Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Kingdom that Loves: Persevering in the Stench of Death

In my final writing on kingdom Love, I want to encourage us to embrace a forgiving grace and persevering hope. Kingdom Love can never be just a temporary reality; such a thought slanders the meaning and power of love! We must ride the waves with determination and prayer. It can and will continue to be extremely difficult to serve and befriend these homeless and precariously housed women and men I encounter daily. Frustration penetrates the ego. I have failed to love them all as I should, but Jesus has managed to use me and living this life has brought me so much joy. Yet, the nature of Christ-like love screams that it cannot just stop, Love must forgive and it must persevere!

John (pictured) died, in the rain, on a loading dock surrounded by his homeless buddies. His earthly suffering had ended; in and out of prisons, alcohol and a severe mental illness plagued this man known on the streets as “Johnny Stone" and "John the Baptist”. John caused trouble through his erratic preaching and prophetic phrases like “there’s thieves in the temple!” He would stumble into our cafeteria and loved to point out the false prophets! We were in constant battle with his "demons", and they were, at times, ugly and violent! But John, like a little child, would weep! Tears would stream down his cheeks as he reflected on his life. He would cry and scream out to the Lord for mercy! “Have mercy on me, a sinner!” The letters he wrote to me while behind bars were full of faith, hope and love. When incarcerated, and even though he was living in shackles, John was free! When John was granted physical freedom: alienation, addiction and oppression shackled him. Love, on our part, has called us to forgive, show grace and persevere!

When John suddenly died, it only seemed right to hold a memorial service for him – and that’s what we did! On that secluded loading dock, less than 10 of us remembered John with candles, flowers and food. We were right next to a crowd of Hispanic concert goers, standing in a very long line waiting to get into the Aragon Ballroom! We prayed. We held hands. We remembered and celebrated the life of Uptown’s one and only “John the Baptist!” We did not focus on the wrongs he had done. We celebrated the simple and beautiful faith that poured forth from this man! This man beloved of God!

Andre and Sheila attended his memorial service that night and they wept bitterly at the loss of their friend. They slept on that loading dock with a small group of men and women. Every night they battled the elements of rain, wind, snow and blistering humidity. Fights, drunkenness and drug abuse would often rear their ugly heads, along with some random harassment from gangs, police, party goers and yuppies. Their nights were occupied by the unknown and uneasy. Yet this tight little community of rejects was bonded by an unshakable love, forgiveness and protection of one another. John’s death shook their “unstable stability.” Andre and Sheila are both chronically homeless, have ailing health and are addicted to alcohol. The streets are what they know. They know death, it has surrounded them for years; friends, family, purpose, opportunities, housing and society have all abandoned them and died before their blurry eyes.

This fragile couple, along with John and the locking dock crew, question all our assumptions on how to love. There is no earthly reward for loving them. Andre and Sheila are pictures of utter despair; they harmlessly wander the streets of Uptown, they stand around and continually sip their beers and retire to sleep in different outdoor locations when the sun goes down. They are so mellow they tend to blend into the concrete jungle as if invisible ghosts. Physically, they struggle with congestive heart failure and seizures, and therefore, emergency runs to the hospital are frequent. Andre and Sheila silently scream out a sad slogan: No money, no hope and no purpose!

In my hospital visits, I have seen that Andre loves Jesus and he possesses, like John, a beautiful child-like faith that shames my own. Whether on the streets, in a shelter or lying in a hospital, he loves his bible and clings to it every night. He sees hope and love in his Savior, and like so many of our homeless brothers and sisters, he struggles to forgive himself, while cancelling any possibility of love or hope!

As an outreach worker, I have tried to get along side this couple and change the negative slogan into a positive one; consisting of money, hope and purpose. In winter’s bitter cold, we have housed them in the shelter and set very low-demand goals. Working primarily with Andre, we utilized our resources and tried to set up appointments with doctors, housing specialists and social security. Andre has routinely failed to keep them all.

