Monday, December 07, 2015

Thirty (or, Life Lessons part 2)

In a few hours I will begin a new decade of life. It would be difficult for me to proclaim my twenties as the "best" years of my life, because every year of life is it's own unique "best"; but overall my twenties were pretty excellent, and I will mourn their passing.

Since I expect the barrage of Facebook well-wishes to begin soon, I thought perhaps I might put up a blog post for everyone to read. A year ago I wrote a short treatise called "Life Lessons I've Learned," and since then I've been compiling a list of more lessons that I forgot to write about the first time. In my personal opinion, that blog post and this one you're about to read constitute the best of my wisdom, but, I should add disclaimers: your mileage may vary; use only as directed; keep yourself well ventilated; resemblance to real persons 100% intentional; some assembly & effort required.

Personal growth advice and lessons-learned

First, advice from my mother: "I strive for perfection, but often have to settle for good enough."

Don't wait on other people in order to live your own life. A trivial example: I spent years waiting to go back to DisneyWorld until I finally had a "significant other" to bring with. This year I decided, "I'm going, whether or not I'm in a relationship." Don't wait on someone else in order to schedule that vacation you've been thinking about, or starting grad school out of state, or buying your first house. Live your own life, do your own thing. If someone else comes into your life that would alter your plan, guess what, you can change the plan.

This is closely related to a life-lesson from last year's post: don't be afraid to do things on your own. Last year when I visited friends in Los Angeles for example, I went on my own to the LA Zoo Christmas lights show, and on the Paramount studio tour, and had a great time at both.

I mentioned this one in last year's list as well, but it's worth re-iterating: schedule "me time" and guard it. The amount required will look different depending where you fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum.

Also schedule project time (writing, movie-making, music-composing, card-writing, home-improving, whatever it may be), and do a better job guarding that time in your calendar than I've been doing lately.

Find your own voice, and avoid assuming every opinion you hear from your teachers, friends, mentors, or pastors is true.

Optimism is a daily choice. And being able to laugh every day sure feels good.

Find a todo-list manager that works for you, be it electronic or paper. The specific tool doesn't matter as much as whether it's something you can use every day to help keep you on track. My current todo-list manager of choice is OmniFocus, though before I've also used Wunderlist and Apple's Reminders. (Also I get really excited when I talk about todo lists and todo list software, so if you need a more technical run-down on any of these options, let's chat!)

Exercise is important, but I still don't enjoy it. Harrumph.

Re-iterating another lesson from my previous post: it never hurts to ask, and the worst that can happen is someone says "no." You may be surprised how far this mentality can bring you.

Interpersonal advice and lessons-learned

I still struggle with this one, but: if you're listening to someone and you realize your only intent in listening is to prove them wrong, stop. No one wants to be listened to just for the sake of being told why they're wrong. (except on the rare occasion when someone actually does ask you for this, like if they ask, "tell me where my thinking is wrong here," which is a completely different situation).

Don't assume that other people are learning the same spiritual or life lessons that you are at the exact same time. Everyone is at their own spot in the journey and we also learn lessons in different orders. Definitely do share your lessons-learned anyway, because you might plant a seed for later on, but don't feel too disappointed if your huge breakthrough turns out not to be immediately applicable by the other person.

Listen to the opinions of people who are older than you. This does not necessarily mean you need to agree with them or adopt their opinions, but even if they're wrong, they have had many more years of life experience that inform that wrong opinion that you have had; at the very least, it's an opportunity for a conversation.

Beware of the "if only"s. "If only that person had done such and such, I'd be less angry" or "if only they would... " Every permutation of those phrases is a trap (cue Admiral Ackbar). People make mistakes, and even if they had done your "if only," you'd still be upset (because the "if only" would move to a new requirement).

