Being in the moment with people

  
Photo courtesy of @kaneshow via Twitter

What do you do if you’re a rock star and a ten year old super fan, who happens to have Down’s syndrome, gets super nervous and subsequently sinks to the ground upon meeting you backstage?

If you’re Adam Levine, you ask the entire Maroon 5 band to join you in laying down on the floor near the boy as his mother cradles him. Then you chat. About life, music, and how cool it is that you and the band get to meet the boy.

We can learn something from this in the church in terms of pastoral care and mission. Be present. Be real. Be humble, willing to listen and situate yourself so as to ease the discomfort of another, especially this precious child. 

Having apparently occurred about two years ago, you can read the whole story and see the original backstage pass submission video by following this link.

Meanwhile, I need to redouble my efforts at learning to be present with people in the moment. 

Break camp and advance…

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Neighboring

The teen boy in the neighborhood attempted to push the SUV forward by himself. Too much weight. I immediately pulled over and lent my shoulder to the effort. A second teen jumped out of the vehicle, which meant the three of us were now a team with one goal: move the car two hundred yards forward to the nearby gasoline station.

No problem. Some sweat in the frigid air. A few breaks from our exertions. Bam. Job done. They shook my hand and began to offer money, I smiled, telling them they did not need to pay me. I am always happy to help.

It’s what I learned from my father as I saw him help others on many occasions over the years. Later in life a friend named Danny inspired me in the same way. How can I not follow their examples in giving when it is within my power to do so? Anyone can articulate the importance of helping neighbors and being on mission to share Christ’s love with them. Yet, without tangible action, the words are just a theory of what we might do or a memory of what once had been done.

Neighboring is not about living and working in proximity while minimizing prospective interactions, thereby keeping the peace…. No. It’s about intentionally reaching out to neighbors in kindness within the common routines of daily living. It’s simultaneously an invitation to community and a respect for personal privacy.

It consists of shining the hope of the gospel in dark places from an embedded platform of prophetic humility: relational togetherness, rather than some vague notion of spiritual otherness as seen on tv or heard on the radio. Knowing and being known while remaining faithful to the gospel in belief and action.

It’s what we do, you and I, as we serve God in the way of Jesus.

You in?

hearing God through seasons of pain or inconvenience

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Photo by Glen Alan Woods

For the last couple of weeks I have used mass transit to commute to work and run errands. I’m learning lessons that are not quite so easily accessed in the comfort and convenience of my own vehicle and home. With my car in the shop, it’s amazing how patient and resourceful I can become when the need presses me. My vehicle is old. It has done well for me for eleven years. But time exacts a toll on machinery in the form of wear. It also provides opportunity for me to hear God in ways I otherwise might miss.

Inconvenience gets our attention, attuning us to hear and see in new ways. In American culture we often equate God’s voice and approval with our provision and comfort. But what if pain is the only way for his message to penetrate a hard, calloused heart? Or what if inconvenience is the most effective means by which we might notice what God is saying or feel what prompts his heart to compassion, or even anger?

On the trains and busses I use to make my way throughout the greater metro area, I share space with fellow commuters. They are young, old, athletic, disabled, male, female, working class like myself or homeless. Some are affluent, but they usually are only found in the downtown core. Most struggle to make ends meet, living paycheck to paycheck, if in fact they get one at all.

There are loud people, but most keep to themselves in quiet wonder over their devices. Some sleep, some stare off into space.

In this slower pace, patterns emerge. Observations, too. It’s hard to transport groceries without a car. Both of my paper bags disintegrated in the freezing rain this afternoon, causing me to think fast and get creative. Another bus passenger offered to help me, even though it wasn’t his stop. I almost took him up on it, but I managed to handle things myself. Yea, I know. Stubborn independent streak flares up again. Only after the bus left did I fully appreciate the young man’s offer and the sacrifice it represented.

