Archive for February, 2011

February 17, 2011

A “Twisted” Conversation


I was trying to hold a small group discussion after a fellowship meal with a group of 18 and 19 year old street-dependent youth. But I was failing. They were antsy and uncomfortable, at church for the first time in a long time for many of them. I wanted to check in with them and see how they were dealing with being at a church and being out of their element, but they kept taking the conversation back to drugs and alcohol. I grew frustrated.

I decided to go with the flow. "You guys keep bring up alcohol and drugs." Quiet. "I believe God invented alcohol" In response, I got a chorus of sometime accurate, sometimes wrong quotations about wine from the Bible. "Yep. He invented it and He thinks it's good." Now I got a bevy of complaints: "Then why does the church condemn people who drink?" [sic] "Then why do they put me in jail for drinking?" I helped them along with a bit more information: "I believe that God created everything good… everything. But man–or the nature of man– twists things and makes it bad or wrong." I got some agreement, but not much. They insisted, "Alcohol isn't bad!" I asked them, "Haven't you known or experienced someone who has perverted alcohol into something bad?" They upheld their strong denial. So I shared, "I know many people, some your age, who are quite certain that they cannot drink any alcohol at all. For them it's totally bad. I personally am able to drink alcohol in moderation without feeling this evil. But it's different for everyone. I don't think we should make absolute statements like "All alcohol is bad. Or alcohol is always good. It depends on if it leads the person into evil. But I am certain that God created wine and drink and is probably very proud of the very complex and wonderful creation." They discussed that a bit but just couldn't agree. Alcohol is too much a part of their lives.

"How about pot?" Now the chorus grew even stronger. "It's good. It's always good," they cried. I responded, "Maybe so. I definitely see some benefits of pot use for some people. But I tell you, I have had street kids come tell me that they know pot use leads them away to evil places. I've had street kids tell me that pot ruined their lives. Believe if or not!" They really didn't want to believe me.

"How about heroin?" I asked. Now the chorus swung completely the other direction. "It's always bad. It makes you fell so good but then it hurts you so bad. When you're hooked you will do anything for the next hit." No one would come to the defense of heroin. I summed up, "I haven't seen much benefit to heroin use, although there may be some small pluses for some people, but they are heavily outweighed by the negatives. But I do believe God created the poppy plant and it's underlying chemicals for good. It's man's nature that has ruined it." They continued to vilify heroin in 100% accord. So different that their view of alcohol or pot.

Finally, I turned the conversation toward SEX. It had gone there momentary several times but I had pulled it back. Now I went in with gusto: "What about sex? Is it good?" Quickly they began exchanging stories of promiscuity, stories of conquest, stories of virginity lost at 12 or 13. "God is author of sex, too! He knows all about it!" They giggled and continued the exchange of sex-lore of late teenagers. I said, "Sex can be bad, too. Right?" I got a retort of jokes. I continued, "I'm not talking about unsatisfactory performance. I'm talking about people who twist it into something evil and hurtful." They grew quiet. "I think you all know someone for whom this applies." They agreed. 100%. I know sex abuse runs deep in street youth backgrounds, but I didn't expect such a quick change in their attitudes. This surprised me, especially since they couldn't support any negatives on alcohol. I recovered, "God invented sex. It's a wonderful union between a man and a woman that physically completes a mind and soul union. That complete union is intended to last a lifetime. It's a really good and wonderful thing." We continued to discuss their fears and concerns over sex. Including fear of being with one person, fear of sex becoming boring, curiosity and desire to experiment, lust, pornography and fantasy romance. One young man admitted, "I know I will grow wiser. I won't always be like I am now–I'll grow up. This is probably how it happens–talking, like this. I think I do want what this kind of sex. But I just don't see how to get it yet." 

We ended our discussion for the evening. I closed, "All these ideas are found in the Bible. Wrestling with and understanding life is part of being Christian. Talking about and even supporting one another through all these types of issues is part of being in Christian community." This seemed to contradict their expectation and experience with Christian ideas. "It's not about condemning others or controlling people. It's about trying to find the heart of God and understanding all these complex issues in light of God's desire." This seemed more attractive to them. "And in the process we find a friend in God, a friend who saves us from a life of being a slave to twisted half-true things. A God who knows that we are each created good and not meant to be mere shadows of what we could be. A God who is deeply hurt when we turn away. A God who longs for us to get to return to Him." I prayed that they would each give it more thought and even begin their own journey toward the heart of God.