Theological advice and lessons-learned

Theology is not black and white, and you can justify anything you want from the Bible. I believe God gave us brains with the expectation we would use them, rather than becoming lemmings. Jesus talks about having faith like a child - now admittedly I don't have children of my own, but one thing I've noticed in others is that they're always asking "why? why? why?" Asking questions about why and what you believe can be scary, but it should never be taboo. If it is, may I suggest you examine what kind of foundation your faith is built on, because if asking one question can bring the whole thing crashing down, that doesn't sound like a very sturdy foundation.

Following on to that, the Kingdom of God has and also requires all kinds of people, including some of the ones you (and I) disagree with. God loves Donald Trump as much as God loves Mother Theresa, or you, or me.

And following on to both of those, make time to spend time with God. My current solution is to read Jesus Calling and a Bible chapter each morning first thing when I wake up, before reading email, when I'm still groggy in bed. While God may not be getting my best at that time of day, God *is* getting my first.

There are certain things that I believe you should be certain of: God's existence, God's love for you, and Easter. Beyond that, if you can remain open to the possibility that your current understanding of the world or theology might not be ultimate truth (which is not to say that you *are* wrong, but just that you're open to the possibility that you don't know everything, or that there might be a deeper understanding than what you have), you will be more mature than pretty much everyone else you ever come into contact with. This also isn't to say that you should doubt everything you know or believe, but rather to acknowledge there exists a possibility that there's more than what you know.

When traveling out of town, try to find a church to visit in your destination city; it's a cool way to explore other forms of worship.

Go on physical walks around the block and invite God to come along, in whatever form you best relate to God. And if you're feeling brave, engage in an out-loud conversation, and be open to hearing back from God in your heart. This idea I got from the movie Harvey, which has nothing specifically to do with God, unless you believe God is a giant invisible and mischievous bunny rabbit.

Financial advice and lessons-learned

Set up a simple budget. If you need a starting point as an example, mine includes separate savings accounts for: rainy-day savings, vacation, home improvement, insurance & property tax, car maintenance & new car fund, love and ministry, child sponsorships, gift-giving, and pre-tax deductions to my 401(k) and FSA. The amounts don't really matter as much as simply saving *something*. Every paycheck, dollars are automatically pulled from my checking account into each of those savings accounts, and then whatever's left I know is available for spending. Also you can have up to 30 free savings accounts at, so, really, no excuses.

If you need to rent a car, I discovered can actually work out to name your own price. Last year I saved $60 on my LA rental, and another sum (I forget the exact number) on a car when I visited Denver. The only caution is that you can't change the reservation.

I've discovered that public libraries have audiobooks you can check out for FREE. I've since canceled my account, which had been a $200+/year expense. The drawbacks are that the OverDrive app isn't as stable as Audible's app, nor as full-featured, and sometimes you have to wait before a book becomes available (just like any popular paperback may have a waiting list), but, did I mention the audiobooks are FREE? (Including a ton of Star Wars books...)

Lessons I hope to learn in the next decade

I hope to choose being pleasant over being smart. To quote Jimmy Stewart's character from one of my favorite movies, Harvey:

"Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, 'In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.' Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me." - Elwood P. Dowd

I hope to continue finessing my balancing act of busy-ness, between friends, family, work, relaxation, projects that are important to me, and leaving more room for God, because right now I think I've largely crowded God out of my busy schedule.

I hope to learn that my money and resources are not entirely my own, and how to honor that reality.

I hope to better understand people who are different from me.

Relatedly, I hope to learn how to use my own white privilege and upper class privilege to further some societal justice outside of myself.

I hope to start assuming positive intent.

I hope to continue working at my life's goal, which is to point people to God through Jesus, and to do this by the way I live my life, leaving a wake of Good, and leaving people better than I found them.

In less than half an hour I turn 30. I'm ready.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Responding to fiascos

In an email exchange this morning, one of my coworkers wrote to me "I'm honestly at a loss here, I don’t even know how to respond to this latest fiasco." This particular coworker and I talk about faith a lot, making it feel natural to replying with what I think ended up being a Spirit-led response. I'm posting that here because I think most of us feel "at a loss" at work from time to time.