The little things matter when navigating community among groups of traveling strangers. A smile. An offer to give up your seat to a mother and child. Answering a question for a new transit rider who is confused by the system. Doing life with people as a full co-equal participant.

I long have asked God to provide me opportunities for this very thing on a daily basis throughout my days. He is reminding me that they always have existed. It has taken a minor vehicular inconvenience for me to develop refreshed awareness of what he is doing, where he is moving, what he may be saying, and how I might better become his hands, his feet, his voice to a world staring off into space while self-medicating their secret pain through iTunes and private thoughts.

It also gives me heightened empathy for those who live outdoors. Although I’ve had deep compassion for the homeless for much of my life, sharing even a tiny part of their pain through extended time in inclement weather motivates me all the more to do what I can to help alleviate their suffering. I was finally able to come inside out of the cold. Many of them do not have that option.

This has to change. I have to change. I wonder if I would have noticed that if I had continued enjoying the convenience of a car and limited exposure to the cold?

What about you? What is God saying to you through your daily inconveniences or pain?

urban mission in a culture of violence

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It is the peak of the warm summer season. Violence escalates as gangs beat their verbal war drums. Graffiti mark their territories and chalk outlines testify to their exploits. But they don’t speak for the majority of our youth in the cities. The four young men I’ve profiled below represent their peers at large. I’ve withheld their names to protect their identities.

I think of 16 year old A who studies hard and is excelling in school. A superb soccer athlete, he shows as much dedication to his younger siblings and his parents, as he does his other interests. A prime target candidate for gang recruiters, he makes the better choice. The courageous choice. You likely will never see his name in the media; he’s okay with that since he is too busy doing the right thing for those he loves.

Of course there is also 15 year old J who is a natural leader and terrific athlete. He is excels in whatever sport he tries, but that is not what impresses me most. He also looks out for the younger kids in the neighborhood. A fierce competitor, he shows remarkable grace and gentleness with little ones who strive to improve their skills.

And how can I not mention T, a scrappy, hard working athlete who defied early expectations and is growing into a disciplined leadership presence on the basketball court, notwithstanding some rough edges. At 15, he excels in his studies and has high hopes of succeeding in life. His Vietnamese upbringing exposed him to Bhuddist thought, yet he is very much Americanized.

And last, there is 16 year old M. He also is a hard worker and a leader particularly among the other Muslim youth in our neighborhood. A good athlete, what he lacks in basketball acumen, he makes up for it through shear determination. He is slowly warming up to me, demonstrated by a recent willingness to receive coaching instruction from me concerning specific basketball skills.

These four young men represent their peers in my neighborhood. I’ve spent many hours with them, coaching them, listening to them, observing them in the neighborhood as they interact with their families and each other, and praying for them. Indeed, i pray not only them but for all the kids and their families whom I’ve grown to love.

They are a diverse group, representing many nations, ethnicities, languages, customs, religions, and expectations. But like you and me, they hope, they hurt, they feel, they love, and they fail. Many of these kids are prime targets for the gangs, for the wicked plans of manipulative marauders who sweep in on vulnerable, impressionable kids and youth to convince them that gang life offers true family. For some of these kids, it’s a pretty persuasive argument. My prayer is that the young leaders I have profiled above will provide the additional positive influence their peers and younger siblings need.

They have potential to be a formidable influence for good in a neighborhood often forgotten by the city, but deeply loved by a small church which is learning to love well, and deeply loved by a middle-aged truck driver who desires to serve them in the margins as a representative of Christ through the daily routines of life. In a nation torn by violence and racial strife, we need stories of young men like these who despite their diversity as a group–Black, White, Vietnamese, Mexican, and Middle-eastern–they figure out how to overcome their many differences and simply get along.

Violence is the easy path. The gangs have that figured out already. Reconciliation? That’s where the real courage and hard work is required. My young friends in my neighborhood have some things to teach us about bravely doing the right things, even when it hurts.

