Monday

“Josiah, come quickly.” Nancy, a volunteer who was in the back of the Relief Bus distributing hygiene kits and socks, was gesturing for my attention. I stopped playing my famous “Soup Song” and followed her up the steps into the Relief Bus. An athletic, 40 something, Hispanic man was in the back of the bus telling Kevin, the other volunteer who was back there, what his most urgent prayer request was.

“I’ve been using for so long and I need a program so badly!” His voice was quivering. His body language was desperate. “Please, please pray that God would save me!”

“Hey man, my name is Josiah. I work here, bro, and I want you to know that God led you to the right place.” I told him we had an office in the front of the bus and that I would love to hear his story. I thanked Nancy for doing exactly what we train volunteers to do, and we walked around to the front of the bus.

As soon as we sat down, his story came fast and heavy. He was a man who needed someone to understand. His name was Joe. He was from Puerto Rico. He started using opiates at a young age and had been using ever since. He fell in love with a woman who challenged him to stop using. She was a drug counselor with 11 years clean. She loved him. One day they were arguing because he wanted to get high and she told him, “maybe someone has to die for you to realize what’s at stake.” She left the building they were staying in and was hit by a car.

Joe, like many other people we serve in the street, has Medicaid. But it is restricted to a certain hospital, which means he can only get treatment at that specific location. The problem is that this hospital doesn’t offer any medical detox. So to get into a detox he needs a letter from said hospital to be approved somewhere else. Joe had been in 3 different detoxes over the last 7 days. Each time he failed to either stay because people were actively using in the detox, he wasn’t receiving enough medicine to counteract the withdrawal, or he ended up not getting approved by the insurance company. He was at the end of himself.

“I know what’s at stake, I can’t keep going on like this!” He showed me the puncture marks in his forearms where he had stuck himself with needles, shooting heroin into his system. He told me that he shoplifts items like shampoo and soap to buy just enough dope to get through another day. Like many heroin addicts, he doesn’t even use to get high anymore. He uses to get “straight.” He uses to stave off the agony of withdrawal.

As I listened to him, I realized there really wasn’t much I could do. I couldn’t fix his Medicaid restriction. I could probably get him into a detox but he wanted a 28 day program which would make it challenging. Then he said this: “I don’t know if the next batch will be my last. I don’t know if God gave me all the chances I have and now I’m on my own. But now, I’m going to be quiet and listen to what you have to say.”

I looked him in the eye and said, “no matter what you’ve done, are doing, or will ever do, I need you to hear me when I tell you that God does not give up on his children. God does not give up on his children. Do you hear me? God does not give up on his children.”

I said it three times. In that moment, I didn’t have any answers, all I had to offer him was hope. It was Saturday, he was determined to get into a detox and rehab that he had already been accepted into, he just needed the letter from the hospital his insurance was restricted to and that wouldn’t happen until Monday. He needed 48 hours. Someone had given him their dose of methadone that morning before coming to the Relief Bus, so he was probably ok until later that day, but after that who knows?

I said it again, “God does not give up on his children.” We walked through a couple different scenarios, but we landed right where we took off, he needed to make it to Monday.

“Do you have a Bible?” I asked.

“No. I told you, I sold everything.”

“Well, let me give you this.” I gave him a gospel of John and a booklet with verses specifically chosen to encourage people struggling with addiction. “When you start to feel that pull, open this up, and call out to God. He’s going to get you through to Monday.”

I prayed for him. I prayed a candid, honest, raw, and desperate prayer because no other prayer would have been appropriate in that setting. When I said “amen,” he looked at me with tears in his eyes.

“I’m going to make it to Monday.”

Grace and Peace,

Josiah

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God Wants to Give You a New Name

haken12_21*I listened to a message by Greg Boyd out of St. Paul, MN from 2002 called Knowing Your Name that changed my life. Last Sunday I was asked to speak at the Walter Hoving Home in Garrison, NY and I felt very strongly that this message is the word that God wanted me to share. I got permission from Greg to use a lot of his material, but I also wanted to post my message transcript on my blog for anyone who, either hasn’t heard the original message, or the one that I delivered on Sunday. Enjoy.

I’ve worked at New York City Relief for almost 4 years now. As many of you know we drive a retrofitted school bus into struggling neighborhoods with the goal of bringing hope to folks who are hopeless by offering a free delicious meal and new socks, while building relationships and connecting people to resources and programs that could change everything.

Every Friday and Saturday we park on E 125th street and Park Ave, right underneath the Metro North train tracks. This specific spot is across the street from the largest methadone clinic in NYC. We are 2 blocks away from Marcus Garvey Park, which has been in the papers over the years for being the setting of, at best suspicious, and at worst, criminal activity. This also happens to be the location where a shuttle drops people off who are staying at probably the worst, most dangerous, most drug-infested shelter for single men in NYC: the Ward’s Island shelter. To make things more interesting, for many years the hotel that is on the corner functioned as an hourly hotel that was frequented by men and women who struggled with addiction and who would make a few dollars by “renting” a room for a short period of time. So needless to say, this spot can be pretty interesting, even from 10 am – 2 pm when the Relief Bus serves.