You could respond by saying, "my job is stressful, but my job doesn't define me. God defines me. My job is stressful, but I don't need to allow it that power to consume me. My job will not follow me home and stress me out there (I have my family to take care of giving me stress there!). My job is stressful, but I am employed. My job is stressful, but my spouse supports me unconditionally. My job is stressful, but I know I live for something so much more than just my job. My job is stressful, but every day at my job, I have the opportunity to minister to my coworkers, usually in ways they won't be conscious of, but subtle ministry that affects them nonetheless. My job is stressful, but my God is bigger than that stress. My job is stressful, but I am God's child, I am beloved by the Most High King, I am a son/daughter of the Most High King, and that will get me through the day."

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Giving up bitterness for Lent

Lent only happened 7 months ago, no big deal. Here's something I *meant* to publish back in March.

I've never seen the point in giving up sweets for Lent (or anything else for that matter, it's just that in my social circles sweets always seemed the go-to choice). Now I guess for the folks who do, well you're living a healthier lifestyle than I am, but, physical health aside I've never seen that giving up sweets would somehow help me grow closer to God. The closest I ever came to altering my life during Lent was in 2009, when I attempted to make 40 donations in 40 days (I ended up stopping halfway through).

For 2015, I felt inspired to try something new, to give up something, the act of which might actually help me grow in my faith and grow closer to God:

I gave up bitterness. (or at least, gave my best effort at doing so)

It wasn't necessarily a conscious thought each day; I kept intending to write myself a recurring reminder but never got around to it. This was more than a checklist item, though - it was a mindset change, a choice that "I'm not going to dwell on things that make me frustrated/angry." This meant releasing anger it as quickly as possible, whether from a dumb driver, world injustices, or interpersonal conflict with a friend or coworker. From the small to the major, I would refuse to allow bitterness to gain a foothold in my spirit.

Establishing that mindset for even the first couple days proved enough to change the course of my entire Lenten experience. For one, I noticed I was much happier; the new attitude helped me maintain my even-keel, maybe even an upward-trending emotional state. Now that's not to say I never got angry, it's just that I'd do my little forehead flick thing (like Glinda from Wicked), and say "it's gone, it's Your problem now God. I will not dwell on this anymore, I will not let it consume me, and I will not waste any more emotional energy on it."

I found this to be a much more rewarding experience than my previous Lenten journeys, and I had hoped it would be habit-formed so as to continue. What I've discovered since then is that, like all emotional and spiritual journeys, there are ebbs, and I must continually remind myself (such as right now, as I'm writing this), to actively choose this path.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Fully baked

At some indeterminate time in the past (I can't recall exactly when, so let's just say about a year ago), my friend Allie described to me the metaphorical similarity of baking a cake, to being single and/or dating. You see, when you pull a fully baked cake out of the oven, it is complete, in and of itself. But if you're like Allie or me, you want a little (or a lot of) frosting on the cake, to make it even better. The cake is still a cake without the frosting, but the frosting helps enhance the cake's existence - it's taste, it's appeal, basically frosting makes everything better.

With this metaphor in mind, in March I sent the following text to my friend whom I call "Girl #1", because she was the first in-person date I had from eHarmony (we went for a few dates, decided we weren't a good fit romantically, but remained friends and supporters in each other's quests for "true love") :

I'm doing well. Finding a good balance of life, work, devoting time to churches, and friends. Have had a few dates and also a lot of "no"s but I remain optimistic! She's out there. I'm also at a tremendous peace of saying my life is good and complete, I do not need another person to complete me, though I would still like to share life with someone. It's like baking a cake - I'm completely and fully baked (wow this was not the best metaphor) but I'd still like to have frosting on top.

That may be the first and last time you'll ever read me utter the words, "I'm fully baked"...

