How volunteering for the “Point-in-Time Survey” changed the way I see people experiencing homelessness.

This week I helped out with the Point-in-time survey that Big Bend Homeless Coalition coordinated.  Monday through Wednesday about 85 volunteers went to shelters, wandered the streets, and went into the woods to talk to people experiencing homelessness and ask questions about how long they had been homeless, if they had chronic health issues, substance abuse, mental heath issues, education level, if they were a Veteran, and other things related to risk factors and their experiences.  We surveyed almost 650 people who were in emergency shelters or living on the streets.  People who are living in transitional housing will be included in the total numbers that will be announced tomorrow.  There are surely even more people who we did not talk to so the actual number of people without a home is even larger.  They estimate that there are around 1000 people in the area who are homeless.  One thousand people.  That’s a lot of people.

One of the main reasons I wanted to help with this is to be able to put a face, and story with statistics I hear.  Sure you can hear that there are 1000 people in the Tallahassee area who don’t have their own place to call home, and you can hear statistics on how many have mental heath problems, have a college degree, or how many people don’t have the stereotypical problems that you associate with homelessness, but their still this kind of impersonal, abstract idea of a person.  Most of the people I talked to seemed like nice, normal people.  Some had substance abuse problems, some had been in prison, some had mental heath problems, but talking with them they didn’t seem that different from the guy you might start up a conversation with in line at the coffee shop or sitting next to you at the bar.  For me it made the “homeless” seem less scary, less foreign, and more like normal people who happen to be in a different situation and different place in their life.  I wondered, how many of these people could have a very different life if they had someone to help get through tough times before they lost their home, or to get the help they need to move on to better circumstances now.  Sure, some of them probably wouldn’t do any better no matter how much people tried to help, but how many could have a home, stable income or other aid, and live a life where they could worry about what to cook for dinner tonight rather than if someone was going to steal their few possessions as they slept?  I won’t forget the lady who used to work at an organization helping those who are experiencing homelessness, and  now has no home herself, or the man who has bipolar and depression, and wants to be able to get medication to help him so he can find and keep a job again.  I won’t forget the man who came to Tallahassee because in his town there was no where for him to sleep that didn’t get him kicked out or arrested, or how, as I was walking around in the rain and the cold, I wondered how many people would be sleeping in wet clothes with wet blankets on a cold night…and thinking of them as people and individuals, not some nameless, faceless population.

Even more, as a Christian, I can’t help but think of how many times we say something about God loving people, and how we “love” people, but probably never give a second though to people experiencing homelessness.  We live in a broken world and I think us Christians need to remember that God doesn’t just care about those of us who go to church, but deeply cares about those of us who have broken lives, no matter if they are living behind an abandoned building, or next door to us, or in an exorbitant mansion.

Thoughts on Sentralized

So I just got back from Sentralized, the conference we went to as a part of the FORGE training we’re doing.  If you donated to help us go on this trip thank you very much.  I thought I’d type up some of my favorite quotes and thoughts on the conference. (This will mostly be a list of loose quotes that I wrote down.)

A lot of the conference talked about “The Great Commission”/making disciples and what that actually looks like.  Disciples doesn’t just mean people who attend church.  It means people who live the way Jesus told us to.  We also talked a lot about loving others and building community.  If you really read what Jesus says, we are called to a lot more than just saying we believe in Him or having a relationship with Him.  We are called to care for people and to make disciples.  God asks us to be a part of the story of Him changing people’s lives.  We are called to be servants and put others before ourselves.  We are called to serve “the least of these.”

Jeremiah 29:7- “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

“Dream big, start small.”

“We should never stand in the way of someone getting close to Jesus.  If your theology stops you from embracing everyone, there is something dodgy with your theology”-DH

“The Church is not the hope of the world, Jesus is.  But Jesus hopes the Church will spring to life.”-HH

“We are afraid Jesus actually meant what he said”-LF

“Welcome every person and affirm they are made in the image of God and are valuable.”-DH

“Discipleship isn’t just about what we think.  It’s about what we do and how we feel.”- DH

“We may love the concept but then stop.  It’s not an issue of training, it’s an issue of spiritual transformation.”-HH

“You can be inspired but just be entertained and not do anything.”-JS

“Will we be a living example?  Do we have lives worth imitating.”-JS

Help me learn about being missional.