I was there a few years back when one of our guests started having an interesting conversation with another guy who had also come by for some famous Relief Bus soup. The one guy, probably around 35-40 years old, maybe 225 pounds of muscle, was making a public service announcement about the other dude, who was maybe 55-65 and probably 150 pounds soaking wet. The announcement went something along the lines of, “do you see this guy? Don’t trust him. Last night I saw him leaning up against a police car talking to the cops!”

Now I was relatively new at the time and didn’t quite understand what he was saying. The older gentleman, however, knew exactly what was being communicated. The younger, bigger guy was calling him a “snitch.” He was naming him as someone who couldn’t be trusted and should therefore live in isolation from the community. He was naming him a “rat.” A “narc.” A “punk.” Knowing this, the old guy proceeded to punch the younger, larger man in the face.

I was literally standing next to the guy who was punched so I immediately started trying to talk him down. I pleaded with him to let it go. To take it somewhere else. To ignore the punch he had just received. To turn the other cheek. Surprisingly, he agreed! He said to his assailant, “the Relief Bus just saved your a**.”

He started to walk away when the older, smaller guy decided he hadn’t made himself clear: he hit him again. The big guy started trembling a little bit. I could see his restraint quickly wearing off. I tried to get the one doing the punching to move on before he ended up seriously injured or worse.

No chance.

He swung again and managed to land a 3rd blow on the bigger, younger man.

Explosion.

Before I knew what was happening, he had picked the old guy up, threw him against the bus, and then had him on the sidewalk, slamming his head into the cement. While I was trying to figure out how to dial 911 with my new smart/idiot phone, Sean Ballentine, one of our outreach leaders who was just volunteering at the time, leaped out of the serving window and pulled the big guy off of the older dude before he killed him. Then the big guy ran off before the cops arrived.

I didn’t know that by warning the general public that this old guy talked to the police, the younger, bigger guy was effectively naming him a “snitch.” A “rat.” I didn’t know he was actually labeling him with a name that would follow him around wherever he went and could actually determine his ability to function and even live within his community. Knowing what was at stake, the old guy had 2 options:

- do nothing and potentially risk being mistrusted or even ostracized by everyone he depended on for friendship, community, and even drugs, for passively affirming the name he was being given,

- OR risk getting seriously maimed or injured by putting his reputation on the line and attacking the larger, younger, stronger man giving him this new name.

See, in our culture we all have names that are given to us by our parents, like Josiah, Sean, Rebecca, Erika, etc… But these names don’t really mean anything. They are not significant because they don’t define who we are. What is a “Rebecca” anyway? I’m willing to bet, my name, Josiah, doesn’t carry weight for any of you. Why should it? It’s a tag. A hook to grab my attention. It is a series of consonants and vowels that when spoken together indicates someone’s reference to me.

The name Josiah does NOT epitomize my essence. It doesn’t communicate a message or an allegiance. It doesn’t designate me or allocate me into a certain group or belief system. My name does NOT define me.

But Josiah isn’t my ONLY name. We all have names that we carry with us without even realizing it. Just like our parents gave us a tag or a title, growing up we all were given names that are significantly more powerful. We all carry around old names, and old identities, that not only catch our attention, but that determine the very trajectory of our lives. We all have name-tags written on the surface of our hearts and minds that affect everything we do, say, and believe.

Just like the names we were given by our parents, these names were also given to us by other people. The name “snitch” is not a name that this older gentleman was willing to receive.

For those of you who don’t know, I was raised in Yaounde, Cameroon. That’s literally in the armpit of Africa. My parents were missionaries and so we spent the bulk of the first 15 years of my life over there. Now in Cameroon, there really wasn’t a whole lot to do but play outside in the heat and go to school. The one national TV channel they had would only start showing ANY programming at around 6 pm. So when we moved to Pennsylvania when I was in 5th grade, I was shocked to find cable TV that provided endless entertainment for hours and hours on end.

I also should mention that we moved to Hershey, Pennsylvania. In addition to the endless TV options, I was also amazed to find the joy of chocolate and Reeses’ Penutbutter cups. Combining these two realities, over the course of my 5th grade in Hershey I managed to gain a lot of weight. My family moved back to Cameroon when I was in 7th grade and I’ll never forget my first conversation with the gentleman who had guarded our house when I was in Cameroon prior to my two year, chocolatey, TV marathon. I walked up to him and I said, “hi, Earnest!” And I kid you not, he replied, “Joe, you are too fat!”

Now, I’m sure that those 5 words in his mind were meant to be funny, polite, and endearing. But in my mind, I had just been named. No longer was I “Joe” or “Josiah.” I was now and forever there-after, “too fat.”

From that day on, I went on a rampage and played basketball every day for hours and hours without eating hardly anything. Every time I met someone new, I heard his words in my head, and I assumed that even if they didn’t say it, that’s what they were thinking. I had been named. Even though I grew a foot over the next two years, I still weighed 10 pounds lighter than I had been when I moved back to Cameroon. Throughout high school I was determined to exercise and work out constantly. But even with my rigorous athleticism, I remember looking at my prom pictures, and then even my wedding pictures, and only seeing “too fat” staring back at me.

So what about you? What’s your name? I don’t mean Sue, Betty, or Frank. I mean, what sentences, comments, or titles have you allowed to define your essence? What identity is written on the name-tag of your heart?

Maybe it was that 4th grade kid on the bus who called you ugly when you were in 3rd grade.

Maybe it was your mom, humiliating you in front of all your friends by telling them about how you wet the bed.

