This morning I was sitting in the waiting room as Yvan was in seeing the doctor for a follow up blood test. Suddenly this woman burst through the door with her son, who I would guess to be about 10 years old. The boy was obviously ill but he was also crying. Then the mother turned on the boy with a vicious verbal attack.
“YOU ARE JUST LIKE YOUR FATHER! WORTHLESS AND EXPENSIVE TO TAKE CARE OF!” The boy was beginning to apologize. But I stepped in and said “STOP IT! WHATEVER Issues lie between your husband and yourself are yours and his but not your son’s. How dare you speak to him like that.” She practically screamed at me, “BUT HE JUST COST ME 50 BUCKS.”
“Worth every penny I’d say. There will come a day when you will need him. He will be your only hope aside from God. You need to calm down and then apologize and beg his forgiveness before the day’s end.” Then I turned to the boy and said, “You have done nothing wrong. There is nothing you need to apologize for.”
The mother glared at me and said, “Now I suppose you are going to call the cops on me too?”
“No, I am not. I am going to pray for your son and you too if you’ll let me?”
“Well go on pray for him. BUT NOT ME.”
So I did, and the boy politely thanked me and said that he knew Jesus and went to church when he got to go visit his dad. His name is Mike and his mom’s name is Susan and he asked me to pray for his mom because she needs Jesus really bad. I told Mike I would and that I would turn her over to my best prayer warriors. ( That’s you guys) and he smiled. I walked him out to their truck and Mike waved as his Mom sped off.
The other day I was talking to my friend Dave. He’s known as Montana Dave because, I guess, he came from Montana originally, but there are a few of the guys who I know were raised in Montana, but they don’t get the nickname “Montana.” On the other hand, there’s a number of Daves or Davids around, so I suppose he needed some kind of nickname and Montana suits him just fine.
I think of him as “Mountain Man” myself because he’s a rugged guy and prefers to live on his own, out in the wilderness. He makes regular trips into town to get food and other supplies if he needs it, and, I think, to just talk to people for a while because it gets lonely to just talk to yourself and you always say the same things back. But he doesn’t stay in town for long.
So Dave and I were talking and I asked him, “How do you stay out there? Why do you stay out there? Do you really want to live apart from everyone? It can’t be easy.”
Dave took his hat off for a moment and looked me in the eye and asked, “Do you really want to know?”
I got the sense that he was going to tell me an earful, so I steeled myself up for a lesson and said, “Sure. Yeah, I do.”
Dave didn’t say a word. He reached into his pack, took out his bag, laid out a paper, but some tobacco on it, licked it and rolled it up. Only after he lit his smoke he said, “I go to the library, you know. And I see there that there’s a number of books on simplicity. I’ve looked at them and read what they have to say, just for a laugh. These people don’t understand simplicity any better than that fellah Thoreau did. And I don’t blame them. Real simplicity is hard. I’d say that for most of us, if we were going to learn real simplicity, we have to be forced into it. Being homeless is a good start to really learning priorities.”
“Well,” I chuckled. “Not everyone on the street is simple. What about April who got a boyfriend just so he could carry her bags and boxes around town? What about Andrew who filled his car with crap and then piled tubs and bikes on top of his car until it almost fell over?”
Dave laughed loudly and shook his head. “Well, those folks are special, if you know what I mean. I’m certainly not saying that all the homeless are simple. But I bet you that April is carrying around a lot less than the piles of stuff she had when she had her own apartment. But I agree, they are still focused on stuff, and that’s a problem if you are on the street. You know Tim and Sam? Sam was forced out of her apartment and she was going to live on the street with Tim. One guy… I can’t remember his name… made a big pile of things that Sam would ‘need’ when she got on the street. When Tim got back to help Sam, she showed him the pile and he gazed over the pile and laughed. ‘You think that we’re going to be carrying this huge pile all over the city? When you’re homeless,’ he told her, ‘Everything you need has got to fit in or on one backpack.’ Then he started pulling out the things she really needed that could fit in the backpack he brought.
“And he’s right, you know. If you leave anything in your camp you are just asking for people to rake through it and take what they like. The first step of simplicity is being forced to give up on everything, everything except what you need that day. People who write books like that in the library still have rooms, even houses, full of stuff they ‘need.’ That’s not simplicity. At least that’s too complicated for me. You say that prayer, don’t you? What’s the part about bread?”
“Give us this day our daily bread,” I recited.