Less than a month after I wrote that text, I went on yet another first date; "Girl #20" I call her, though I'm pretty sure she has a real name, too. And we've been dating since then, coming up on 6 months now. (that is one reason why I've not had as much time to blog recently, but I do like frosting on my cake, so I think the trade-off is worth it). I mention that because I'd started scribbling notes for this blog post back before aforementioned relationship, and so you must read them in the context of single-Jeremy:

I'm not going to claim I'm 100% "there"; I think finding this peace is a life-long journey, but I'm closer than I've ever been before to saying:

  1. I completely trust God in this (actually, I think I'm there)
  2. I'm okay with being single for right now because life is good, life is complete; and
  3. in the words of my friend Janelle's friend Rusty when I visited LA last December: I need to be equally okay with being single my whole life as I am with having a relationship / being married; if I'm not equally happy with both of those outcomes then it means I'm not trusting God fully.

Here's to being fully baked and trusting God to supply the frosting.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Tattoo of Hope

In a move that shocked nearly every one of my friends and acquaintances, I got a tattoo! This happened back in April, so it's high time I wrote about it.

More than a few times through the years friends have asked me, "would you ever get a tattoo?" While I don't have any objections toward tattoos, I've simply never been able to conjure up an idea that I could picture having permanently etched onto my body, never had that "one thing" so meaningful that I'd want to live with it on myself forever. If I were going to get something, I'd want it to be like my friend Bernadett, who has Xena's chakram tattood on her arm because of how deeply meaningful and inspiring that show was to her growing up. So while I've for years thought, "I'd like a tattoo that has that kind of deep significant meaning", I'd just never come up with anything.

You may recall that a couple years ago one of my best friends went to prison. Before his sentencing, we'd get together for burgers and drinks and to talk about life, especially what life after prison would look like for him. The word "hope" came up often in our conversations. After visiting him in jail, I started thinking about "hope" as a possibility for my tattoo. That was in July 2013, and it took until late 2014 for me to decide this wasn't a whim, but something I truly and actually wanted. I gave my parents a several-month warning in December, and meantime reached out to friends who had tattoos, asking them "where?" and "who?" and would they recommend said where and who?

From this intel I elected to phone up Billy at Anchor's End Tattoo in Hudson, Wisconsin. Well Billy was booked out until mid-April, but he had come so highly praised that I was willing to wait (I had *hoped* to get the tattoo before Easter, but again, permanent change to my body here! My friend Debbie who gave me the recommendation said she loved Billy and that the shop where he works is super clean; since she's had Billy draw an entire sleeve of tattoos on her, I figure she's earned the right to vouch for both his artistic skill and the shop's cleanliness). In the time of waiting, I Googled for others who had a tattoo of "hope" (apparently it's not all that uncommon) and found a couple fonts and designs I liked. During this time I also worked on a documentary movie about homelessness called Out In The Cold, the experience of which consistently reaffirmed my desire to have "hope" indelibly inscribed on my body.

Ultimately for me, a tattoo of the word "hope" is an outward symbol of the eternal hope I hold inside because of my faith. I don't need an outward symbol to remind me of that, but some days I know it's going to be nice, because I'll be able to look at my wrist and remember I'm not alone, I have a God who's always with me.

I also recognize that tattoos are a great conversation starter. Last summer when I visited Denver for a friend's wedding, another friend and I were hanging out with in the park playing Bubble Soccer with a few of her acquaintances. During a lull in the action, as we sat around talking, I asked one of the guys about his tattoo and what it meant to him. I've since forgotten exactly what his tattoo was, but I recall thinking at the time it appeared to be Jesus-related, which befuddled me because based on how this guy spoke and acted, I would never have guessed him to be a man of faith. A good lesson for me on not judging, because when he started talking about his tattoo, it brought us into an entire conversation of Godstuff, his faith life, his relationships, and at the end of the conversation my friend and I prayed for him right there in the park. Meanwhile, another of their acquaintances, who didn't really have a place for God in his life, witnessed all this.

I digress. Onto the pragmatic side: what did the process of getting my tattoo actually look like?

