Saturday, February 23, 2008

Hungry! Any Little Bit will Help

The sign was a folded piece of cardboard, and the woman holding it stood on the corner of the busy intersection. It took me about ten minutes to swing around, find a place to park and walk over.

"Hi, I'm Steve. Ummm... what can I do for you?"

"Hi, I'm Tanya (not her real name). I'm just looking for grocery money.... any little bit will help."

I nodded.

"Okay, I'll have to go to the bank. Give me about twenty minutes, and I'll meet you at the gas station."

"I really appreciate that."

I smiled.

"Want some pizza? I was going to get some food."

"Sure, that'd be great."

Ten minutes later I was standing at the bank machine, my heart in my throat when I saw the number for my current balance. I swallowed. "Oh, God, I'm so sorry." I felt convicted by my poor stewardship of my meager finances. I had very little to give, and with a number of expenses coming due this next week, I wondered if I could pay- I hit the withdraw button.

I would make do.

I wandered over to the Pizza Pizza next door and picked up a couple of slices for Tanya.

When I pulled back into the gas station she was waiting, and soon enough we were
chatting. She told me about her little girl as I handed her the pizza and sat down beside her on the sidewalk outside the gas station. She asked me what I was doing, and I told her about the Seminary.

"I was a minister back when I was twenty-one. But after a few years I started to see so much crap, I walked away. I thought too many people were acting fake, you know." I said. "I got tired of people acting all happy all the time, and the condescending pats on the head when things went wrong. Like if my life was messy that somehow I was a screwup."

"Are you Catholic?" Tanya asked me.

"I'm a Protestant."

She nodded and I took a side glance at her. She was wearing all black, with black fingerless gloves. Her hood was pulled up over her black hair, and she sat with her toes pointed together, staring at the ground. The fading twilight cast a bluish glow as the traffic roared down Steeles Avenue.

"My uncle is a Protestant minister. He's like that."

"Hard to relate to, isn't it?" I said.

She nodded and looked away.

"I came back to the church because I started looking at Jesus." I said. "He didn't care what the religious leaders thought. That dude cared about people, Tanya, and for me, when I realized that, I couldn't get him out of my head. I kept thinking, that's what I want to be like, you know. And so I came back to the church. I can't imagine life without my faith, but man, it still sucks sometimes."

She didn't say anything and we sat in silence for a minute.

"How old are you?" I said.


"And your little girl?"

"She's seven." She paused. "I don't have any regrets having her, you know." I nodded as she started telling me about her little one. About how hard it was, with no support payments, about how expensive it was, about the two jobs she worked. She'd been on the street since she was fourteen, and now her life was wrapped in raising her girl.

We chatted for another fifteen minutes, and finally I gave her my cell phone and email.

"If you need anything, just call me, okay? Do you have a computer?"

"I have access to one at the resource Center not far from my apartment."


She looked at me, her eyes wide.

"Um, I'll let you know when I get back to Peterborough. To let you know I made it safely. I promise."

I smiled.

"Good. I'll be looking for your email, okay?"

"Thanks, Steve. I really appreciate this."

"No worries." I said. "We all have our down moments in life. It was nice to meet you. Are you okay to go from here?"

She nodded and I gave her another smile as I walked away.

As I started my car, tears formed in my eyes, and it was all I could do to hold them back. About a mile down the road I finally pulled into a parking lot to let my emotions have their toll, and take what they needed.

I sat with my hand on the steering wheel in the empty mall lot, staring at the buildings rising into the night sky, as the tears built and finally rolled down my face. In so many ways I could sense the presence of God; it was heavy...tangible... and all I could do was bow my head. The week had not gone as I'd planned, but then, when did it ever?

24 Hours Earlier

I stared at my inbox on the computer and sighed. Another angry letter from yet another Christian. When the Wednesday night class had finished, despite my strong comments, I had hoped for some sign that other classmates appreciated what Mark and I had said, about our emphasis on mercy and grace. Instead, I'd received angry emails and comments about my 'bitterness' towards the church and the importance of good doctrine. It was discouraging. I answered the emails, as gently as I could, and logged off the computer. Thirty minutes later, I was standing outside when I got the news.

A good friend had lost his father.

