Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Love Without an Agenda

It turns out that I like the homeless. How did I reach this conclusion? The hard way. I previously had a bad taste of the homeless coming from my experiences of homeless people in Chicago who bug you until you pay them to leave you alone. For my internship this summer I volunteered to go downtown with some students to work with the homeless for a week. Okay, honestly, I didn’t even want to go on this trip. Elizabeth took me to the train station and I was complaining on the way there. It wasn’t that I hate students or didn’t think this opportunity was a good idea, but I was worn out from all the ministry I’d been doing this summer. I was dreading for several reasons: I knew it was going to be a lot of work, I didn’t know what we were going to do, and I didn’t know anyone. But, I had signed up, so I went anyway. 

I arrived at the train station to a chaotic mix of parents and students all looking for direction. When they realized I worked for Northpoint, they turned on me. I had signed up to go because I like to work with students. I had no idea about all the other details. Mallory, the person in charge hadn’t shown up yet and I was bombarded with signed parental permission slips and a myriad of questions about the if’s, where’s, and what’s. I’m good at thinking on my feet so I made up assuring answers to calm the anxious parents. When Mallory got there, I readily shoveled all the forms and questions to her, and stood close by to help the best I could get the trip moving. 

The train took us downtown where we exited and walked to an a building that housed the organization called  “Safehouse.” This is where we received our assignment for the week. It was simple; to serve with unrequited love.  Joe, the pastor at Safehouse, challenged us to use this opportunity to give without expecting anything in return. He referred to it as “Love without an agenda.” Other than that, he really didn’t give us any assignments, which I hated… at first.

Every night of the week at Safehouse, a different church would come in to lead a cook dinner and lead a service. Our job was simply to hang out. This seemed strange to me in a way. I’m so used to being told to serve, cook, building, evangelize, or something. This simple plan of hanging out didn’t seem like ministry to me. We hosted a makeshift youth group with a bunch of silly icebreaker games. The high schoolers invited homeless people and we’d just hang out and connect with them. This seemingly meaningless assignment quickly turned amazing. 

Within minutes of our first night of this, one of the girls had given her shoes away and was walking around in socks! This set the tone for the rest of the week. We went to parks, hosted meals, and just hung out with the homeless. As people have asked how this trip changed me, my answer is that the highlight of my trip really was seeing the students flourish in these circumstances. It was a huge confirmation of my calling to work with students and see them be changed. This generation is not a lost cause. They are incredible!

One morning, Joe asked if we were comfortable washing feet and giving people new socks. I remember the taste of bile clawing at my throat. I’ve been to Iraq and been in a number of uncomfortable situations, but that might be the line for me. I hugged the homeless people and held their hands as we prayed but I didn’t think I was capable of washing their feet. Joe asked for volunteers and I kid you not, every student raised their hands. There were other jobs to be done and students could have chosen other things, but they all raised their hands. Joe only chose seven lucky students, so, thankfully, I did not have to swallow my bile. But these students were off the hook! 

One day, we made pancakes. That was mixing things up a bit because most shelters only make dinner. The students eagerly went to the neighboring parks to find homeless to invite them. Then, they served the meal with enthusiasm. One of the group members decided that we needed some background music, so he turned on his iPod. That was fine, but as the first song had rhythm, some students were inspired to “show us what they got.” They jumped on stage, and started showing off some dance moves. Pretty soon some homeless people were being pulled on the stage to be taught how to do the dance. Soon, it turned into a wild dance party. It was unreal. I am not exaggerating, two hours later, the iPod had played every Michael Jackson song I know and every song that narrates a dance. It went through every song I knew you could dance to and more, it was unbelievable. One homeless person could do the entire music video dance for “Thriller.” The founder of Safehouse said that, “I have never seen these homeless people smile so much”-- which is saying a lot coming from him!

One night a student started crying as she was telling me about a conversation she had having with with one of her homeless friends who had told her he was thinking about committing suicide. The longer she talked with him, the more connected she became. By the end of the conversation, all she wanted was for him to tell her that he’d still be around tomorrow. She learned that there is nothing she could do to change him. She could only love him that moment in time. And cry.

Another student traded shoes with a person who was wearing the wrong size. It didn’t matter that they weren’t his size either. The funny thing is, he thinks he got the better end of the deal. I saw him at church the next Sunday and he was still wearing them.