Maybe a boyfriend named you, “slut” or “whore” when he got bored with you.

Maybe your dad named you, “useless” or “stupid” because you weren’t the son or daughter he expected you to be.

What names, what identities, are you walking around with today?

We all have them. We all allow others to define us with their judgments and their words or criticism. We all surrender our lives to the prophesies spoken over us by insecure, abusive, and most importantly, FINITE human beings.

I’ve got good news for all of us: the IN-FINITE God who spoke the earth into motion and put the stars in the sky, wants to give you a new name!

It says in Genesis 17:1-5

1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. 2 I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.” 3 Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. 5 No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.

In Matthew 16:13-19

13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 

And in Isaiah 62:2-4

2 The nations will see your righteousness, and all kings your glory; you will be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will bestow. 3 You will be a crown of splendor in the LORD’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God. 4 No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate. But you will be called Hephzibah “one who delights the LORD.”

The good news is that God wants to give you a NEW name! He knows the names that you and I have been given, but that boyfriend or girlfriend does not have the authority to name you. Not even your earthly parents have the authority to really name you, that is reserved for your Creator alone.

Hear God telling you that “no longer will they call you Deserted, but you will be called Hephzibah, which means ‘one who delights the Lord.’” God takes delight in you. God adores you. Hear him tell you that whatever name you were given by some twerp on the school bus is canceled. It is no more.

Have you ever noticed how in the Bible the Church is referred to as the “bride” of Christ?

In ancient cultures, and even in our culture up until very recently, when two people get married, what does the bride do? She takes the name of her husband. If you have given your life to Jesus, you are a part of his bride. Jesus has given you his name. He has exchanged all those lies that were spoken over us, and he says, “you are a new creation.”

No longer are you called, “useless!” You are called “chosen by God for great works in Christ Jesus.”

No longer are you called “whore!” You are called “radiant bride of Christ!”

No longer are you called “guilty!” In Christ Jesus you are now called “forgiven!”

No longer are you called “ugly!” God is the only one who defines beauty, and he doesn’t make junk! Your new name is “beautiful! Flawless! Ravishing!”

My name is not, “too fat!” I am called, “beautiful” by my heavenly husband. My name is “attractive!” My name is “called by God to bring hope to the lost.”

The only being in the entire universe that has the authority to name you, to name me, is our God. And hear me when I say, He has given you a new name!

I’ve talked to so many people who have accepted Jesus Christ as Savior, declared allegiance to him, and even accepted his forgiveness, but still struggle with the pull of destructive behavior. Then we read things like in John 8, where Jesus says:

34 “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

And we say, “why am I not free?” Why do I still struggle with temptation? Why do I feel the pull of my flesh and my sin?

I’m convinced the problem is that while God has given you and I new names and new identities, our brains have trouble keeping up. Our brains are still wired to respond and identify with the old names. Our brains don’t line up with the new reality because the default programming is still in place.

It says in Romans 12:2

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.

In the same way it always takes time for a new bride to get used to being called by her husband’s name. Have you ever noticed that? But a bride’s ability to get used to responding to her new name does not change the FACT that her name has been changed. It would make no sense for a new bride to think that she is less married, or to question her relationship to her husband, simply because she still turns her head when she hears someone say her old name. It takes practice. It takes time. It takes a daily decision to renew our minds so that we can be transformed. It takes a marriage for the reality of a wedding to become the NEW default setting in our minds.

Some people need to stop questioning their salvation based on the struggle in their minds with old patterns and old identities. If there’s a struggle it is precisely because you have been given a new name and your brain is fighting the transformation process. God says we are to be transformed by the “renewing of our minds.” The process of following Jesus always starts with a wedding ceremony. It starts when someone says, “I do” to Jesus and receives forgiveness and wholeness by choosing to surrender the old identity for the new one that God offers us.

Maybe you’ve never done that. Maybe you have been processing all this God-stuff with cynicism and fear. Maybe you think that your past some how excludes you from the family of God. Jesus died on a roman torture device, and was raised from the dead 3 days later, so that your past could no longer be held against you by the enemy of our souls. Your past, your mistakes, your screw ups, even your doubts, and your fears, do not negate the marriage proposal that Jesus is offering you right now. God wants to marry you. He wants to give you a new name. He wants to give you his name. Will you say yes?

But God doesn’t want to only give you His name for the sake of paper-work or legalities. God wants you to start identifying with the new name that He has given you. When you look in the mirror, you need to see the new name that God has given you starring back. When someone calls you by the old name, you need to just keep on walking. Because that old name is not who you are anymore. That old name is gone forever, and the only name that is left is the family name: the name of Jesus.

God wants to give you a new name. Once you say, “yes,” to Him, it’s time to start being transformed by renewing your mind day in and day out by waking up and remembering who you really are.

Grace and Peace,

Josiah Haken

 

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Enabling?

20140507-135627.jpgen·a·ble
en??b?l/
verb
gerund or present participle: enabling
1. Give (someone or something) the authority or means to do something.
“the evidence would enable us to arrive at firm conclusions”
synonyms: allow, permit, let, give the means, equip, empower, make able, fit;
antonyms: prevent

There’s a lot of chatter going on right now about the issue of “enabling” the poor, and/or homeless folks, who rely on nonprofits like New York City Relief and the Relief Bus for food and other necessities.

