when the homeless guy is me

“Middle class Christians talk of sin, repentance, and forgiveness. It is a very orderly, sanitized process. Sin is when we are unkind in word or deed, repentance is when we say “I’m sorry”, and forgiveness is the expected response to anyone’s “I’m sorry”. There is no cosmic battle here, no spiritual warfare.”
Ministry With the Homeless, John Flowers and Karen Vannoy

But shouldn’t sin, repentance, and forgiveness be the wildest words in the world? Perhaps we are so bored and lackluster precisely because we are too prideful to believe our addiction to television or the grudges we hold against our parents are actually separating us from God and poisoning the world around us. What if we really saw ourselves in comparison to the life we were made for? Would we not understand our respectable, comfortable, over-processed lives to be the mud-wallowing, pitiful farce that they are?

We wonder how the homeless could get so comfortable with homelessness, with alcoholism, we wish they would dream bigger. But the “dream” we have for them – the acceptable minimum of an apartment and some groceries and the heat on in the winter – is not an objective reality of happiness or prosperity; it is nothing more than a cultural norm we’ve accepted as the standard for “success”.

In truth, the homeless, the mentally ill, the addicted person lives closer to reality than most of us, precisely because he or she experiences life as a cosmic struggle for survival; while the middle-class mediocracy has already lost the struggle. Neither person lives an abundant life. But the second, who simply settles for what is before him, doesn’t even know it.

And the point is not that this vanilla, moderately successful guy should be ashamed and try harder; the point is that he is missing out on an incredible gift, the life that is truly life. He is missing out on the kingdom of God, the restoration of relationships into their right order, all things made new, and the realization that every moment, every breeze, every person is an incredible gift. The God of the universe died for all these, and we count them as ho-hum occurrences? The God of the universe gives us the power to defeat death, and we cower in a corner, insulated from any risk?

This is what we cannot get our heads around, that we are all the most gorgeous, elegant, promising of creatures, and all have fallen short, all are truly worms when we see every selfish action for what it is – sin, horrible and insidious and life sucking. We cannot begin on the path towards life until we understand the tragedy of this, even though deep down I think we know it. Might it be that pity makes me so uncomfortable, because I have not come to terms with the fact that I should rightly pity myself?

For months, maybe more than a year, I lived in a haze of mild depression. It was never diagnosed, but now that I am on “the other side” I can see very clearly: I cried for no reason nearly every day, slept and ate too much, and withdrew into a shame and hopelessness I could not understand. Most people describe depression in surprisingly similar ways; it is like suffocating in darkness, and all the thrashing about you can muster only tightens the blackness around you.

Emerging from that pit was like a second salvation, when over the course of a few weeks I realized that I was finally and rather suddenly free. Simply feeling “normal” again was so foreign that there was a brightness to everything I’d never noticed before. For a time, I truly did see every breeze, every moment, and every friend as a spectacular and breathtaking gift, because I was free somehow to enjoy it. I finally understood what a monstrous thing it would be to waste any scrap of those marvelous things – ironically, at the very point when I felt free from the senseless guilt and shame I’d experienced. And there, in that freedom, the very greatest gift of all: that God’s gratuitous grace was ever poured out broader and deeper than my own infinite monstrosity, inspiring a gratitude that covered over all the rest.

But most of the time, I see myself as neither a very wonderful and beautiful, nor a very horrible and dangerous creature, when in fact I am in most moments both. Still I catch glimpses of both selves, even as I believe the Spirit helps me every day to tip the balance a little farther to the former side. I see my own brilliant potential when I am cooking a spectacular dinner or making a friend laugh, when I am completely present and completely grateful in those moments. And I see my shadow self, too, when I am being manipulative or petulant with my boyfriend, my family – or even the people I serve at the Friday pantry. The more aware I become that my own life is an epic drama, the more I do recognize these two realities at work. As I look back to my own past, or face new and humbling challenges in the present, I am reminded of my own proclivity to stray away from what is best towards my own selfish will. And as I trust God’s slow stirrings within me, I find the joy of sharing my best self with others.

The more I learn about my own incredible capacities for both creation and destruction, the more clearly I can see both in other people. And the more God’s work appears in my life, redeeming what I have destroyed and making me into a better creator, the more hope I have for others.

And this is why I, who have always enjoyed relative prosperity and the appearance of a squeaky-clean record of conduct, relate better most days with the addicts and the victims I find among the homeless than with the self-righteous and boring among the upper middle class. I’m not an alcoholic, but I’ve self-medicated with my own little addictions. I’ve never gambled my life away, but I’ve sure wasted some precious things. And I’ve never been physically abused, but I’ve dealt with my own kinds of wounds; I know what it is to need an understanding ear and a gentle challenge to keep moving forward. And here, over institutional food and a paper plate, is where I find the few people I know who are willing to be honest about how broken and childlike we all remain behind the band-aids and defenses.

So as I point people toward the clothing closet and the free clinic down the street, may I honor their wild humanity and their deepest needs by pointing them also towards the God who loved me beyond my own wounds and my own self-destruction. May I never dare to believe that they need my food or even my listening ear more than they need my Lover and his restoration into the kingdom that is coming. May I never dare to believe that anyone needs him more than I.

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