“Right. Daily. Not tomorrow. Just today. God doesn’t really want us to think about tomorrow. That doesn’t mean I don’t plan. I build my cabin, and it takes time and preparation. And I come into town to get some food from you sometimes. But I don’t worry about tomorrow or what I will have or not have. I think after my wife left me and I had to live on the street, one of the happiest things I ever did was to cancel my insurance policies. That’s a lot of tomorrows I don’t have to worry about anymore.”
I hesitated, “But if you don’t prepare for tomorrow, how do you care for yourself? Don’t you starve?”
Dave chuckled as he said, “Well, I’ve gotten pretty hungry sometimes. I suppose that’s those are the times I walk over to see you. But for the most part I don’t save anything for the future. I might think about how I’ll store some things so the raccoons and cougars won’t get them, so I can still wake up in the morning. But for the most part, I just wake up and see what’s available. I don’t think about ‘what if I can’t eat.’ I guess if I don’t eat, then I don’t eat. But almost all the time it works out. If it doesn’t, and I’m stuck, then I pray.”
“Huh,” I grunted. “I didn’t think of you as a praying man.”
“Why? Because I don’t attend your services? I don’t know that I need to bother God with my questions all the time. I do stop in on occasion to give him a thank you… but generally I pray only when I really need to.”
“And when is that?”
“Last winter I was in my cabin and I got snowed in. I had wood for fuel, but if I lit it I was taking a chance on burning my whole house down. I took my shovel,” he pulls out his portable spade from the outside of his pack and unfolds it, “which is one of my essential tools, I’ll tell you. Anyway, I took this shovel and dig through the snow. It took me three days. I’m surprised I didn’t get frostbite. I’ll tell you, I prayed up a storm on those days. And He saw me through. And at the end, when I got to the church, you were open and warm and there were ninety people here, but there was some warm soup. I gave an extra thanks to God that day.”
“So, basically, simplicity is only getting what you need that day and trusting God for the rest?”
“Well, it’s a bit more than that. After all, I don’t live out in the woods just because I don’t want to have too much stuff. It’s really about avoiding drama. That’s why I don’t live with my wife anymore. Too much drama.”
“I thought she kicked you out?”
“It was mutual, I suppose. But for the most part I got the worst end of the deal.”
“But you’re living the simple life, right? No drama?”
“Yeah, and I almost froze to death last winter. That wasn’t so great. But no drama is good. You guys have a lot of drama around here.”
“True. I wish we had less. Far less.”
“Well, I think there’s a time to just walk away from it. Walk away from relationships, from the anger, from the demands…”
I was skeptical. “You mean that you should just give up on relationships?”
Dave looked up and backtracked, “No, not just give up on all relationships. Tim and Sam, they’re good for each other, you know? And they’ve had some rough patches, but they are working on them and they care about each other. That’s great. But look at most of the relationships on the street. Craziness. You can’t hear the love past all the yelling.”
“I understand that, but many relationships, if you really work on them, you can make it.”
“I wonder if you can really have the energy to work on relationships when you are struggling to survive. Relationships mean you are thinking how the other person thinks. That’s tough when you don’t have enough food. In time of survival, it’s best to just think your own thoughts.”
“But even when your surviving don’t you have to care about other people? Help other people?”
“Absolutely. And when you are surviving, helping others is simple. You need food, so do they, so you both share what you have. You need water, so do they, so you share. If one of you has got shelter and the other doesn’t, you share your shelter. But if you go deeper than that, it’s tough.”
“So how do you think people like Mark and Diane do it? They’ve been together for a while.”
“I don’t know how they do it. Just compatible, I guess. They have their arguments, too. I bet they take breaks from each other sometimes. But for me, it’s just simpler to live without a relationship. Fewer rules.”
“I’m sure you have some rules you live by.”
“I try not to. As few as possible. It’s easy to stack up rules like firewood, but they are a lot harder to get rid of. It’s simpler to live without rules. I know that you say you have four rules around here, but you have more than that. You have this complicated system of who can sleep overnight and when.”
“Well, generally we aren’t supposed to have anyone here, but I make exceptions.”
“And everyone is trying to figure out your exceptions because everyone wants to camp on this property. It’s safe. Or at least safe-er. So you have these hidden rules that drives everyone crazy. I know you let some people stay and others can’t. But that’s the thing, it complicates it. For me, it’s just about care and respect. Just care for people that really need it and respect everybody. That’s all.”
