Sunday, November 30, 2008

the hardest line I'll ever draw

From November 16th-March 16th, life at our ministry (FMS) is different. During that four-month stretch of freezing, Colorado weather, we open up a few motel rooms, put down pads instead of beds, and pack in as many homeless folks as we can. The ministry began four years ago when an FMS client froze to death one winter night. It's not that most of them don't have warm enough gear to get them through. It's that they get drunk enough to not quite make it up to camp, pass out, and never wake up. These are those who would die without the program. They are saved from death, while others are spared a winter's worth of shivering the night away. 

Anyway, that means that, for now, I am sleeping five nights a week on that motel room floor, supervising the women who come to us out of the cold. During the hours before bed time, we all gather (men and women) in one room to watch movies, heat up some food, or whatever helps pass the time as we spend the evening in close quarters. 

So there's the scene: cramped motel room full of staff and clients, only some of them sober. Now here's the character du jour: Shawn. Shawn is the worst alcoholic I have ever encountered. Only when asleep and first waking is he sober, and even then his motor abilities have been severely hampered by his constant intake of cheap cooking sherry. He is a tragic character in so many senses. His parents, both supportive and wealthy, would gladly pay his fines, pick him up, put him in treatment, and allow him to live at home if he will make but one decision: the decision to pursue sobriety. Shawn chooses not to, and so he drinks himself closer and closer to an early death every day. He is still in his 20's. 

Shawn is not only our drunkest customer; he is also our most disruptive. He stumbles in cussing and raising cane, refusing instruction from staff and even challenging physical attempts to help him into the part of the room called the "drunk tank". He brings total chaos to a program that needs some sense of order to work. The rules we have about that kind of behavior are for good reason: to be able to provide a healthy atmosphere, and to stay in the good graces of the motel that hosts us. 

And here is difficult line we must draw. If anyone is at risk to pass out and freeze to death, it is Shawn. Yet we risk our entire winter ministry (and the sanity of all involved) if we let him stay when he is physically and verbally disruptive. The choice is clear in the end: we must draw the lines that will allow us to to continue to provide warmth to as many as we can these winter nights. This means we must offer Shawn the chance to come in sober and well-behaved....but be willing to send him back out into the winter night if he chooses not to. We have to make the choice to send the one out into the cold so that we can continue to bring the many in. 

I write this much for prayer as for reflection. As I write, Shawn is being told that he needs to begin coming in sober and calm, or he will not be allowed to stay. Pray for the kind of clear hearing that could only be a miracle for an alcoholic like Shawn. Pray for courage and wisdom as we are called into difficult decisions. We pray most of all that we will never have to face news that this tragic young man succumbed to the chill of a winter night. May God grant us grace to love him well and wisdom to know how to do it. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

so, where exactly IS that field?

These were purchased at two different gas stations, in two different states on the way to Michigan last summer. Yes folks, even the postcard makers can't tell Nebraska from Iowa. 

Sunday, November 02, 2008

love is messy business

My time thus far at Feed My Sheep has reminded me of many things, one of the most important things being this: truly loving people--acknowledging and honoring the dignity of every person--is messy. In working with the homeless, I will often get my hopes only to have them disappointed: the chronic alcoholic will make it 15 days sober, then come in slobbering drunk one day. The woman who shows signs of making changes will fall for one more invitation to spend the night with an abusive man. And the woman who seemed to be calm and collected will suddenly deteriorate into fits of disturbing and scary schizophrenia. There will be success stories, of course. We serve a God of overcoming. Yet we dwell among a people prone to self-destruction. Truly loving people means journeying across both sides of that coin of relationship between God and humanity.

The messiness of this thing called love, epsecially love for those with whom we would like to disassociate, makes most people avoid the task at all. To my great disgust, I recently sat at a meeting full of community leaders and listened to voices asserting that we ought to just pack that worthless bunch we call homeless onto a bus and send them out of town. Let them be someone else's problem, they say. Let someone else do the messy work of offering dignity to the dirty. While such an attitude disturbs me, it calls me to ask myself whom I regard in such a way. I may embrace the homeless and despise the rich. It is no better.

Loving people is messy because we must acknowledge that so little distance lies between our situation and that of any other human being on earth: the geography of our birthplace, a parent who offered some guidance, one little chemical in the brain, a stable job market, or the propensity for addiction. To truly love, we must give up the right to disassociate. We must surrender us-and-them. It is a gargantuan calling for any of us to aspire to, myself included.

What I am called to remember is that, on the inside, we're walking in similiar shoes. All of us homeless until we find a home in him. All of us a slave to something until we let him free us. All of us filthy and unkempt until he purifies our hearts. To love one another is to embrace the common mess. It is hard. And it is the highest calling of our faith, save for loving God himself. And just so we wouldn't cop out and say that loving God is all we need, he told us that they are one and the same: "For whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me."