In mid-April, I drove to Hudson and met with Billy for about half an hour. I showed him the pictures and fonts I'd liked, which he used as a starting point to sketch his own design. I had psyched myself up to get the tattoo that day, not realizing this was a consultation appointment only; we scheduled a get-down-to-business appointment for the following week. During that week, Billy re-drew and refined the sketch. When I arrived at 6 p.m. on April 18 for the real deal, we made only a few minor tweaks.

I signed the paperwork saying I accepted all the risks, and by 6:15 / 6:20 I was sitting in "the chair." Billy shaved my inner wrist, and rubbed a non-permanent stencil of the design onto my wrist, using a wax paper-esque material with purple ink. He encouraged me to stand up, walk around, look in the mirror, put my arms in different positions, and so on to make sure the positioning was good, because "this is very hard to undo." The first round of this, I decided the image was too big on my wrist, so he wiped off the purple ink with an alcohol swab, resized the stencil, and put it on again. The second time was the right size, but I wasn't quite happy with the placement, I wanted to rotate it slightly, and so he patiently wiped off my wrist and applied the thing again. I apologized for being picky but he reassured me that I should make sure I'm really happy with it beyond question, beyond a shadow of a doubt. The third time, I was happy, and so I sat back down, and Billy got out his needles.

Let me say at this point that, truly, needles do not bother me. I got over that fear back in 9th/10th grade from all the blood tests the doctors needed to draw in diagnosing me with Crohn's. Once diagnosed, I received intravenous Remicade infusions every 6-8 weeks for a number of years, and since 2009 I've been taking Humira injections (self-administered) every 12 days. I'm also on allergy shots, one in each arm every 2 weeks, and I donate blood regularly to the Red Cross. In other words, I've accepted my lot in life as a pincushion, and I barely feel the needles anymore.

Now with that said, OH MY GOODNESS THIS HURT. The best comparison I can think of is it's like getting a cardboard cut (much worse than a paper cut), except the cutting sensation is constant for half an hour (or however long your tattoo takes, but mine took half an hour). My palm was quite sweaty by the time we were done. Oh sweet relief to have the needle removed at long last!

The needlework was like a quill pen: dip in ink, engrave in arm (tracing the purple ink outline), wipe away excess ink and / or blood droplets, repeat. What I hadn't known existed until this time though, is a cool "shader" tool, with a bunch (5-10?) of tiny skinny little needles all in row half an inch wide, that the artist can use to fill in the tattoo between borders. As you see in my picture, this let Billy create a nice gradient / shade in each letter. As I recall, that thing hurt as much as the big needle.

During my half hour of self-inflicted torture, Billy tried to distract me by asking questions. It took a lot of effort to ignore the pain and focus on answering him. He asked "what does hope mean to you?" so I shared a little bit about my faith, a little bit about my friend who's in prison and how the word has been meaningful to us, and then we also talked a little bit about Billy's faith-life, too.

We finished right at 7 o'clock. My total bill was much less expensive than I'd expected / feared (if memory serves, $120, and then I added a generous tip). Billy gave me an after-care instruction sheet and I hit the road.1 At Walgreens I picked up a special skin healing lotion to rub on my wound that evening and then 4x a day for the next 4 days. After that, normal *unscented* lotion several times a day for a few days, and at all times: avoid scratching and itching! Fortunately I took very good care to moisturize, and so I didn't have too much itchiness with which to contend. A few days in a layer of dyed skin started flaking off around the tattoo lines, making me nervous I'd done something wrong, but that must have been just the top layer of skin because 5 months later my tattoo is still intact!

Will I ever get another one? I don't know. Several people have joked I should get "less" inked on my other wrist so when I can combine my wrists it makes one word. I can definitively say I won't be doing that, but I'll leave the door open to other suggestions in the future. For now though, this is my one and only, and I do love it.

1 Side-story. Immediately following my tattoo expedition, some friends invited me over to hang out, and to try to set me up with their friend, named Hope. Had I not just started dating another girl the week before, this would have made for the BEST pick-up line EVER: "Hi Hope, nice to meet you. I just got your name tattooed on my body. Wanna go out?"

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?