual. - 46:37
...we can actively improve on our irrational behaviours. We can start by becoming aware of our vulnerabilities. Suppose you're planning to buy a cutting edge cell phone... or even a daily $4 cup of gourmet coffee. You might begin by questioning that habit. How did it begin? Second, ask yourself what amount of pleasure you'll be getting out of it? Is the pleasure as much as you thought you would get? Could you cut back a little and spend the remaining money better on something else? With everything you do, in fact, you should train yourself to question your repeated behaviors. In the case of the cell phone, could you take a step back from the cutting edge, reduce your outlay, and use some of the money for something else? And as for the coffee, rather than asking which blend of coffee you will have today, ask yourself whether you should even be having that habitual cup of expensive coffee at all. I am not claiming that spending money on a wonderful cup of coffee every day, or even a few times a day, is necessarily a bad decision. I am saying only that we should question our decisions. We should also pay particular attention to the first decision we make in what is going to be a long stream of decisions, about clothing, food, etc. When we face such a decision, it might seem to us that this is just one decision, without large consequences. But in fact, the power of the first decision can have such a long-lasting effect, that it will percolate into our future decisions for years to come. Given this effect, the first decision is crucial, and we should give it an appropriate amount of attention. - 1:31:36 can maintain the status quo with a 20 cent fee, as in the case of Amazon's shipping in France, or you can start a stampede by offering something free. Think how powerful that idea is. Zero is not just another discount. Zero is a different place. The difference between 2 cents and 1 cent is small, but the difference between 1 cent and zero is huge. - 2:05:51
Money, as it turns out, is very often the most expensive way to motivate people. Social norms are not only cheaper, but often more effective, as well. - 2:45:30
...understanding arousal's impact on behaviour might help society grapple with some of its most difficult problems, such as teen pregnancy, and the spread of HIV/AIDS. There are sexual motivations everywhere we look, and yet we understand very little about how these influence our decision-making. - 2:50:43
A recent study found that a teenager driving alone was 40% more likely to get into an accident than an adult. But with one other teenager in the car, the percentage was twice that. And with a third teenager along for the ride, the percentage doubled again. - 3:12:38
It may be that our models of human behaviour need to be rethought. There is no such thing as a fully integrated human being. We may, in fact, be an agglomeration of multiple selves. Although there is nothing much we can do to get our Dr Jekyll to fully appreciate the strength of our Mr Hyde, perhaps just being aware that we are prone to making the wrong decisions when gripped by intense emotion, may help us in some way to apply our knowledge of our Hyde-selves to our daily activities. How can we force our Hyde self to behave better? - 3:16:54
Interestingly, these results suggest that although almost everyone has problems with procrastination, those who recognize and admit their weakness are in a better position to utilize available tools for pre-commitment, and by doing so help themselves overcome it. - 3:29:48
Resisting temptation and instilling self-control are general human goals, and repeatedly failing to achieve them is a source of much of our misery. When I look around, I see people trying their best to do the right thing, whether they are dieters vowing to avoid a tempting dessert tray, or families vowing to spend less and save more. The struggle for control is all around us. We see it in books and magazine; radio and television airwaves are chocked with messages of self-improvement and help. And yet, for all this electronic chatter and focus in print, we find ourselves again and again in the same predicament as my students: failing over and over to reach our long term goals. Why? Because without pre-commitments we keep on falling for temptation. - 3:30:16
When it comes to medicines, then, we learned that you get what you pay for. Price can change the experience. - 5:30:46
If I were to distill one main lesson from the research described in this book, it is that we are pawns in a game whose forces we largely fail to comprehend. We usually think of ourselves as sitting in the driver's seat, with ultimate control over the decisions we make and the direction our life takes. But alas, this perception has more to do with our desires, with how we want to view ourselves, than with reality. - 7:17:22
A second main lesson is that although irrationality is commonplace, it does not necessarily mean that we are helpless. Once we understand when and where we may make erroneous decisions, we can try to be more vigilant, force ourselves to think differently about these decisions, or use technology to overcome our inherent shortcomings. - 7:19:22