Wisdom From Watching Will: Gratitude Vs. Want
A late night call came in last week. You should note that “late night,” is a relative term – for the parent of a toddler, it means after 8. This was around 9pm.
It was a call to the church number, a family somewhere in Phoenix looking for help, dialing churches at random. I listened to their tale – unable to make it in Arizona, they were headed back to Arkansas as soon as the mom got her last paycheck – but I wasn’t able to assist them directly. I was saddened by their circumstances, but I’ve listened to many people with difficult stories over the years, and am not able to help them all.
I have to admit to feeling bad that I couldn’t help the mother and her kids with their desire (hotel costs). Sadness, mostly; a bit of guilt, perhaps. It is not an uncommon feeling for me – whether it be receiving a call here at the church, or going to someone’s house to help them reconnect their utilities, or visiting/helping at the Justa Center, or giving some cash to the homeless in San Francisco. At such times I’m acutely aware of… something. Something in the heart that aches and tells me “this isn’t right.”
Getting off the phone, my laptop dinged at me. I had an email from the UMOM New Day Centers, sharing about their ministry and looking for help. I glanced it over, reading how they help families – including children – who would otherwise be sleeping on someone’s floor. Or somewhere outdoors.
And then the hysterical cries of my three-year old called me away from my desk to connect with the family. Lynn had been trying to put Will to bed, and it was nearing 9:30, well past his bedtime. I could hear the frustration in her voice, and knew it was time to “tag team” her out.
I went into Will’s room. There was a wet spot on the bed, and he was screaming “I want a drink! I want a drink!” I offered to get him some water, and he screamed even louder at me. (Mommy interjected then that she had offered him some water, and he knocked it out of her hand onto the bed.) “I want chocolate milk!” he screamed at me, at the top of his lungs, then went back to “I want a drink!”
I took Will in my arms, calmly explained that if he wanted a drink we could get some water but it was past snack time, it was past time for chocolate milk. He continued to protest, shouting. A typical past-bedtime, overly-sleepy three-year old tantrum. I held him close, rocking him a bit, quietly shushing and trying to assure him.
As I looked over at the train table in Will’s room (given to us by a friend – thank you!), and glanced at the window, all I could think about was the call from the mother and her kids who didn’t have a place to stay that night. About the children at UMOM that night, and those not lucky enough to get a place there.
A scene from the movie The Pursuit of Happyness occurred to me, as I was rocking a still fussing Will to sleep. In the movie, Will Smith’s character is homeless with his son, and spending the night in a men’s room. He, too, was rocking his son, with his foot against the door to keep others from coming in and evicting him.
The trundle bed we were sitting on, the sheets and blanket, the dresser of clothes, the shelf of books, the closet of toys… all these things, surrounded by our home… I was grateful for them all. I was amazed at how much we have. I was humbled.
And Will was adamant. He wanted chocolate milk. Not water.
Eventually, Will calmed down, and I was able to coax him to sleep. As I left his room that evening – grateful for home and hearth, for wife and children, for health and wealth – it occurred to me how, all-too-often, I am too much like Will. Oblivious to what I do have, a part of me is insistent – crying out, angry, even frustrated – about what I want.
All-too-often I’m like my hysterical toddler, crying out for what I don’t have.
– – – – –
That evening experience has come back to me a few times this week, in particular as I’ve watched and listened to what is happening with Crossroads UMC in Phoenix, Arizona. Crossroads recently went to a public hearing in relation to whether they are violating zoning ordinance, because they offer a meal and worship to the homeless once a month.
At the core of it, though, it isn’t really about zoning (though this gives the neighbors and their lawyer a legal pretense to challenge the church, and looks likely to be the basis for halting the ministry). At the core of the issue is what I would call the “Not In My Backyard” syndrome.