I’ve been wrestling with this word for some time now, and quite honestly, I’m frustrated by some of the conversation that’s out there about ministries and services that are trying to follow the call of God to “feed the hungry” and “clothe the naked.”

I’m equally frustrated by ministries and services that are giving fuel to the fire by not giving any thought to the longterm consequences and repercussions that actually occur as a result of well-intentioned, but poorly executed “ministry.”

We give a free hot meal, a free pair of new socks, and a free toiletry kit to anyone who happens upon any one of our outreach locations, or is happened upon, by one of our many volunteers. We go to the same locations week in and week out and as a result we end up seeing a lot of the same people over and over again.

Now according to the authors of When Helping Hurts, there are 3 general phases of care for folks in need: relief, rehabilitation, and development. I like to tell people that our function is baked right into our title: relief.

We provide an emergency meal to folks who may not have sufficient access to food or resources. I met one guy who was referred to the Relief Bus by one of our Penn Station micro-outreach teams, who around 1 pm literally ate 6 cups of soup right in front of me. I asked him, “when was your last meal?” He replied, “yesterday I had some peanut butter crackers.” Relief.

But as is the case, I know another gentleman who lived a transient life-style for 10 years who said, “you have to be pretty dumb to starve in New York City.” So the question becomes, how do we obey God’s command to “feed the hungry” (Isaiah 58) while not “enabling” others who are not technically hungry to stay stuck in homelessness?

At New York City Relief we view every cup of soup, every piece of bread, every pair of socks, and every toiletry kit as an opportunity for relationship. We tell our volunteers again and again, “think communion, not charity.”

We are not trying to just feed the masses, we are trying to connect with the individual. If you aim for mass distribution, it is unlikely that you will hit the target of caring for the individual; but if you aim at caring for the individual, it’s possible that you may actually feed the masses “along the way.”

The other reality is that people need relief from more than just “hunger” and “nakedness.” When I say “relief” I mean as it fits the 3 phases of poverty care. This is, in my opinion, something that When Helping Hurts misses. People who are in desperate physical need are almost always in desperate emotional need as well. And sometimes the emotional rehab and development that is required will never happen if someone doesn’t first risk “enabling” someone’s poverty, in an effort to provide emotional relief.

Maybe that cup of soup we offer “enables” someone to manage one more day before hitting rock bottom so that he or she doesn’t need to reach out for rehab or development. And if we were just shoving soup at people and going about our day, I would agree that it is possible we are doing more harm than good. But we are not trying to just give out food, we are trying to make friends. We are trying to earn the right to speak into people’s lives one at a time. We are trying to provide emergency emotional relief as well as tangible physical relief.

For the man who uses drugs because no one has ever succeeded in convincing him that life is worth living, for the woman who continually gets abused and insulted by the one person who tells her, “I love you,” sometimes, a smiling face, a kind word, and a prayer over a free meal is the difference between life and death.

The answer that I have landed on is simply that we are not trying to “enable” dependency, but that we are attempting to “enable” relationship.

Enabling dependency is selfish, ie. “I’m giving food to the poor so that I will feel good about myself.” Enabling dependency is easy. Enabling dependency is short-sighted. Enabling dependency is condescending. Enabling dependency is often cleaner.

On the other hand, enabling relationship involves getting your hands dirty. Enabling relationship means paying for lunch. Enabling relationship is humble. Enabling relationship is “other oriented.” Enabling relationship means refusing to allow a difference in race, gender, or socioeconomic standing to block the connection that happens when two humans sit down together and share a meal. Enabling relationship almost always takes more than one try. Enabling relationship is always about love. Enabling relationship always looks like Jesus. And as Paul the Apostle says,

“If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.” 1 Corinthians 13:3 NLT.

Grace and Peace,

Josiah

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Persistence

On Thursday I was about to start a meeting with two gentlemen from an organization in New York City called Housing Works. They were filling us in on a new case management database that we were interested in learning more about. The meeting was supposed to start at 10 am. The door bell rang at 9:55.

I didn’t even answer the door, but the person who did found me and said that some guy was asking for me by name. My plan was to greet him, politely tell him I was in the middle of a meeting and ask him to come back later.

I asked him his name. “Brian,” he replied. “I spoke to someone in Newark who told me I should come and ask for you.”

“Well, it’s not really a good time, how did you get here?” I asked nonchalantly.

“I walked,” was his answer.

“How far?”

“3 hours… I really need help.”

It was in this moment that I realized my meeting with Housing Works could wait. I mean the guy did walk 3 hours to come and speak to me! Did I mention he was wearing slippers? As we made our way back towards my office I thought of the teachings of Jesus about persistence: “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Luke 11:9

Brian went on to tell me that he had just been released from jail, was doing everything possible to stay out of trouble, but needed a place to go since he was only able to remain in his shelter for 2 more weeks. We worked out a plan for him to go to a men’s discipleship program in New Orleans called Bethel Colony South (www.bethelcolonysouth.org). We found some sneakers for him that were a size too big, but that he happily put on right then and there.

Brian was worried about all the free time he had since he wasn’t working, and drugs and shelters, understandably, go hand in hand. All the people close to him had either passed away or walked out of his life. He had no family and no one left who cared. So I volunteered to care.