I am joining Shawn Grant (pastor at my church) and a few others in as we learn more about how to be a missional church through a program called Forge. You can read more about this here: http://www.shawngrant.com/?p=499

Basically we believe that there needs to be a shift in how we do church.  Just having a good church service still leaves a lot of people outside the church who aren’t going to show up on a Sunday morning.    We believe that Christians, and not just people who work at a church, should join God on his mission to reach people.  We should be engaged in community and work for restoration of our broken world and also to tell people about Jesus.  It’s the idea that we are all missionaries, and not in the short-term sense where you just go, preach, and leave, but in the long term sense where you live with people, get to know them, their culture, build relationships, help them improve their lives, and share your faith with them.  It’s about living in community with those around you, not just those you know from church, and being there for a friend in need, and allowing God to work through your relationships to restore life here “on earth as it is in heaven.”  We hope to see God transform lives and think that the best way for that to happen is though a missional approach.

To learn how to do this better we are going through a program called “Forge Residency” and attending a conference.  We’re asking people to help us raise the money for this.  (See Shawn’s blog above for more info on all this)  The total cost for Shawn and the rest of us to go through this training is $5200.  We’re looking for 13 people to commit it donating $20 a month for the next year.  If you want to help but can’t commit to that, please consider giving $5 or $10 a month, or just give what you can the Crossbridge giving page and make a donation in the box marked for Forge.  You can also set up monthly donations there (if you don’t have a log-on, just register).  Let me know if you have any questions.  Also, please be praying for our group going on this trip and the leadership team at Crossbridge as we learn more about how to be missional.

Zacchaeus

Last Sunday the pastor at my church preached on the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:10) and Zaccheus (Luke 19:1).  He talked about how there are stories Jesus told, that sound like nice stories, but we don’t expect them to really play out in real life.  “God loves the sinners!  He will forgive them and welcome them back!”  Well the Jews at the time considered tax collectors as just about the lowest of the low and people to avoid having any contact with.  Jesus seemed to have a thing for spending time with people the religious leaders avoided like the plague (see Luke 5:31).  Our church wants to be like Jesus and care about those who society or even some religious people would want to avoid or just simply ignore.  We want to share God’s love with people who may have been rejected or hurt by religious people before.  This is an idea I’m totally on board with, but when it becomes more than a nice story, sometimes it’s hard to believe.

The community group I’m in meets in the Railroad Ave. area.  We meet at either All Saints Cafe or Fermentation Lounge.  For any one not familiar with the area it’s a lot of art students, grad students and faculty from FSU, homeless, and other various people, mostly ones that aren’t the type you expect to find in a church.  The reason we meet here instead of just at someone’s house is we want to impact the area.  We want to provide opportunities to build relationships in the area and hopefully have a chance to talk about God and Jesus with some people in the area.  We also want to support businesses and the community in this area.  We’d like to one day have a church in the area.  I believe God is real, that Jesus’s death provides a way for us to have a relationship with God, and that this relationship, and knowing God’s love will change one’s life and is so much better than going through life without a relationship with God.

Somehow, when it comes to people in this area, and the idea of their lives changing, it’s hard to believe it’s more than just a nice story we’d like to tell.  Sure I believe God can change anyone’s life, but these people, they want nothing to do with God.  Everyone of them would never even consider going to a church.  I mean sure, God can change people’s lives, but these people, well it just won’t happen here.

Why is it so unbelievable that God would do something in this part of town?  Why do I assume everyone in this part of town will now and always reject God?

I was thinking over some of the conversation we had in my community group meeting tonight.  One thing we didn’t talk about is the real reason we’re down there to begin with.  God loves us.  He loves the punks, hipsters, boring office workers, weird art students, homosexuals, atheists, and who ever else we might encounter in the area.  Saying “Jesus loves you” has become cliché, but in those moments where I really get a sense of God’s love, it’s so far beyond some cheesy bumper sticker or t-shirt.  The verse comes to mind ” And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love,  may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ,  and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:17-19)  God loves these people who hang out at All Saints, Railroad Square, Fermentation Lounge, and elsewhere.  I think if I could grasp what this love is like, and see these people as God does, all my worries about if anyone here would ever accept God, would fade to the background.  I think I would be filled with a sense that this is so important that we have to pursue it.  It’s not just about getting people to go to church because I like it.  It’s not even about trying to get people to go to church because I think it would benefit them.  It’s about knowing how crazy, how ridiculous, God’s love is, and wanting to do something about it.