The doctors have given him multiple blunt warnings; “no alcohol, no smoking or you will die”, yet his despairing routine continues. I believe he has social anxiety and fears the bureaucratic system and crowds. We set up “seek and find” missions by going to him and have gradually opened some doors of opportunity. We drove him down to meet the social security doctors, sat in the office with him and now he receives a government disability benefit. He’s on some housing lists, yet if no one holds his hands, he fails to follow through with all his responsibilities.

Andre’s progress is riding on a very slow train, but we must remember, the train is moving.
*(see below for an update on this couple)

Kingdom love calls us to persevere. Even though Andre and Sheila seem to have given up all hope, it is our responsibility to continue to offer rays of hope. Kingdom love calls us to forgive, as they struggle to forgive themselves, we must forgive their laziness, drunkenness and complacency, while demonstrating the beauty of God’s grace. Kingdom Love may desire they be housed, safe and healthy more than this poor fragile homeless couple does. Kingdom love simply offers hope when none is seen.

In my five writings on Kingdom Love, I have shared about ten homeless individuals. I could tell hundreds more about my struggle to love my neighbors as myself and the blessings I have felt when Jesus has shone through me. I could also tell many stories of love and faith among the homeless. I could also share amazing stories of how the homeless community has consistently shamed my efforts to love and how they have truly loved one another and me!

There is a reason I have often failed to love with a kingdom love:
Fear and anxiety!
I fear the consequences!
I fear embarrassment, rejection and humiliation.
I fear being punched in the nose!
I fear losing comfort, security and power!
I fear wasting time, losing money and my dignity!
I fear myself!

Yet, fear and anxiety are conquered by what? LOVE
“There is no fear in love, and perfect love casts out fear!” 1 John 4:18
The logic is simple: love takes courage.
In overcoming or conquering fear or anxiety, we discover what courage is.
I want to encourage us all to be courageous.
Courageous enough to truly love:
I need to strain, pray and pursue this life of love!
How about you?

I need to forgive their aggression
I need to forgive their abuse
I need to forgive their laziness
I need to forgive their excuses and their setbacks
They may not forgive themselves, but I must!
I must forgive them 70 times 7!
I must offer hope in the darkness!
Why?
It’s simple;
Jesus does that for me!
People may say homeless people don’t deserve it;
Well - neither do I!

Questions flood my mind as I wonder how I (and we) can truly be vessels of kingdom love in this depressing, distressing and distraught world:
Who is willing to forgive the woman who won’t forgive herself?
Who is willing to offer hope to the chronic alcoholic who struggles to overcome his addiction and is constantly reminded of his fate?
Who is willing to step into the schizophrenic world of a young paranoid woman and say I accept you and I love you?
Who is willing to forgive the prisoner when society won’t give him a 2nd chance?
Who is willing to offer hope to the homeless veteran who sees no light the end of the tunnel and suffers with crippling post traumatic stress disorder?
Who is willing to walk next to the crack head who wants to overcome, but that lighter continues to flicker?
Who is willing to truly love, without sexual intercourse, that heroin addict who sells her (or his) body at every opportunity, because the needle helps her escape the reality of her nightmare past of rape and molestation?
Who is willing to listen to the stories and buy the groceries of the lonely old grumpy man who has lost everything and everyone and death knocks at his door?
Who is willing to struggle through the ups and downs of vicious bi-polar episodes and continue to hold that hand that has burnt a thousand bridges?
Who is willing to step into this violent world of gangbangers and thugs that loves revenge, say “I forgive you, you are a person of potential and I love you?”
Who can offer hope?
Who is daring enough to risk failure, by being willing to love?

Kingdom love simply cries with the prophet Isaiah:
“A bruised reed he will not break
A dimly burning wick he will not extinguish!”

* This was originally written in early 2010. Andre and Sheila eventually got housed, though their health is weak, it has improved since having a consistent place to lay their heads. It was truly a miracle, and it took a while. Here's a LINK to their story.
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