Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Traveling Light

One day I happened upon Michael standing outside of McDonald's. Now, if you are following my blog, you know that riles me. Not the standing. The McDonald's. If you are not following my blog, go directly to "Something to Eat." Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. In fact, if you have a $200, give it away. It feels good. Try it. You won't miss it.

Anyway, back to Michael. He asked me for 20 cents. I stopped dead in my tracks, looked him in the eye, and said "What on earth are you going to do with 20 cents?!" And thus began our conversation. We talked for at least a half hour. I'll recount his many nuggets of wisdom over several posts. Today's, nugget is about trust.

At one point in the conversation he said that he used to keep more stuff, filling several bags. Now, he travels light. Everything he owns fits in a small backpack. He says he doesn't need to carry all that stuff. In fact, when he has too many shirts (and by "too many" he means four or five), he shares them with his homeless friends.

Traveling light does not come easy, though. He said that those who hold on to their stuff still have hope. That made me concerned for Michael. Had he given up hope? Not at all. He said that when you carry a lot of stuff, you believe you can turn things around. Your stuff holds you to your past and gives you hope that you are in control. Michael eventually learned to let go of his material possessions and place his hope in God instead of himself. In return, Michael says God provides exactly what he needs each and every day.

Now, that sounds warm and fuzzy, but let's consider the reality. The man saying this fits his entire material life into a small backpack, has no job, and no home. Yet, he still feels that God provides everything he needs.

That kind of perspective and faith is hard to come by when things are going well. Imagine keeping it when everything has been taken from you. Would I have the same attitude in that situation? Do I have that attitude now? Can I get rid of stuff? No...I mean REALLY get rid of stuff? Do I trust that God will provide what I need? The key is knowing the difference between "need" and "want." That's a tough one. But I think it's a prerequisite to trust. It's a prerequisite that I, for one, need to work on.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Something to Eat

Recently, while flying home from a business trip, I was reading "The Power of a Whisper" by Bill Hybels. In it, he told a story of how he prayed the following prayer: "God, if there is something you would like me to do, then please say so. It doesn't matter what it is; I'll do it." He went on to describe how God took him up on the prayer and placed someone in need right in his path.

I thought that sounded like a cool idea. So, mid-flight, I said the same prayer. I figured that since I was 30,000 feet closer to God than I normally am, He would definitely hear me. The remainder of the flight was smooth and, except for the woman next to me who needed to be let out of the row several times, no one really needed my help. After landing and collecting my belongings, I decided to take the El home rather than a cab. Halfway through the trip I thought, "I wonder if I'll actually get an assignment. I'm really not that important." To which God said, "Oh yeah, watch this!" And that's when Lorenzo boarded the train.

Lorenzo, a homeless man, announced to the whole train car that he need money for food. He told us that he was trying to find work, but had not found anything permanent. He asked if we would help and said that if we gave, God would reward us. I listened intently, but did not give him anything as he walked past my seat. After make the rounds of the car, he sat behind me. That's when I realized what was happening. I said "Alright, alright, I get it!" I turned around in my seat and struck up a conversation with Lorenzo. We talked for the rest of my ride, but there was one thing in particular that really got to me.

I asked him where he would get food if I gave him some money. He said, "McDonald's". This is exactly the answer that a homeless woman gave to the same question a few weeks ago. They both said that McDonald's was the only place they could afford. I guess when you have next to nothing, a dollar menu makes something out of nothing. But, quite frankly, that is like kicking someone when they are down. If anyone needs a nutritious meal, it is someone who eats infrequently.

I recognize that not all food at McDonald's is completely devoid of nutrition. And I admit to going in for the very occasional french fry. But I don't live on the stuff. No one can or should. I am simply amazed that a super-sized value meal is less expensive than, say, a small container of raspberries. In fact, the healthier the food and the more sustainably it is produced, the more expensive it is. And the farther out of reach it is for all but a small percentage of the population. That is a sad state of affairs. There has to be something that can be done. I haven't figured out what to do yet, but I'm sure going to try.

For Lorenzo, the only thing I could do was to give him enough money to ensure he could buy something healthy. I made him promise that he would not go to McDonald's. He promised. He also said something else. When he saw the amount I gave him, he told me I was a blessing. I said, "It's not me." To which he responded, "It's God!" Once again, I am reminded that the least are the greatest. I have found that my homeless friends have a greater faith and trust in God than my "successful" friends. My homeless friends are grateful for everything they have. Lorenzo repeatedly said he was just happy to be alive. My "successful" friends (myself included sometimes) complain at the drop of a hat.