What courageous act will you do this week to promote reconciliation in your neighborhood?

unplanned detours

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As I write these words I should be on a basketball court with a group of neighbor youth, giving instruction and encouragement, refereeing games, and building relationships. At least, that is where I would prefer to be on Thursday evenings. But sometimes life offers detours.

As I suggested in a tweet yesterday, we should “never underestimate the opportunity disappointments provide to trust in God’s providence.”

Meanwhile, I redirect my attention to some creative independent opportunities to touch the lives of specific homeless friends within my sphere of daily living. For now I will leave it at that, except to ask that you pray for me that God would supply resources and wisdom.

Also, please pray for my friends without homes with whom I have opportunity to connect, that they may feel Jesus’ presence, comprehend his love, and experience his goodness in ways that are transformative.

In time, opportunities to re-engage the neighbor youth through basketball may occur. I pray that happens soon. But I refuse to develop a lackadaisical, defeatist attitude particularly when the need is so great, the time so short, and God’s direction to keep pressing into the margins is so clear. So, off I go.

Now it’s your turn. What’s your next move?

Break camp and advance…

when the missional honeymoon ends

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I knew this period would arrive. I’ve been here before. Since returning to my church and re-engaging the neighborhood I’ve enjoyed a honeymoon period. It officially concluded tonight. In a good way.

One young man walked out, cussing under his breath, because he didn’t like how the basketball teams were picked. A colleague spent time with him, but the boy’s hot temper earned him a dismissal from the campus for the evening. When any honeymoon period ends, true colors fly.

At the same time, I got to spend about fifteen minutes coaching one of the players regarding his hand placement and footwork for his jump shot. As his accuracy improved, his eyes got wider. It was the first time I’ve been able to spend significant time with him. I’m grateful for the opportunity.

We continued the evening of basketball, mostly on a good note. Yet, one person fell a couple of times during the game and the others laughed at him. In fact, they wouldn’t stop laughing. So, at the end I gathered them all together and said, “I’m not exactly sure what was going on, other than the fact someone fell a couple of times and you laughed. I could be wrong but it appeared to me you were singling one person out. However, when it became clear your laughter upset your teammate, do you think it might have been a good idea to back off and just play the game? No one likes to be the target of the group. I don’t like it; neither do any of you. Let’s keep that in mind for next time.”

The evening was an ebb and flow of relational engagement, both challenging and encouraging. It isn’t always pretty. Sometimes it is downright frustrating and messy. In those difficult spaces we can rest assured that although the honeymoon is over, the real work of relational ministry can begin in earnest.

And they will watch our responses carefully to examine our true colors.

missional laughter

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I see them as I pull my dirty ten year-old Honda Civic into the church parking lot. Two high school boys shooting hoops in our backlot. I grin. It’s a beautiful 74 degree day with no clouds in the sky, and my friends from the neighborhood are already showing up to enjoy it. I join them, challenging their shots and trying to steal the ball from them. They simply laugh and allow me to do my thing. No awkward attempts at forced conversation. Just three players: two young guns–both freshman–and me.

Younger kids begin arriving: a couple of middle-schoolers; numerous little children also, from preschool to elementary. They are followed by moms and dads, all of them from the local community. I look at the crowd which disperses across the church playground and parking lot.

I love them.

The dad with the hurting foot, yet still a sweet jump shot and pesky cigarette habit. The little girls with darling hairdos and deep curiosity as to whether the two hens which had broken out of their neighboring pen into our playground might be good play companions. The Muslim mom who always carefully monitors her youngest children. Every one of them.

Compassion fills my heart.

Not pity. Not an ill-advised messianic complex. Just a simple empathy and love which flows from the heart of Jesus. And a recognition that I am no different than them. I hurt. I bleed. I hope. Just as they do. And maybe their acceptance of me owes itself to this fact. Doing life in the margins requires time and presence with no other agenda except to love in the way of Jesus. And a willingness to be marginalized by cultural gatekeepers, both ecclesial and secular.