God I pray that you will help me a passion for people like you have.  Help me to not to see stories about people like Zacchaeus as just nice stories, but as an example of how you change people’s lives, no matter what what group they belong to.

Why I Decided to Observe Lent

Growing up in Protestant, non-denominational churches I was vaguely aware of what Lent was but always wrote it off as a Catholic thing.  Catholics do all sorts of religious things and I never really paid much attention.  Besides, it seemed like not eating chocolate for 40 days doesn’t really have any spiritual significance anyway.  And then there’s those people who think a religious observance is an excuse to get really drunk and do other sinful things on the Tuesday before Lent.  “Sin as much as you can today before you try to be good for the next 40(ish) days.”  In the past few yeas I’ve heard several Protestants talk about Lent and decided to sort of re-examine what I thought about it.  While I think there are likely a lot of people who observe religious traditions just because they are traditions, or to add to some checklist to feel better about themselves, these traditions can have real spiritual significance.  I don’t think removing pleasure from your life results in growing closer to God, but the practice of fasting is certainly a Biblical one and worthwhile.  It also seems to be practiced rarely by the average christian.  My approach focuses more on spiritual growth, rather than penance or Jesus’ suffering, which some seem to focus on during Lent.  When was the last time you fasted?  For me it was over a year ago, maybe two.

The Old Testament has lots of examples where God told His people to observe certain feasts or set up reminders of what he had done for them.  In the New Testament Jesus sets up what we call Communion to remember his sacrifice.  At Christmas we remember how Jesus came to earth, and at Easter we remember his sacrifice and how he rose from the dead.  Although observing religious tradition isn’t on some checklist of things we have to do to earn salvation, I think they still have value.

I’ve decided to take this opportunity to fast for 40 days.  The last few years I kind of didn’t realize Lent was ready to start till the day of or day before and it seemed kind of last minute to decide to commit to something like that.  This year I’ve had some time to think about and plan.  I’m not fasting from food, but from “screens” after 11 pm, which in my schedule means 2-3 hours of fasting.  I wanted to choose something that I consume frequently enough for it to be noticeable and something that would help me spend more time with God.  Most food items would just result in me eating something else instead and at the moment I might have a passing thought about the fast and God, but it would be far to easy to go about my day like normal.  I wanted something to interrupt my life in a way I couldn’t forget about in 30 seconds.  My goal is to take this time that I normally would be watching TV, on the computer, or on my iPod and instead spend time with God and read some Christian books I got a while ago but haven’t made time to read.  I did this fast before for a week and filled most of my free time with other unimportant stuff but hopefully I’ll be more disciplined this time around and since it’s for a longer period of time maybe I’ll even establish new habits.  (Interestingly, turning off all screens last time still didn’t result in my going to sleep earlier.  I guess I can’t blame the internet for my sleep patterns)

It isn’t just me and Jesus…

As a kid being a Christian meant I say I love Jesus and I get to go to heaven.  When I got older I learned more about this relationship we can have with God.  You go to church, pray, read the Bible, and live a moral life and you and God will be tight.  Church seemed to focus on helping you strengthen your relationship with God.  Looking back it seems almost like that friend that started dating and then no one else existed anymore.  Being a Christian seemed like “It’s just me and God, and I’ll spend time with him and my life will be awesome and I will be happy.”  It seemed that being a Christian was all about a personal relationship with God that made me feel good.  But I think being a Christian is much harder and less warm and fuzzy than that.  Salvation of course is a free gift, but when you accept you’re not just signing up for a club with nice friends and learning how much God loves you.  You’re signing up for a life that is very different.  Ya, I know, pick up your cross and such…but I think many of us fail, I know I did, to realize that the point shouldn’t be on our personal relationship.  I was reading something by Francis Chan lately and he mentioned the parable with the sheep and goats and brought up the question, “How many ‘Christians’ will be categorized with the goats?”  “But I prayed the prayer, I read my Bible and go to church and don’t don’t watch movies with sex in them…etc”