I never do this, and as a rule I don’t encourage the practice, but in Brian’s case I made an exception and gave him money for the bus so he could come serve with me on the street the next day. He promised me that he would beat me there the following morning and he even called me when he made it back to his shelter just to confirm the start-time. Sure enough at 7 am when I arrived at the Relief Base, there he was.

After wrapping up our first conversation the day he walked 3 hours to find me he said “You’re not what I expected.”

“Oh yeah? What did you expect?”

“Someone older. And in a suit.” He laughed.

“Well, I don’t need a suit to tell you that God has a great plan for your life, brother. 3 hours to get here is just the beginning. Just keep walking, one step at a time.”

Grace and Peace,

Josiah

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If you’d like the privilege of helping Brian get to New Orleans by helping pay for his bus fare or some personal items he needs to bring with him, please email me at josiah@newyorkcityrelief.org. We are planning on sending him Thursday afternoon so that he will arrive by Friday. Thanks!

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Pride Isn’t Cheap

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I’ve shared before about the power of Communion vs. Charity. I can’t stress enough just how critical this is to everything we do at New York City Relief. This is the center of the center. I met a guy in New York Penn Station a little while ago. He approached me because he saw that I was giving new socks and toiletry-kits to a few gentlemen who were across the hall. He walked over and very bluntly and brusquely demanded, “what you givin’ out?”

A lot of people who engage the homeless in an attempt to do a good or charitable deed get irritated when their deed isn’t appreciated or received with joy. The attitude can be summed up like this: “I go to all this trouble to volunteer my time to serve and give, the least ‘they’ can do is be appreciative.” 

Honestly, when my new friend approached me with “what you givin’ out,” my heart immediately filled with resentment and I judged him for not appreciating my philanthropy or, even worse, thinking that somehow he was entitled to the gifts that I was so generously and sacrificially offering.

This is the intrinsic problem with good deeds, or charity: they are entirely about me. My goodness. My deeds. My, my, my.

When I bring charity to the table expecting the poor or homeless person to recognize and validate my generosity and they don’t respond the way I expect or, dare I say, need them to, I resent them because they are not fulfilling their end of this self-absorbed equation.

Now contrast that attitude with communion. Knowing myself and knowing my propensity for judgmentalism, I moved past my resentment and asked the name of my demanding new friend. I asked him where he was from. I asked him what kind of socks and toiletries he could use the most. Then I told him I was hungry and I would be honored to buy him something if we could sit and eat together. He agreed.

When we sat down to break bread at that KFC and I asked if I could thank God for the food that we were about to enjoy the entire dynamic of our relationship changed. Yes, I had paid for his food but we were sitting at the same table, eating the same meal. And in that moment of communion we were no longer two needy souls feeding on each other, him on me for socks and necessities and me on him for validation and self-righteousness, we were two needy souls feeding on Jesus.

He shared with me that he fell out of a window from several stories up when he was 3-years-old because he was with his grandma and she lived in a room with no bars on the windows. Because of that fall he suffers from seizures. His family abandoned him. And just 24 hours earlier he lost track of his girlfriend when he went into the hospital. It’s easy to lose people when you have no common meeting place to lay your head and no phone to touch base. He shared and he shared some more. It was beautiful.

Did you know that when you give someone who is financially poor or without a home something for free that they are actually paying for it with emotional capital? They are paying you with their pride and trust me when I tell you, that their pride doesn’t come cheap. 

So next time you volunteer at a soup kitchen, food pantry, homeless shelter, or drop-in center, remember that the people you serve are not receiving “hand-outs” because in exchange for your time and resources, they are offering you the privilege of being in the position of the one who serves. By accepting your generosity, they have paid with their very selves, and they owe you nothing more.

Grace and Peace,

Josiah

NYC Relief

 

 

 

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Rest Area

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I’ve been serving in the streets of New York City for 3 years now. It’s hard to wrap my mind around a lot of the things I’ve witnessed. One thing I struggled with initially is why folks who are homeless, or nearly homeless, have such short triggers.

I mean I thought I got it, it’s “obvious.” But then I found myself getting very impatient with the guy who decides to throw-down because someone bumped into him, or the woman, not-so-patiently, waiting her turn who screams, “hurry up” at the person getting prayed for in the back of the Relief Bus while he or she receives a new pair of socks.

On the surface this just appears to be poor upbringing, bad manners, impatience, immaturity, or all of the above. But what I’ve come to conclude after 3 years of serving this precious population is that this behavior is simply the result of an emotional gas tank that is running on empty.

The majority of the folks reading this blog will have slept in a warm bed with minimal fear of being awoken every 2 hours by patrolling police, like many of those who sleep in subways and train stations do. For the most part, you probably didn’t share a room with complete strangers who learned the hard way that survival is easier as the predator than as the prey, as many of those who sleep in NYC shelters like Wards Island have.

Every night that you wake up in a relatively safe and secure environment without fear of violence or victimization, your emotional gas tank fills up little by little. Every time you and I can go a day without spending every ounce of energy we have just trying to get our basic needs met, our emotional gas tanks fill up even more.

On the other hand stress empties our tanks. Fear and abuse empty our tanks. Sleeplessness, anxiety, self-worthlessness, & poverty of all kinds empty our tanks as well.

So when I go night after night, day after day, barely putting any gas into my emotional tank, all it takes is someone cutting in front of me at the Relief Bus to completely set me off. It’s not irrational. In fact, it makes perfect sense. The raw truth is that you or I would probably lose it long before many of our friends who are in the street.