I spent an hour with him later that night, listening and walking through it with him as best I could. The next afternoon, I was there with him with some of my other friends again. We did not offer any platitudes or phony words of comfort, just sat with him, doing what we could to lift him up.

I was still thinking about the emails and my friend, and praying for him, when I came across Tanya holding her sign up on the busy corner. Thirty minutes later, we were sitting and chatting on the curb.

It's strange how God reaches out to us, even when life feels raw. And despite the discouragements this past week, I am encouraged. I am encouraged by the way my friends stand together. I am encouraged that we still have a chance to make a difference in people's lives. I am encouraged that God still moves and shows us what is truly important.

On the Temple road, two priests walked by a bleeding man on the side of the road because they wanted to stay pure for worship. I am encouraged that Jesus thought the 'impure' Samaritan, the one willing to stop and help the wounded man, is the one he commended.

I see a world, like a giant highway, filled with people lying injured and bleeding on the side of the road. They call out to us (sometimes they call us by name) and they ask us for help. Sometimes they wear the clothes of the street, but often they do not. They shelter their pain in a 'regular life', desperately hoping for a gentle, understanding person to come by and help mend their wounds.

This then, is your neighbour, Jesus says. Go and do likewise.

I do not apologize for my strong opinions, especially when it comes to mercy. The Kingdom of God is bigger than any single doctrine. Love the Lord your God with all your heart mind and soul, and love your neighbour as yourself. Everything else, as far as I can tell, is negotiable.

My prayer this week is that God will reveal Himself to you through your act of kindness, that He will give you Sight to the wounded and bleeding, and the compassion to move. We are all sinners, and we all struggle. May God remind us that no one person is greater than another, and that the greatest reality in life is not the realization of our successes... but of our kindnesses, especially to those who need it most.


Saturday, February 16, 2008

Chasing Greatness

It was only a moment. Such is the way when it comes to regret, and if we're not sure about where we're headed or what God wants for us, it is often enough to steal whatever reserves of joy we have, and set us back further along the path. But then, I'm getting ahead of myself, aren't I...

...It was cold, the sun peeking out from the clouds to shimmer off the snow, the wind howling in icy bursts as I trudged along behind the plaza carrying three bags of garbage in each hand. My co-worker walked beside me, laughing and talking about the future. He was excited as he told me his plans. At nineteen, the world held enormous promise, and I did what I could to encourage him.

The garbage area was littered with old cups and pieces of cardboard, foul smelling remnants of the restaurants that lined the plaza next to my Starbucks. As I threw the last of my bags in the bin, one of them caught on the metal siding and opened up. Old coffee dribbled onto my jacket and pants. I stared at the emptied bag of garbage and sighed before bending down to clean up each piece and throw it into the bin.

"Hey, Steve, did you know my friend works for Sportsnet? She's like, 30, and is already making forty three a year."

Forty three thousand dollars a year. I swallowed and nodded and listened as he told me about his own plans for schooling, about saving so he could buy a house at twenty-five.
"Sounds awesome, pal." I said.

I meant it too. There was no better day than when my colleagues or housemates, all of whom I considered to be friends, talked to me about their plans for their lives, knowing that I was a safe place, a safe person, to dream with and be encouraged. For some reason, however, I couldn't get his comment out of my head.

Forty three thousand dollars a year.

I'd never been good with money; it was a continuous struggle for me to manage the little I had. And most of the time, it didn't matter. I was content in my life. Content with my choice to move down to a job that paid a third of what I'd been making. Content to live intentionally in a house with nine other people.

"Hey, is it okay if I take my break?" I asked my supervisor, who also happened to be seventeen years my junior.

"Yeah, sure, Steve. Can you do a quick bus, first?"

I nodded, grabbed a rag, cleaned and filled the condiment stands and checked the bathroom before heading outside.

Forty three thousand.

By most North American standards, that wasn't a whole lot of money, was it? And yet that figure burned in me. It wouldn't let go. I walked along the sidewalk away from my store, past the other shops and restaurants. What was I doing here? I thought about the verse that had brought me here to Toronto... to save my life, I must lose it for God... is that what I was doing? Or was I just running, making excuses for not entering the adult world that made decent money and raised regular families? I stopped at the end of the walk and looked across the field towards Highway 7. Cars whipped past, important people headed to important adult destinations. BMW's and Mercedes and SUV's, people making real decisions about governing or the stock market or the latest news and how it would influence this country or the countries around us.