Somehow I think that despite hearing verses about taking care of the poor and denying ourselves we somehow think we somehow ignore these verses and think “All I need to do is spend time with God” and then forget about the rest of what should be involved in living a Christian life.  Tonight watching the Passion conference Francis Chan brought up the verse where Jesus says “when you host a dinner, don’t invite your friends, invite the poor..”  In the parable about the sheep and goats Jesus says we should feed the hungry, clothe the poor,etc.  If we follow Jesus‘ example we should hang out with “sinners.”  Somehow this seems to be mentioned much less often then when we are told we should work on our relationship with God.  In the past few years my “quiet times” have been hit and miss.  I spend to little time reading the Bible.  That needs to change.  However I’ve felt my passion for God increase in such a different way when having a conversation with an atheist who has misconceptions about the Bible or helping out hungry people then I ever did in a quiet time.

I think we need to make sure we don’t convey the idea that becoming a christian is signing up for a social club and going to heaven.  Life isn’t supposed to be just a serries of dates with God that I fit into my schedule. God asks so much more of us.  The good news is we can have a relationship with him because of Jesus’s sacrifice.  God’s grace is amazing and we don’t need to live in fear that if we screw up he’s kicking us out of the club.  We don’t go good things to get on God’s good side.  But he does want our heart and that means not living our lives for what makes us happy but for what God calls us to.  It’s not “normal.”  It’s not the american standard where the general advice seems to be “do whatever makes you happy.”  It’s living with a focus outside of yourself.  It’s an uncomfortable idea sometimes.  Sometimes I think I’d rather spend all my money and time making my life fun and comfortable.  But I know that’s not the life God’s called me too and ultimately God’s priorities are so much worthwhile than mine.  Being a Christian isn’t just about me and God and a personal relationship.  There is a lifestyle that should accompany it and it has a lot to do with other people, particularly people who have physical or spiritual needs.  Above all God cares about the heart.  All these actions should be in response to God’s love and your relationship with him and not a burdensome to-do list to keep God from getting mad at you.

 

Ephesians 3:16-19

16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

How Do I Treat “Non-Christians?”

My church has been preaching with a slightly different focus lately.  We’ve been talking about living missionaly.  It kind of changes the focus from the church being the entity that introduces people to God and moves that mission to our personal lives.  We should build care about people and build relationships with people because that’s who God is.  God cares about them.  Hopefully we have opportunities to tell people about God and why he’s important to us but the focus is more about caring for people because that’s how God feels and how he wants us to live.

Of course the idea of telling people about God isn’t new.  I’ve heard it hundreds of times but somehow for most of my life I had this perception that you strike up a conversation with someone to “witness to them” because that’s what good christians do.  That makes God happy.  We don’t really care about the person, we care about some list of what it means to be a good Christian.  This list of course is a list of things to do and not do and the heart or motivation behind the actions is barely an afterthought.  Besides, people who aren’t Christians are some foreign species and some story about people pulling you down and they’re just plain different and so you just don’t relate to them like you do with your Christian friends.

While something as important as a relationship with God can change the dynamic of relationships, I’ve kind of realized that people who don’t go to aren’t so foreign.  Funny how we (churches I grew up in) have treated people who are outside of the Church in such an odd way.  It’s not normal to walk up to a stranger and jump into a conversation about their relationship with God.  Certainly we wouldn’t approach a stranger or acquaintance and start questioning their marriage relationship and start telling them what they should do to change it.  Why did we act like it was fine and even commendable to walk up to stranger and ask them “If you were to die tonight are you going to heaven?”  Perhaps there was a time and culture where this worked.  Somehow since starting to see people outside of the Church as friends and “normal” people I just don’t see how forcing a socially awkward conversations or even waiting for them to come to church and “join our club” is the best approach.  For now my approach is to be honest about who I am, don’t shy away from mentioning that I go to church, and try to be sensitive in conversations of when to bring up the more weighty topics of God and the Church.  More importantly, I hope the way I treat others honors God and that He continues to change my heart to truly care about them as He does.