"To know, love and serve street dependent youth."
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February 9, 2011

Being the Church


I began Bible study with a room full of people, a lot of traveling kids, some local street youth, and some regulars. I asked them all to name an ordinary object as part of an ice breaker, so we assembled a list of 20+ random objects on the white board. Then I asked them, one by one, to tell me if one of the objects was "Christian" or "unChristian." I gave no guidance of definitions, and I asked for quick decisions. Out of 20 objects, they were able to classify all of them. Easily. And they all had reasons for their choices. "A dog is Christian because 'All Dogs Go to Heaven." "A plate is Christian because they use it to pass the collection." "Money is unChristian because it's the root of all evil." [sic] "A pen is unChristian because so many powerful and evil things have been written with a pen." The list went on, but each reason showed that Christian ideas are steeped into their street culture and background. Some of their ideas were missing elements of the truth; some were completely out of context. But this street youth culture is not ignorant of Christianity.

And yet, when I asked for a definition of a Christian, I didn't get a satisfactory answer. I got all sorts of rhetoric ("being Christ-like") and bits of dogma or tradition ("someone who confesses Christ", "someone who is baptized"). But no one could offer me the simple definition I had hoped. I shared this definition: "someone who knows Jesus Christ personally as Lord and Savior." They liked it for it's simplicity.

We moved into Bible study. We were in the second half of Luke 6. I asked them to snap their fingers as we read aloud when they heard something that they recognized. The room was full of snaps. It's a very quotable chapter. But what is the context?
In the second half of Luke, Jesus is telling his followers how to respond to people in the world. I simplify it and say, "Jesus is telling followers how to interact with non-followers." While Jesus loves justice and mercy, he seems to make the point in this sermon of ask us to do the unexpected: pray for abusers, bless those who curse us, give more than expected. We even see some strategy for passively resisting wrong (al la Martin Luther King, Jr.) and calling community attention to grievous wrongs: turning the other cheek, giving even when too much is asked for (coat and shirt), not chasing after someone who takes from you. These things are all hard to do, and they are all unexpected responses. I believe they are all responses designed to get a non-follower of Jesus to stop and ask, "Why did he do that? That's not what people do. Why isn't he hitting me back? Why isn't he hurting me back? Why doesn't he hate me–I would?" Jesus wants us to get people's attention. When we do, we get the opportunity to help someone find out what we've got and they don't–To find out why we can love, give, serve, and stand with those in serious trouble when much of the world will not.

I asked the street youth, "What is their experience of the church?" They didn't say kind things. "They don't want me there. They stare at me. I get called named. They ask me to leave." This wasn't universal but it was very common. I then asked them, "Why do you expect something different?" They answer is telling of how much they believe in the hope of Christianity, even if they aren't Christian. "Because they are Christian. They are supposed to be better." Wow! This is coming from a bunch of crusty kids, traveling kids, alcoholics, drug addicts–scared and abused, withdrawn from mainstream society. They believe that following Christ should make a difference!

I had two reactions. First, I asked the kids to understand this working definition of a church: 'it's a group of sinners many of whom follow Jesus.' They should do better. They may even want to do better. But they are sinners and will fail at the ideal. So I asked the street youth to be patient and kind. To turn the other cheek to show when the church is being unreasonable. To give up coat and shirt and to stand naked, if need be, when the church asks for too much from the oppressed and poor. To pray for us even if we abuse them. To forgive us even when we hurt them. It's hard to do, but it's great advice from Jesus Himself.

My second reaction, is to cry out to the church: "Do the unexpected! Surprise those who have come to expect so little of us. Bless those who curse us. Don't demand an eye for an eye from those who wrong us. Don't strike back when someone strike out at us, but stand firm and turn the other cheek. Show them that you know they are wrong but that you will take it for their sake. Let the guilt and pain of their mistakes be evident but continue to love and bless anyway."

These street youth know part of the truth: Christians are set apart to try to do better. But they have learned and expect to be disappointed. Let's surprise them–and all those who do not yet know Jesus! Amen. 

— Terry

"To know, love and serve street dependent youth."
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February 4, 2011