That was the moment.

I have all these gifts, Lord, that you've given me, I thought. Shouldn't I be more important? Shouldn't more people be listening to me? Don't you want that? There was no answer but the howl of the wind. I jammed my ungloved fingers inside my coat. I could see the coffee stain from the garbage run out of the corner of my eye, still there though I'd tried to wipe it off inside.
I started to pray, not because I felt especially holy, but in a selfish way, because my life made no sense without God in it. That had never been more true than now, and I rarely felt it as acutely as I did at that moment, staring out across a vast highway, my thoughts bouncing between my small pay check, the stain on my coat, and my seeming 'regression' at thirty-five years old to an even leaner existence.

As I prayed, I started thinking about Jesus. And about greatness. No one questions that Jesus was great. You may not believe He was the Son of God, but you cannot dismiss the impact He had on the world. I believed, of course, that He was the Son of God. That He was also human. And that He came from glory into a peasant life.

It says in the Gospels that in the mornings Jesus often went out to a solitary place to pray. I wondered if he ever thought as I did. Like many do. Is this it, Father? I have twelve guys...
The people tried to make Jesus a king, they tried to involve Him politically (Judas certainly tried to do that, spur Him into declaring a revolution). Yet Jesus rejected their offers, and traveled the countryside as a popular but poor Rabbi, living in the same lean manner he grown up with.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that glory had little to do with greatness. That in fact, glory was at the opposite end of the spectrum from true greatness. Our society measured success and greatness together, and it was difficult not to get caught up with it. Sometimes it was difficult to overlook all the 'stuff' -- the expensive suits and cars, at the 'important conversations' I overheard every time I was at work -- or to ignore my apron every time a customer left their cups and crumpled napkins on the table for one of the baristas to clean up after them.

The sun had dipped below a cloud, and I rolled up my hood at the sudden drop in temperature. I checked my watch. Five more minutes. I thought about my dreams for the future, about my hopes for a family one day. I'm still not sure why, but as the sun finally pushed past the cloud, I was able to let it go. The truth, even as I examined it, was that I was happy, as happy as I had been in a long time. I loved my job, my coworkers, my housemates. I enjoyed my schoolwork. My life did not fit into the normal trajectory of Western success, and yet it didn't matter.

I won't lie; I have always wanted to be great; to be a great leader, even as a kid. But perhaps there is a difference between wanting to be great and wanting to be heard. Perhaps we have forgotten that greatness is not about our standing or position, but our character before God and the people we try to serve around us. Jesus gave up glory (Philippians 2) to walk with us. Why was my life such a sacrifice, especially considering how content I was?

Greatness is not success, at least not how we often define 'success'. Too often, we consider them the same pursuit, but they are not. Our circumstances cannot prevent us from being great. No matter how poor we may be, no matter how often people seem to step on us or walk over us, God does not judge us the way the world does. He's not interested in our fancy cars or big homes. Neither is he impressed by our long hours that rob us of our soul. Rather, he wishes that we would find a place of peace, of rest, of eternal perspective.

Most of the time I am at war with myself to put down the pen, to get off the computer, to stop working towards greatness with the hammer of 'worldly success'. Greatness, as Jesus has shown us, is something altogether different, and the secret lies in the manifestation of God's love in your life. The way we serve those around us. The way we walk, arm in arm, no one person greater than another, humble before God and willing to walk the extra mile with those who need it.
The path to true greatness lies in our willingness to wash one another's feet, as Jesus did with his disciples, and to rest in the provisions of God's grace. (Which means to appreciate yourself, too, the way God does.)

My prayer this week is that you will take a moment to examine your life, to see if you are in pursuit of success, or greatness, and to encourage you towards greatness. God has given us all we need to be the difference in our world, no matter how many people that entails. And while people may try to discourage you, to tell you or infer in other ways that you don't matter, my prayer is that you'll see what I see, that God has called you to something better, to a life that matters, to a life of greatness.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Blind Spots

I was in a hurry. I had less than an hour to do a quick intense workout at the gym and than get to work. Most of the snow from the previous day's storm had been ploughed, and the major roads had been cleared. I checked the time. Seven minutes to get to the gym. In and out. The driver in front of me, however, apparently did not feel the roads were clear enough, and they were going very slow, as if expecting another storm to hit any minute. I switched lanes, hoping to pass, but the right hand lane was full of even slower drivers.