Our goal when we serve at the Relief Bus is to create an environment that fills emotional gas tanks. With a decent meal that doesn’t cost anything, a new pair of socks, hygiene kits, referrals, helpful information, and most importantly friendship, prayer, and hope, we are trying to function as a filling station or “rest area” for anyone who could use it.

This means that we need to be diligent in facilitating an atmosphere that is conducive to “filling-up.” We try to think not only about what we give away, but how. Are we keeping things orderly? Are we allowing space on the sidewalk for people to pass by without much difficulty? Are we communicating how things work and where things are? And are we doing so in a friendly and patient tone?

What would happen if your car was on the highway, about to run out of gas, and you see a sign for a rest area but when you exit you couldn’t actually find the gas pump? What if every time you thought you were getting closer to the fueling station someone else jumped in front? Or what if you wait in line for 30 minutes to get gas only to find out the station ran out 2 cars ahead of you? If you are anything like me, or seemingly everyone else in New Jersey, you would probably freak out. Don’t they know you are about to run out of gas?

It is up to those of us with full tanks to “yield” to those on “E” because this is exactly what God calls us to. Jesus tells a woman on empty,

But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.” John 4:14

Let’s remember that as followers of Jesus we are called to always love and never judge. Let’s remember that instead of just getting irritated with us and our empty tanks, Jesus became a filling station for the entire world and calls his people to do the same.

Grace and Peace,

Josiah

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Evangelism?

Jesus commands his followers to make disciples. At New York City Relief this is foundational for everything we do. I often get the privilege of preparing teams of volunteers for their journey into the streets of NYC. Part of this preparation involves equipping the volunteers with our methodology of “making disciples” or in christianese, “evangelism.”

Many of the people we meet on the streets today have heard about Jesus. They have been preached at and they often associate the Bible with the head of the hammer that it was attached to as it whistled towards their choices, mistakes, and life experiences. So many of our homeless brothers and sisters carry knowledge about Jesus that they received from well-intentioned parents, friends, pastors, and random passers-by, who offered some version of a salvation message complete with tracts and promises of a better life.

At the Relief Bus, we take a different approach. We do not push or bully anyone into any prayer or exhortation that will allow us to check a box or mark a score card. We are going to make disciples by first learning to be disciples. We are going to follow the lead of our Teacher and Lord, who would often feed the hungry and heal the sick first and offer deep and transforming spiritual truth second. It’s hard to hear the words of Jesus over the growl of an empty stomach. It’s even harder to hear over the din of “evangelists” who care more about themselves and the propaganda about Jesus that masquerades as the Gospel of Jesus.

We can all agree that every single person we meet, rich and poor alike, needs the saving truth that Jesus died on the cross for our redemption and that he wants nothing more than a relationship with us. We can also agree that communicating this reality is paramount in allowing others to enter into this life-saving existence.

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But here’s the thing, every word that you speak about Jesus needs to come from a live demonstration of the love of Jesus, or your words will bounce off the mile-high walls constructed specifically to fight off the guilt of false-teachers who confuse the love of God with the hatred of sin. See, God doesn’t hate sin because sin is sinful. God hates sin because he loves us; and sin is a poison that kills the life that God created us to enjoy.

Evangelism doesn’t always look like a sinner expressing belief in Jesus’ metaphysical and spiritual accomplishments. Evangelism sometimes looks like one sinner sitting across a table with another, enjoying a cup of soup while listening to the story of his or her life. Sometimes the best weapon in our spiritual arsenal is not the words that penetrate the heart of the person we are communing with, but the silence that allows time and space for the child of God we are reaching to voluntarily disengage the alarm system that was installed to protect against “evangelists” who speak out of emptiness instead of fullness.

Sometimes, just listening and empathizing will cultivate the soil of someone’s heart far more effectively than any clever presentation.

Does that mean we shouldn’t speak or declare the reality of Jesus? Absolutely not. Of course we should share about our experience with Jesus and the reality of his transforming love in our lives. But speaking to someone’s heart is often like navigating a dark and unknown living room. It helps to have some knowledge of the layout so you don’t trip over the furniture and break the family heirloom that was passed down from grandma. In other words, if you can listen first and humbly merit an invitation from your host, you might actually be able to see where you’re going and use words that actually hit home.

The solution to evangelism in a post-Christian society is not to be silent, but to be faithful and patient. To allow the words of Jesus to penetrate our hearts so deeply that our “love of neighbor” will drown out the thunder clap of hatred and judgmentalism, making room for a relationship where two-way communication is possible.

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The problem with many “evangelists” is that they “know” what they have to offer is “more” important than what they can receive, inevitably blocking themselves off from any soil that is ripe for planting. If you have tried sharing the “Gospel” with a loved-one only to hit alarm after alarm and wall after wall, try a different approach. Try assuming that God has something to tell you through your unbelieving loved-one and go into your next conversation with ears that are open and a heart that is soft. You may not see the harvest, but you will see growth as you are invited further and further into his or her experience allowing every seed you drop to be welcomed and watered instead of attacked and rejected.

Making disciples is a lot more seed planting than it is fruit harvesting. God is the one who makes any seed grow, we need to remember that any fruit we get to see is a grace and testimony of His faithfulness, not our persuasiveness.