I remember seeing the same attitude in Mesa, when I was a member of a church there. First, there was talk of trying to develop and build a homeless shelter in a nearby neighborhood. The neighbors rallied together against the idea, completely shutting it down. Then I was saddened by leaders of my own church, when they made two decisions that I found troubling: (1) they contacted the police to remove homeless people who had taken to spending the night under a covered patio on the church lot, and (2) leaders in the church advocated and worked for the removal of an adjacent halfway house (where alcoholics and released convicts were given a second chance), so that the lot could be razed and then used for “ministry.” (If you don’t see the painful irony there… well, I can’t help you.)
Crossroads UMC is facing “Not In My Backyard” syndrome in relation to their ministry with the homeless. The issue is not really that the homeless – or “those bums” as they’ve been called – bring litter into the neighborhood (which was an initial complaint). Nor is it that the church “buses” homeless people into a community where there wouldn’t be any otherwise (another reason given). And, honestly, it is not that the homeless themselves pose a “danger” to the people of the neighborhood.
The real problem is that the presence of the homeless poses a deeper danger to the community – they reveal a deeper spiritual struggle that most of us would rather not engage. We would rather be able to live our lives – including doing whatever “good deeds” or “philanthropic” acts that we might find comfortable – and not have to struggle with the reality that there are others in this world who are homeless, who are poor, who are hurting.
The same week as the late night phone call, I sat with a Christian minister who was sharing an encounter with a Christian leader from China. The meeting had been held in secret, lest the Chinese officials discover the person’s identity and torture her to death. Later that day I sat with another minister who shared about meeting with Christians from Somalia who had had their arms cut off for their faith, which was a lesser punishment than the normal beheading that befell those found to be Christians. I cringed at hearing these stories. I can’t imagine such horrific violence – I don’t want to believe it happens – I can’t fathom the depth of faith of Christians in such regions. (And, as a side note, if your Christian “theology” doesn’t work in Somalia; if it doesn’t take account of life in China; if it doesn’t address the poor and homeless… then it isn’t sufficient.)
I wonder if the deeper issue Crossroads UMC is facing is that their ministry confronts their neighbors with a painful reality. One that most of us would not choose to face; one that, perhaps, we need some degree of charitable guidance in order to navigate and face.
When I feel guilt, it is generally an indication that something I’m doing isn’t right, or holy. I have some guilt in areas of my life, and it generally serves as a warning that something I’m doing isn’t aligned with God’s intentions. It generally awakens me to the need for a change, usually one that requires a degree of critical self-reflection and painful self-discipline.
When we see injustice – particularly homelessness or poverty – I think it opens us to some degree of awareness of guilt: it might be slight, it might be something we can’t quite name, it might be something we try to subsume with anger or self-righteousness; but I think it’s there. I think it is impossible for those with means to look at radical inequality and not feel some form of guilt and discomfort.
I’m coming to think that the bigger struggle Crossroads UMC faces is not ministry with the homeless. It is couching that ministry with the homeless in the context of a ministry to the community, one that helps to open people to the injustices of the world, to face their guilt and discomfort, and to take steps – perhaps small, incremental ones at first – to work for positive change.
When I think about the world around me, I’m reminded of a scene from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where one of Buffy’s friends, commenting on her powers, shares that “you’re not any better than any of us, just luckier.” I’m not any better – nor am I any more “blessed” by God – than others; I just happen to be luckier. (The true blessings I know in Christ are not material.) We need to help others recognize that we are no more blessed by God than the homeless or poor are “punished” by God. We’ve had different breaks, we’ve made different decisions, and we’ve landed in different places.
And I’m coming to remember that my role as a pastor in a decently well-off suburb is to prophetically point to the pains and injustices in the world in such a way that people’s hearts begin to open to them. That we realize we are all children of God, and that we do have the means to take steps and help others. That our small sacrifices, when combined with those of others, can combine into something great and meaningful.
It can be hard for me to let go of that hysterical desire for chocolate milk; hard to be grateful for “just” a cup of water.
May we all know deep gratitude for the needs in our lives being met; and may we know and be led to change by “holy discontent” for the inequalities and injustices in our world.