I am embarrassed and humbled by that realization. So, I am giving myself an assignment: I will maintain a grateful attitude as I go about my very blessed life.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The One that Got Away

One Sunday, I arrived a few minutes late for church. I snuck into one of the short side rows. It was unoccupied except for one woman sitting all the way near the wall. I took a spot a few seats away from her.

After the opening songs, the pastor asked, as usual, that we greet those around us. I turned to the woman, smiled, shook her hand and said "Good Morning!" She seemed a bit surprised. I thought perhaps I had something in my teeth. I should check that out.

During the teaching, I noticed the woman fell asleep. I stole a few glances to make sure she was alright. It was then I noticed she had two bags stuffed full and that she was actually a bit disheveled. I understood then that she was homeless and was carrying all her possessions with her.

That realization spurred thoughts (rarely a good thing) and eventually I started formulating a plan. I thought that since she was in church, she would welcome having someone take her to lunch and listen to her story. The best laid plans of mice, men, and women are, of course, doomed to failure.

As the service ended and we filed out into the hall, I asked her name. I have never seen anyone run so fast to get away from me. Remember, she was carrying two full bags. So, she put extra effort into dodging me! OK, so it was more than just something in my teeth. It was something about me.

But I was wrong. Remember, it's not about me. It's about them. She didn't ask for my help. She wasn't ready. It's all about her. I need to respect her and where she is in her journey. I need to recognize that I may not be a part of her journey and she may not be a part of mine. That means letting go. And letting go is something I could stand to do a whole lot more often. After all, look what happens when I try to take control. They run!

Once again, I learned more from this brief interaction than did the person I thought I was helping. While I learned a valuable life lesson, I am pretty sure the only thing she learned was that she can run while carrying heavy bags. While that may be good to know, it's not likely to be life-changing.

I am going to go practice letting go.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Outside the Grocery Store

My first less-than-perfect attempt at this project was while grocery shopping on Saturday. As I entered the grocery store, I saw a man selling Street Wise (in Chicago, the homeless often sell this newspaper to make a little money). Did I have the care package with me (see The Least of These Project post for info)? Of course not. The first lesson here is: be prepared! And if you are not prepared, then improvise. I decided to buy him a variety of food and deliver it to him as I left. Then I could also chat with him and get his story. As I shopped, I periodically checked out the window to see that he was still there. When I finally got outside, he was gone.

At the end of the block, however, I saw a man in a wheel chair holding a tattered paper cup asking for donations. When I gave him the food, he said "God bless you." When was the last time I said "God bless you" to someone who hadn't just sneezed? Probably never.

He spoke with difficulty because he had been in a coma for six months. But he was animated and excited to tell me about how we was saving up to buy a new arm for his glasses because one of them had broken. He almost had enough money. Despite his illness and handicaps, he was happy to be alive. He said that God had kept him alive and that he just knew God had something for him to do here on earth. He was excited to figure out what it would be.

At this point, I was humbled beyond belief. He was doing more for me than I had done for him. What's a little food in exchange for seeing God reflected in the hope and faith of someone who refuses to give up despite what this world throws at him. He has his priorities straight. I had to ask myself, "do I?"

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Least of These Project

On August 22, 2010 Willow Chicago (that's a church) held a day of serving the city. I joined the 5 Loaves team packing care packages for the homeless. I thought we were just packing them and they would be distributed through the church. Little did I know that WE were doing the distributing. Uh oh.

Let's be honest. I was freaked out! I held on to that care package for two weeks...and I prayed. Really, God. Me? You can't be serious. I am not a talker by nature. What will I say? The answer came back, "I don't want you to talk, I want you to listen. It's not about you, it's about them." Yes. Of course. I should have known that. But that's great! I am a good listener. I can do that. OK, let's go.

Thus, I embarked on a project to not just give the homeless a few dollars, but to give the my time and attention (and a meal). I learned so much from each encounter that I wanted to share it with everyone else. And so was born The Least Of These project.

Through this blog, I will document their amazing stories (along with my foibles for a little comic relief). Let's begin the journey!