Farewell to Dan Syfret


We begin with a happy song that Don loved to listen to, Smile by Uncle Kracker. It's a mostly whimsical song about things that maybe should get you down but don't and how sometimes you just smile. I then read Psalm 150 which includes a call to praise God in the open skies, which we were doing, and to use all manner of instruments–and I imagine all types of people–to praise Him. I then guided the group to share happy memories of Dan:
  • He would always give me a lift wherever I needed to go.
  • I loved his dog, Whiskers
  • I loved his smile and his jokes.
  • He would buy me a beer when I needed. It would hang out and talk when I needed that, too.
  • He was always cool to me.
  • He loved us. He always came out here to help us in whatever way he could. He wasn't a rich man but he gave anything he could. Who here wasn't touched by his kindness?
  • Dan had much that could have made him bitter: legal issues, drug issues, and a complicated set of things that even forced him to choose living on the street at times. But he wasn't bitter. He was joyful. And he loved sharing the Gospel.
  • Dan had one message, "Love your brother." I loved and respected him so much for that.
  • Dan loved people and I always respected him for that.
Then we listened to Simple Man by Lynyrd Skynyrd. That was Dan–a beautiful and simple man. I then shared "Jesus wept" for those who knew Dan and "Rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn" for those who were there to stand in solidarity today. I then opened up opportunity to share with the group what people would miss about Dan:
  • I'll miss asking him for a cigarette. Because he didn't smoke and he always gave me a smart answer.
  • I'll miss watching him wipe out on his skate-board.
  • I'll miss our prayer sessions together.
  • I'll miss playing with Whiskers.
  • I didn't know him very long, but we had a couple of really good talks. I miss being able to have more of those talks.
  • He was wise. I will miss being able to talk with him.
  • I'll miss how he made me better. How he loved all of us.
  • I miss talking to him so much.
We were joined by a young man who was walking down the street. He was dressed well, but I noticed a few characteristics that might mean "street youth." After listening to all this, he spoke, "I was just walking by when I saw you guys. I am so glad that I joined you. I have needed something like this for a long time. I lost two street friends in the fire in New Orleans." He added through the tears, "I am so sorry for all your loss even though I didn't know Dan." I assured this stranger that he was with family and that this circle of people had lost a friend, Johnny, in that very same fire as well. He looked amazed. [Eight people from the street youth community lost their lives in a fire in New Orleans Dec 27, 2010. Read more here.]

We then moved to the final portion of the memorial service. We listened to Spirit in the Sky by Norman Greenbaum. Dan was a solid Christian believer. He wrested with faith issues in his earlier life, but he was completely solid in his relationship with Jesus the last few months. I personally can attest to this through our hours of prayer together. I then shared Hebrews 4:15-16 with the street youth. "These verses are very special to Street Youth Ministry. They describe the type of Savior that Jesus is–one who understands our every weakness because He Himself was temped in every way, but was found to be without sin. So this can give us confidence that we do not need to hide, lie or run from Him. We can approach Him with confidence that He understands and loves us. Dan knew this intimately and completely. " I then asked the group to share what they take with them from Dan, what endures of Dan in them:
  • I think Dan's soul goes before all of us and pleads our case with God.
  • Dan is probably waiting to come pick us up in his van and give us a lift to heaven.
  • Dan wants us to remember his main message and to really do it: "Love yo' brotha' Dig it?"
  • Dan's talks with me about what he was trying to do these last few weeks will stay with me a long time. I wish we could have more.
  • In one of my last prayer sessions with Dan, he prayed many prayers of thanks for what God would be doing in Dan's life 1 year, 5 years, 10 years and even 25 years in the future. God cannot answer literally some of those prayers now, but he will still answer Dan's prayer about 25 years: "God, I thank you for many grandchildren, all of whom know and love Jesus."
  • We have to take life one day at a time. Each day is a gift. 
  • We must find a way to stop coming to the tree to mourn friends who falls from addiction. Those of us who have this disease must stop killing ourselves. We must come to grips with this disease. It is so powerful. We are each made special. I am so creative. That's my gift. I can't waste that just because I'm prone to addiction. We all have special gifts, and we have to use them for good. Fight the disease! Get help! Stop making us come here to this tree to mourn yet another friend who has been taken from us. Please!
I had not planned such a strong message, but the group created this powerful message for themselves from their grief. First that Dan was a great man and wanted them all to live up to this call to action, "Love yo' brotha'." They questioned each other and repeated it to one another many times in the service. And the second message was that they needed a wake-up call to fight harder against addiction. And for the right reasons… so they could become strong and use their own precious gifts to help others. 

We concluded the ceremony, commending Dan's soul to heaven and asking him to intercede with God on our behalf to help make us better, to help us use our gifts for good, to help us stop turning from God and turning from our responsibilities to one another. We enjoyed fellowship and a dinner provided by volunteers in the cold until sun down. Many received blankets and warm clothing. It was a fitting way to celebrate Dan's life. 

Farewell husband. Farewell son.Farewell friend. You are a beloved child of God, and we were blessed to have you in our lives. May we "love our brotha'." May we stop being selfish and surrender ourselves completely to God and begin to fully use our gifts as you intend them. Amen.

"To know, love and serve street dependent youth."
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