I could share so many more stories, but because you are already bored, I’ll close with a final thought. Out of everything I saw and experienced through this mission trip, I cam away feeling such a confirmation of my calling and so excited that the future of the church is in the hands of such a passionate generation. We were not forced to tell anyone the gospel, we weren’t given a 5 point tract to hand out, we didn’t have a trick question, we weren’t doing apologetics. These students were just loving these people and the gospel was brought by love without an agenda. 

Friday, July 16, 2010

North Point Does Camp

Camp is the event that my internship has been working towards this summer. The goal: relocate 1,200 kids to Panama City Beach, Florida for an encounter with the life changing God and bring them back again without any mortalities. (Only one guy in my group came back with stitches. So I think we did pretty well.) I was assigned to be a temp small group leader along with one of their two permanent small group leaders. As the substitute for the other small group leader I felt that I came in with a disadvantage. They knew, liked, and missed their other "real" small group leader. So I battled with feelings of inadequacy. We were to lead fifteen 10th graders and share two condos in a massive beach resort that the church rented out. I occupied the smaller condo with the seven more well behaved guys. Without revealing too much of the personal experiences that were shared, I will say that God came and moved amongst the guys in my group. It was dramatic. The first small group time that I was present for, several of my students shared parts of their story and tears. They shared about feeling like their parents or grand parents had neglected or not liked them, and what it was like the first time they felt affirmation. They shared about addictions they were choosing to fight against. I hadn’t known whether or not I was connecting with them, but after that group I knew we were brothers.

Let me share this hilarious story about the trip: All during the week the guys had been testing me to see what my boundaries were. I had told them I was in the army and so they kind of imagined that I was like an army ninja warrior. They were a little bit afraid of me I think. I liked that perception... there are advantages to being feared... you know what I mean? To continue with set-up, they had a game that they thought was hysterical. If one of their friends left their phone unattended, the someone in the group would hide it. The student whose phone it was would get frantic when they realized it was missing and they would retrace their steps to the beach or the conference center looking for it. This would result in a raucous laughter. That would enlighten the tortured student that his peers were guilty, but instead of telling him where it was, the other guys would play the hot or cold game until the student found it.

This particular night, the game turned sour. One student informed me that my cell phone had been stolen off the counter in the room where I had left it (Mom, I just want you to know that I did actually know where I had left it) it was about 1:30 am. I informed the guys I was headed to bed and that my phone had better be there when I arrived. I rose and walked very slowly towards my room. No one moved a muscle. As I entered the door frame of my room and observed that my phone had not been replaced I heard quick movements behind me. A door behind me slammed shut and the muffled sound of another slamming also. I wheeled around and ran to the first door. They locked it. Foolishly they didn’t realize it was the type with the hole in the middle that you could pick easily. The one student who had been the scapegoat that week assisted me and we were through that door in a matter of seconds. Entering the room I looked around and saw no one. But, I did notice the closet door was now shut. I swiftly moved towards it, twisted the doorknob, and heard five squeals. “He’s at the door!” I gave it a good shove but even me in my glorious might am no match for five squealing 10th graders. I managed to crack it open enough to see their wide-eyed terror beset 10 eye balls before they would slam it shut again. I looked for something I could jam into the door to keep it open, but couldn’t find anything that wouldn’t damage the frame so I searched for other options. Above me, I realized the ceiling tiles crossed the closet too. So I climbed up on the counter and pushed the tile out of the way. Sure enough, I had easy access to their space. I wasn’t big enough to crawl through, but from here I knew I could rain down terror. I yanked the tile off the closet side, growled and gave scary fingered grimace look! Five frightened squeals responded. I climbed down and shoved the door to make sure they would stay put and went to the kitchen to grab a few bottles ice cold water. I poked holes in the tops of the bottles, which made instant spray guns and climbed back on the counter. Grinning through the open tile leading into their tiny space, I drenched them. Four boys collapsed to the ground squealing like the Wicked Witch of the West, but one of my brighter students kept his head and continued to hold the door closed. I emptied a full bottle on their heads then jumped back down to the door. Thats when my co-conspirator jumped up on the counter and poured another bottle down on them. This solicited more screaming but no progress. It was time for a new approach. My assistant had a great idea and ran to get his spray deodorant. He climbed back on the counter and pumped our torture chamber full of odorous fumes. As I began to get a whiff of this scent, I knew they must be near death. As the coughing began, the door game suddenly switched. They wanted out, so I reverse my role in the game too. I held the door shut a few moments longer, laughed, then let go. One of the students fell backwards over his friend and I raced into the closet. seeing that it was 5 against 1, the same smart student grabbed me from behind and said “ I’ve got him, grab him!” while another student said, “he’s got him, run!” and four squealing boys bolted. I quickly turned the hold I was in into a headlock in my favor. I told him, “You don’t have very good friends..” He whimpered back, “ I know.” So I took him with me into the main room of the condo. The four 10th grade men ran to the corners of the room, but one of them quickly returned my phone and cried out “It wasn’t me..” in a trembling high pitched plea. We all became friends that night. For those of you who don't know: that is what male bonding is all about.