"C'mon! Move it!"

I switched back into the left lane and pulled up close behind the driver in front of me, hoping they would get the message. They didn't. I checked the speedometer. You have to be kidding me! For the next ten minutes we hit every yellow light, and stopped, and proceeded at a pace akin to a light jog. When the right lane finally cleared, I checked to see who was driving in front of me.

"Another middle aged Asian woman." I muttered.

It figured.

By the time I got to the gym it was too late to do anything but some light cardio and than hop in the car and head to work. I was still miffed eight hours later, when my shift had finished. Slow ass women drivers.

It wasn't until the next day, when I was praying, that I realized what had happened. The more I thought about it the guiltier I felt. I've always considered myself someone who accepts everyone on equal terms. I didn't. The truth, as it was brought so heavily to bear in those moments, was revealed in an instant. No matter how loving I thought I was, it didn't change the fact that I still had some blind spots. Big ones.

It's not something we think about a whole lot these days. Our culture is fast but not introspective. We often equate education with understanding, especially when it comes to the differences between people, between cultures and genders. We call people who are racist 'ignorant', with the implication that with just a bit more knowledge, racism would disappear. But the knowledge is not something you learn in a classroom. It is the knowledge of self, and human nature.

It is hard to admit that we favour certain types of people over others. That we think things about men or women. And as you get older, often what happens is that we become less understanding. Our acceptance rate falters. We've seen things 'a thousand times' before, so why would the next time, the next person, be any different.

What we don't realize is that so many of our problems in life, so many of our complaints, become engraved within our thought pattern, that they ensnare us. Freedom is a wonderful thing, but there is no freedom when your beliefs about people and groups have already been answered. When people no longer have the ability to surprise you, when they no longer present a mystery in their uniqueness. When that happens we are on the road towards a life filled with deep sighs and a deeper hatred.

I'll be honest. There are a few things in my belief system I don't like. I worry sometimes about how I view women. I am single and divorced, and so women have been a great source of pain to me. Sure, I have female friends who are wonderful, but in relationships, I've had a truck driven over my heart more than once. I understand that I am trying to protect myself with these attitudes, but it doesn't make it right. I also have problems with certain cultures. I grew up in a white, middle class town. I'm not comfortable around some cultures. And sometimes my behaviour, my thought patterns, reflect that. And every time I do it, every time I think about people who belong to a certain 'group' as merely a member of that group, I am guilty of something. I am guilty of turning people into product.

Churches do it too. They group Christians and non-Christians into separate groups. They build a chasm between people of different beliefs and justify it with words like "saint" and 'holiness'. Odd that I never see that in Jesus' life. You do not see this separation. What you see instead, is one who understands that all people are people, that all of us are just a little bit broken, and that all of us experience the same struggles and the same failures.

How you view people matters.

One of the great blind spots of many leaders is that they have never examined how they view people. Are they aware of their own upbringing, their own natural tendencies, and the things that make them feel uncomfortable? In the church, we use words like sin and holiness and morality. Too often however, they are an easy excuse to keep us from examining who we truly are and how we see the people around us.

It simply isn't good enough to say God loves people, if we are not willing to examine the dark things in our heart that reveal just how much we DON"T love certain people. It may be natural to classify objects and even put people in groups, that is the way our brain works, but until we're prepared to examine our blind spots, to be transparent before God and the people around us, than our love is nothing more than a teacher helping her favourite student. Jesus went out of his way to show us that the only favourite He had, was us. All of us. The least we can do is be honest about who we really are.

My prayer this week is that you will take a few moments to examine your blind spots, and ask yourself some important questions. How do you view people? How do you view women? Men? Different cultures? Do you see a huge divide between people who know Jesus and those who do not? You may not realize it, but how you view people is reflected a hundred times a day, and it is often the clearest way to see if God's love is truly at work in our lives.


Saturday, February 02, 2008


“When’s your appointment with the neurosurgeon?”

“Next week.”