Grace and Peace,

Josiah

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Could You Cut Off Your Arm to Save Your Life?

“And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” Matthew 5:30

Jennifer is 23 years old. Barely an adult by our society’s standards, but living with the same fears and struggles that many will only read about. Her drug of choice is heroin. She averages 2-3 bags per day. Which, for those of us who don’t know, is a solid dependency but probably not too far in the wilderness of addiction that she can’t see where she started, allowing space for some hope of turning around at any point. The highs allow her to escape the physical and emotional pain of bad choices and bad luck, both her’s and others’. She lives with a boyfriend who makes demands that carry the very real threat of homelessness should she refuse to comply. So she exists. She sustains. But make no mistake, she is not living.

The heart break for those of us who work at New York City Relief is that there are countless Jennifers out there. There are some who have walked down the path of heroin or crack addiction and lost sight of where it all began, using 6-10 bags per day, stealing, hustling, and prostituting to keep existing, to keep sustaining. There are some who haven’t even wandered into the jungle of addiction yet, but are flirting with the idea. And then there are some who have walked that path to its inevitable conclusion only to be lost to loved-ones by way of overdose or prison. For those of us on the outside looking in, we often wonder, why?

The answer I’ve come up with is simply this: Jennifer is not ready to cut her arm off to save her life.

Do you remember that story about the guy who was out hiking in the wilderness and got his arm stuck beneath an 800 pound boulder? The story goes that after 5 days of being pinned to a cliff, this guy, Aron Ralston, used a multitool to cut his arm off and escape with his life. Yep, he actually broke his arm and cut it off.
Read the story here

Sometimes I think that those of us on the outside of Jennifer’s story don’t realize just how painful it is to put down a substance or a lifestyle that has, from her perspective, sustained her for years. We look in through a lens of judgment that only sees the ends and skips right over the pain and sacrifice of the means.

From the comfort of my living room I am shocked that Ralston didn’t leave a note or take a friend with him when he went hiking that day. I’m appalled that he got himself into that perilous situation in the first place. He was an experienced hiker, he should have known better. Why didn’t he realize that getting stuck was a legitimate possibility and take steps to avoid it?

Oh right, because he is human, just like me.

From the comfort of my living room I am shocked that Jennifer started using heroin. Why didn’t she ask for help? I’m appalled that she got herself into that perilous situation in the first place. She has friends who have overdosed, she should know better. Why didn’t she realize that getting addicted was a legitimate possibility and take steps to avoid it?

Oh right, because she is human, just like me.

Sometimes, all it takes is one mistake, one oversight, one lapse in judgment. Sometimes, it takes several hundred. Either way, the way out of a pinch is often more painful than we can imagine and what looks like an “obvious” solution might appear equivalent to losing a limb to the person stuck under an 800 pound rock. For Jennifer, the arm that she would need to cut off might be relationships with people who have deep meaning to her. She might need to cut off the arm of freedom by going into a residential treatment program with rules, curfews, and structure. Maybe she would need to cut off the arm of pride that keeps her from apologizing to family members she has hurt and asking for forgiveness. Or maybe, she needs to cut off the arm of self-sufficiency, and die to herself in order to live for the first time reconciled to her Creator and Lord. Cutting off a limb is no small sacrifice. I can’t even imagine the pain that Ralston experienced as he shoved that metal blade through skin, muscle, and bone. He will live the rest of his life without the hand that he left on the mountain. He will feel its absence every single day.

I think we judge people like Jennifer too harshly for being unwilling to see the “big picture” and cut off her arm to save her life. For a self-professed follower of Jesus, like myself, to judge Jennifer for refusing to cut off her arm is the epitome of hypocrisy. Jesus never said that we could have it all. Jesus understood the reality of sacrifice better than anyone. He never sold anyone the idea that choosing life and following him wouldn’t cost us anything. He said the exact opposite:

“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.’” Matthew 16:24,25

Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to a merchant who found a priceless pearl and in order to keep it, sold everything he had, because the pearl of great price was worth the sacrifice (Matthew 13:46). He talked about the relationships we have with family and how love of God should be so much greater than love of family that the disparity should be equal to that of love and hate (Luke 14:26). In the gospels we learn about people who genuinely wanted to follow Jesus but were not ready to cut off the arm of comfort, wealth, or family obligation, so they missed out on true life that is found in Jesus (Luke 9:57-62).

So before we castigate Jennifer, or anyone else who we think is obviously foolish for refusing to make the necessary sacrifices that we know will save their lives, let us remember that every single day we are offered the same exact choice.

And time after time, we choose the 800 pound rock over a life of freedom because we are scared to walk through pain and discomfort in order to get there. So yes, Jennifer is unwilling to cut off her arm to save her life, and that is why she is still in the situation she is in. But I’ve got some bad news: so are you and so am I. Let’s pray that God gives Jennifer the courage to cut herself loose before it’s too late. That’s my prayer for you as well, and I hope that is your prayer for me.

Grace and Peace,

Josiah

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There is no Answer to the Question “Why?”

There is no answer to the question, “why?” I know that as finite humans who can think just complexly enough to tie ourselves in knots, we always struggle to tackle questions beyond our understanding. But allow me to be completely candid for a few moments. ***Feel free to disagree with me, especially if your theory on death gives you comfort. But I lost my friend and Ship-mate, Joe Song, yesterday and I need to process out loud a bit.