But on a more serious note, I was extremely impressed with the way that North Point does camp. Because they bring all of their own small group leaders down to substitute for camp counselors, that camp "high" is experienced by someone who will be there to follow-up when the students get home. This also gives the small group leaders a sense of value, because they get to see that their work is worth while. Every single one of the fifteen guys in my group admitted to me that this trip had been life changing. The talks had been about how when a person experienced Jesus, their lives are forever changed. They used the stories of people Jesus had met to relate this truth-- Zacheus, the Woman at the Well, the Rich Young Ruler-- to name a few. It was incredible. The speakers did an amazing job of making it easy for the small group leaders to ask good questions and leader their students into imagination-enthralling relationship with Jesus. It was awesome. The last night, 14 of my 15 guys told me and the other small group leaders specific actions they were going to do when they got home, from witnessing to relatives to respecting authority figures to breaking addictions. It was incredible. One guy gave his life to Jesus. The 15th member told us that he wasn't there yet. He was no longer an outside observer, but he wasn't ready to be all the way. But he's moving closer. It was unbelievable to me that he was comfortable telling us that, glad that he had come, and that he was committed to coming back and learning more. So... feel free to ask questions if you want me to fill in the blanks, but overall, it was better than I could have imagined.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

More Life in Georgia

A large package came in the mail the other day with Grammy’s name on it, she was thrilled. Inside was her brand new, shiny walker. After Mr. Shalom assembled it, Grammy could be seen doing laps around the kitchen. She was even excited about the “secret compartment” underneath the seat. She exclaimed, “I can keep my purse, my water, my jacket, or whatever I want down there!”

One Friday, said I to my maiden, “Lets pack a cooler with food, sunscreen, bugspray, water, and my handy five finger shoes equipped to meet all my outdoor fancies and go for a hike!” So we set out for the North Georgia frontier, excited for what awaited. As we neared our destination, I realized I was hungry. We began to see signs announcing the quickly approaching “Earl’s BBQ.” I know that whenever you are in a foreign land, it is polite to eat the traditional food of that place, so I was interested. After I exited the Highway, I couldn’t find Earl or his BBQ anywhere. But, I did find Reba. She owned an all day buffet... Elizabeth warned me about places like this. She claimed we would be served by people without teeth, wearing camouflage. These are the types of restaurants where overalls are the fashion choice most days. Anyways, I ignored her as I walked in and greeted them with a familiar, “Howdy.” This is similar to a "hello" or a "hi" everywhere american is spoken. (Here in the south, they have their own secret language.) Sure enough, our waiter, though perfectly courteous, was wearing a camouflage apron and a John Deer shirt that stated, “Will trade wife for tractor.” I poke fun, but I will admit that I was served the best BBQ I’ve ever had. They are doing something right. Our destination was a location called "Tallulah Gorge." This place made for a perfect day of rock jumping, swimming, hiking, and playing. At the bottom of the gorge, there is a waterfall that is one big rock set at a 45 degree angle. The water rushes over it, and if you sneak out to the middle of the fall, you can actually use it as a huge natural waterslide! Awesome. We came home sweaty and exhausted but we were happy.

I spent a weekend in Chicago. Let me begin this short story with a quote from a picture of me on facebook, I’m a "two-time award winning best man.” This is true. In the last two months, both of my best friends have gotten married and I was the best man at each. I traveled to Seattle for one and Chicago for the other. They were both certainly memorable and filled with many stories. In short, the bookends of Jon’s wedding were certainly unforgettable. There were tiny mishaps like no air conditioning to a guy being picked up by an ambulance next door to the reception. The ceremony itself was beautiful and passed without a hitch. I didn't drop the rings. So, that's good. The rest, including the bachelor party, is just memories.