“Well, I’d like to do that, but there’s hundreds of people needing care around here…”
“So you make your own complications. I live out in the woods. The traffic’s a lot lighter out there. Sure, I come back around. I’m not a hermit. I want to talk sometimes. As you can tell.” He grins at me. “but I don’t live around all the people all the time. There are times to be with people and times to be by oneself. You’ve got to balance it for who you are.”
“That’s what Thoreau did as well. He was out in the woods for much of the week but spent the weekends with his mother.”
“Huh. Well perhaps he knew what he was talking about after all.”
Jesus ate with the sinners and tax collectors and so in order to be like him, I smoke with the homeless.I don’t actually smoke, because why would I willingly draw chemicals into my lungs, full and undiluted by air? (I’ve never smoked in my life, actually.) Instead, I just stand with the homeless while they smoke and jaw with them, listen to them. I understand the consequences of second hand smoke, Aunt Marge, but how could I turn down such an opportunity? I can meet the needs of the homeless all day, and that is opening the door to relationship, but chatting is the foundation of relationship. And if I die of lung cancer, I will consider it all worthwhile.Really, church should be less like a theatre performance or concert and more like a smoke break.It is brief and relaxed. Everyone who comes is at rest, relaxing between work opportunities. No one needs to dress up. Everyone has an equal voice, but we all stop to listen to wisdom, whomever it comes from. And instead of “amen” we say, “that’s right” or “right on” or we just add onto their insights with our own. In a smoke break, everyone has a vice, and it’s out in the open, but we don’t judge. After all, we have our vice as well. The smoke breakers are rejected by the self-righteous, and they might be jealous of our meditative break. We have an opportunity to share real thoughts, because there’s no agenda. Thus, the seed of real change can be planted in that kind of an atmosphere, despite the haze.And a lot of my church work occurs in the smoking area. The majority of my counselling happens there. And the majority of my listening. The smoke break is the center of the community, because that’s where the real stories come out, that’s where we find out who is really hurting. That’s the place of listening, of communing. Sermons don’t mean much behind a podium, but they can really touch the heart in the middle of the smoking area.I’ve learned many things “smoking” with the homeless. Here’s a few of my lessons:
- I’ve learned not to be offended by small things like foul language or poor manners or second hand smoke.
- I’ve learned that the heart of respect isn’t politeness, but caring enough never to bring harm to another’s heart.
- I’ve learned how to laugh at others. And myself.
- I’ve learned the sorrow of deep regret.
- I’ve learned that in a community of the poor, we all share each other’s trauma.
Back in April, Yvan and I were at our gym . I was so looking forward to the steam room and then the hot tub. My little fall had made my backside and legs hurt; the kind of hurt that meds can’t cure.
So there I was in the steam room cooking the pain away, feeling my bones relax with the muscles, breathing in the hot steam….aaaaah. There are three others in the steam room with me and then the three get up and leave and the the steam emitter starts another burst of steam and this lady with a walker comes in and sits across from me. About 30 seconds go by and then I hear the sound of soft weeping.
“Why are we weeping Dearheart?”
She apologizes and then says “My husband passed away 3 months ago and now I have no one to talk to. No one will spend time and listen to an old woman.”
I said “Well, I am here for at least another 20 minutes so start talking.” So for the next twenty minutes I listened to all kinds of things she had observed and experienced since the passing of her husband. I listened about her husband and some of his quirks that she found amusing and how much she misses her Teddy.
Suddenly the door opens up and her care taker says “It’s time, Liddy”
She rises and she says in a cheery voice “Thank you so much, I really enjoyed myself. I only come here once a week.”
“Well then,” I said, “until next week.”
There is this passage that says “Be still and know that I am God.” Sometimes listening to another allows the Holy Spirit the opportunity to cleanse the speakers heart of clutter so that grace of God has a clear passage to the heart.
Oh, yes, these are exactly the kind of folks Jesus hung out with.
He welcomed those whom the Standard Religious Society (SRS, or, if you please,the church) didn’t want to have anything to do with.
There were the ones that the SRS called “sinners”, but many of them really weren’t, or at least no more than anyone else. The tax collectors were folks who worked for the Romans to collect tolls for their roads. While some tax collectors DID cheat the Romans and others (like Zaccheus in Luke 19), but these toll collectors did no such thing. They didn’t make much, but they didn’t collect enough to cheat the Romans. So they had a job, just a job. But because they worked for the Romans they were automatically rejected by the SRS (i.e. the church).