I believe in God. I believe that God is good. I believe that God is love (as it says all over the book of 1st John in the New Testament). I also believe that God looks and acts more like Jesus than any other person to grace the pages of the Judeo-Christian scriptures (John 14, 1 John 1:1, Matthew 16, Hebrews 1), even more so than Yahweh as described in the Old Testament (I hear the gasps).

See my theological framework is that the prophets, the priests, the kings, and the disciples were all given glimpses of God and they did their best, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to publish their experiences. But Jesus didn’t need to glimpse God, because while he was fully man, he was also fully God. That’s our orthodoxy, that his disciples worshipped the man, called Jesus, as God. From Peter’s declaration of his divinity in Matthew 16, to Thomas declaring “my Lord and my God” after seeing the resurrected Lord and touching his scars, the message that we proclaim is that Jesus is in fact the best and truest revelation of the Creator of all life (also see John 14, Jesus’ exchange with Philip).

So what does that have to do with the question, “why?” Jesus had a dear friend named Lazarus. He tragically died. Jesus went to his family and Lazarus’ sister declares an “answer” to the question, “why?” She says: “if you, Jesus, had been here my brother wouldn’t have died.” She had been asking why and in the absence of clarity had come to a conclusion: Jesus was to blame. Because he had the power to heal her brother, but he had arrived late to the party. Therefor, it’s his fault.

It’s tempting to blame God for tragedies. He’s “all-powerful” right? So where was your power yesterday when my friend got plucked from this earth way, way too soon?

Too often, I think we look at scripture and we emphasize the parts we like and step right over the parts we don’t. In the story of Lazarus, most of us know how it turns out. We’ve heard the Carmen song, “Lazarus, come forth!” We know that he is raised, and while that part is awesome and we need to know that Jesus has the power and desire to raise our friends from the dead, we step right over Jesus’ initial response to this tragedy. It says:

“When Mary arrived and saw Jesus, she fell at his feet and said, ‘Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, a deep anger welled up within him, and he was deeply troubled. ‘Where have you put him?’ he asked them. They told him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Then Jesus wept. The people who were standing nearby said, ‘See how much he loved him!’” John 11:32-36 NLT

I’m not a biblical scholar. I don’t know the context of the original Greek words used, but this translation hits me as I weep for my friend. “A deep anger welled up within him.” God’s heart for my friend Joe is the same as Jesus’ heart for his friend Lazarus. God didn’t “take” him from us. God didn’t “decide” that it was “Joe’s time.” I believe with all my heart that it was not Joe’s time, because God never intended for humans, made for eternity, to experience and process the consequences of mortality.

I believe Jesus gives us a glimpse of God’s feelings about death. I believe that while it’s true that Joe is in the presence of Jesus, and there is no better place for him in the entire cosmos, it is also true that Jesus is welling up with anger for the loss that we’ve experienced. I don’t believe that death was part of the original plan. And while God will bring good out of this tragedy, I don’t believe for a second that God caused this tragedy or is pleased that it took place. He is weeping with us. He is weeping with Joe’s family and girlfriend. He is weeping because we are living in a world where death is even possible.

So no, I don’t struggle with the question, “why?” Because there is no answer to the question, “why?” But there is hope. Because God doesn’t leave us to weep alone. He entered our mortality to offer us back the eternity that we rejected. God is going to raise my friend to life. I will see Joe again. Not nearly soon enough, but soon.

See, as Jesus reflects God’s heart about death, he also reveals God’s solution to the problem. We were never meant to experience death, but as Jesus died on that Roman crucifix and was raised 3 days later, he cured the longterm disease that has caused our short-term agony.

Because death could not hold him, Jesus proves that death would not and could not win against the Giver of life. As I mourn for our loss, I celebrate God’s victory. Not the victory of Joe’s death, because death is never a victory (1 Corinthians 15:26). But the victory of Joe’s resurrection. Because Jesus was raised from the dead, I trust that Joe will also be raised.

I loved watching Joe worship at Church. It was as tho his body couldn’t contain the love of God within him. I know that today, he is worshipping with more freedom and joy than anything he could have experienced while living under death. And that is hard to imagine.

“Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’” 1 Corinthians 15:54, 55 NLT

Grace and Peace,

Josiah

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The Lowest Low to the Highest High

Anyone who read my last blog, Heartbreak, got to witness the pain that often accompanies serving on the streets of NYC. Well, today I get to let you in on the joy that keeps us rolling forward day after day.

I got another call from an unfamiliar number this afternoon, it was Eileen. It turns out that after she realized that I would be unable to pick her up at 1 am, she scrounged together $3.00 and was miraculously able to turn that into a ride via taxi to another hospital downtown.

She walked into a waiting area where several folks were passed out on chairs around the exterior of the room. She tells me she had no idea why they were just sleeping there, but she was tired (it was 2 am after-all) so she found a chair and went to sleep herself.

She woke up soon after to the sound of someone saying, “anyone who needs detox, get in line.” So Eileen got in line! She is now safely in a detox and discussing the possibility of going to a 28 day program on Friday. At the end of our conversation, she even said, “God bless, I love you.”

I’m still in shock. I’m in awe. I’m so grateful for all your prayers for Eileen and for me. I’m embarrassed to say that God’s faithfulness still surprises me. Please continue to lift her up in prayer,

Grace and Peace,

Josiah

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