I shook my head at the screen and glanced up at the clock. 4:14 am. I’d been chatting with my friend for nearly two hours. She’d struggled through a year of turmoil, one thing after another, and yet somehow she was holding on to her belief in God. It was as impressive a display of faith as I’d ever seen. Still, the question that kept coming to her, the one I couldn’t really answer, was why. And where was God in this mess?

Some of her friends had told her that she just needed to be more positive. That she didn’t have enough faith. That if she would just believe, things would turn around. Another friend had heard similar comments when his father became sick. They promised him that if just said the right prayers, that if he just believed, his father would be healed. When his father passed away, my friend found his faith shaken to the core, and in our late night talks, the hurt and bitterness would leak into the conversation.

“I believed them, Steve. I know what you said, what you warned me about, but it was my dad. My best friend.”

His jaw would clench shut, and we’d stand out on the porch in silence. I would feel the anger rising, silently bemoaning the idiocy of these shallow Christians who would never know what kind of damage they’d done.

I chatted for another two hours with my friend, wishing there was something more I could do. It was with a sad, powerless feeling that I finally signed off. My thoughts drifted to another friend who couldn’t seem to find peace in her marriage, and still another who’d been battling an addiction to alcohol and porn for fifteen years.

All of these people believed Jesus was the Son of God. All of them did what they could to make a difference, and all of them had gone through the ‘guaranteed’ evangelical/fundamentalist short forms of rescue. Prayer. Anointing with oil. Exorcism. You name it, they’d tried it, mean while their heart felt cries to God had echoed into an empty blackness, and the storms in their life had continued.

I grabbed my jacket and headed outside. It’d been a mild day, so I didn’t bother zipping up my coat as I headed out onto the stoop. But the weather had changed, and a strong, icy wind swept snow across the grass and sent me scurrying to a spot underneath the balcony. It was incredible. The weather had changed so drastically I forced to run inside and get a coat. When I came back outside, the wind continued to howl, but I tucked my hands inside my jacket, and watched the snow blow across my street. I'd never understood this black and white approach to God, and to life. Although, to some extent, I'd been raised in this environment, it seemed a kind of empty folly to me to anyone who bothered thinking about it. How could we know the 'right answer' when it came to God, assuming that we believed Him to be both all knowing and omnipotent. It seemed to me we spent more time proving that we were omnipotent and all knowing than God was.

What bothered me the most however, was the simple ignorance. It was fine to say 'Jesus saved' when your life turned around, when your marriage was restored, or when your addiction broke. But what happened when your life DIDN'T change. Or when it got worse. Seemed to me we didn't have a lot of room in our theology for that kind of heartache. For too many, either Jesus made your life 'perfect' or there was something wrong with you. But if that was the case, why were so many Christians hurting. Why was divorce and abuse at the same levels both inside and outside the church? Could it be that Jesus didn't make everything 'new?' Or was the fault simply with us?

The snow continued to blow, whipping across the houses and driveways in front of me. It'd been a long time since I'd seen a storm like this, and tomorrow would be a headache for anyone wanting to leave in the morning. As a kid however, these sudden storms had been the norm, and so much of the fervor revolved around the simple fact it rarely happened anymore.

I tried to get my friends out of my head; my struggling, God-fearing friends who loved God but for the life of them could not catch a break. I thought about my own past, how eagerly I would have dumped my advice on them, even a few years before, as if the 'solution ' was always a matter of choice, of human action.

Unfortunately, it wasn't that easy. And for many of my friends, the best that I could offer them was to walk with them, to wrap my arm about their shoulders and listen. In so many ways, it seemed inadequate, but as I remembered the dark times in my life, I remembered what a difference it had made for me.

It's easy to put God in a box. Easier still to sell Jesus like He is the Great Solution for a Perfect Life. We know that isn't true. (Heb 11) And yet sometimes we insist on hammering away at our friends and loved ones for THEIR shortcomings, when their struggles are completely out of their hands. We do this to feel better, to feel like we humans have all the control. But the hard truth is that we don't, and we don't have the answer or right action for everything. Jesus may be the Savior, but not for everything. Sometimes God calls us to walk through the difficulties of life, and ask that others walk with us. This may not be the answer that sells T-shirts or commercial spots for Christian television, but it is the most common answer we find in Scripture.

My prayer this week is that you will find someone to put your arms around and walk with, and that you would encourage them, not by your advice, but by your love.