So Jesus, were he here today, he would hang out with those who were “unacceptable” in the church’s eyes today. He would hang out with the homeless who are often excluded from the church simply because they don’t have good enough hygiene. He would hang out with those who belonged to cult groups like Samaritans (like Jehovah’s Witnesses or Muslims today) and explain to them the heart of God’s truth.
Jesus also hung out with those who really, seriously sinned. People like Zaccheus, but also prostitutes and betrayers. If Jesus were here today, He would hang out with the homosexuals and drunks who are unsure of their reception, even if they repent. He would hang out with the druggies and tell them about the gospel, welcoming them, eating with them, hoping to bring them— or to keep them— in God.
Who are the Riff-Raff?
Jesus targeted three groups that were set outside of the church. He welcomed the ones who were just not good enough to be in a “proper” church— Samaritans, the lame, the blind, women, the Gentiles. All of these groups were people who could be in right standing with God, but they were set out of the Temple for one reason or another. The church, like the Temple of old, has a pretty strict idea of who belongs to it. No, they don’t set up rules for it, but they set boundaries through their subtle but negative reactions to those who are poor, of different beliefs, or of a different culture.
The church today is as cultural as it is spiritual— sometimes it is more culture than Spirit. And those who do not belong to the culture are outcast.
Another group that Jesus targeted is the sinner. Some of these are professional sinners, such as prostitutes and tax collectors— those whose very profession excluded them from good graces in God’s community. Some are sinners by what they did— adultery, theft, rebellion— and they are painted as such for the rest of their life for one sin. These are like those who are in jail or prison for crimes done. While some churches might accept them, they certainly don’t allow them near their children. Again, the welcome is only partial.
The other group Jesus specifically targeted is the judged. These are people who were judged by God or by people and they have the mark of judgment against them. In Jesus’ day they are the demon possessed or the lepers. Today, they may be sufferers of AIDS or those going through withdrawal from drugs or alcohol or some other addiction. They may be people who have chronic mental illnesses. At first they might be welcome into today’s church, but then they would be rejected because they are “too difficult” or “cause too many disruptions.”
Should the church welcome the Riff Raff?
Absolutely. If it was good enough for Jesus, then it is good enough for the church. If God sees sinners repenting as more important than a bunch of people who go to church regularly, then maybe we need to stop growing our churches and getting out on the street.
Jesus didn’t just sit in the temple, looking for the riff raff to come to him. He didn’t just have a seeker’s service. Rather, he went out and established a party in every village he went to, and shared the gospel at the party. He attracted the riff raff with the kind of gathering they liked, in their area, and then spoke a message that wasn’t easy for them to hear, but it was the truth. Not everyone believed, but it was important.
So the church doesn’t just need to welcome the riff raff, they need to go out where they live and give them a party.
Why should we do this? Because these riff raff— even if they’ve been following Jesus for years, they feel that they are second class Christians, or that they have no chance of being right with God at all. They think that their lives are apart from God and there is no acceptance for them. How is this? Because the church has separated themselves from the riff raff. As long as the church will have nothing to do with the riff raff, the riff raff figure that they don’t need God, either. Yet Jesus focused his ministry on the riff raff. Jesus loves the riff raff. And Jesus’ first church was full of the riff raff— more than the “normal” folks.
How are the Riff Raff saved?
This is the easiest question to ask, but the hardest one to live out. We know that everyone is saved by faith in Jesus, by their devotion to God, their repentance from sin and their reliance on the Holy Spirit. That’s how everyone is saved, without exception, forever and ever, amen.
But the church doesn’t act that way.
Rather they act like the homeless are saved by pushing through paperwork to gain homes. They act like the addict is saved by going to some anonymous group and never relapsing. They act like the homosexual is saved by getting married to someone of the opposite sex. They act like the mentally ill person is saved by taking medication.
Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with these things by themselves. But they aren’t the answers for people with these problems. The only way anyone is saved is through Jesus and reliance on the Holy Spirit. And Jesus and the Spirit will lead the outcast person to the things they need for their lives.
Sometimes the answer will be homes, marriage, medication and dishwashers and everything that makes up a middle class life. But for many people, it won’t.
Jesus, in calling the riff raff, chose to be homeless himself. He chose to be rejected. He chose to be without a family. And many of his followers went the same way. Jesus became homeless to welcome the homeless. He became family-less to welcome the family-less. He became penniless to welcome the penniless. He became rejected to welcome the rejected. And so we cannot insist that the outcast— or even the middle class— to be a part of the church must have homes, families, money and acceptance.
If the Riff Raff aren’t in the church, the church isn’t of Jesus