Fear Can Hold You Prisoner. Hope Can Set You Free.

imageIn my opinion, one of the best movies of all time is “The Shawshank Redemption.” In this movie Andy is a well-off banker who gets convicted of murdering his wife and his wife’s lover in a fit of rage and jealousy. He gets sent to Shawshank Prison for life without the possibility of parole and it’s there that the movie takes on themes like “friendship,” “betrayal,” “injustice,” “rehabilitation,” and “hope.” I have a Shawshank Redemption poster on the wall of my office with one sentence written in bold letters across the top of the picture that literally breathes life into me every time I see it:

“Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free.”

I was born and raised in West Africa into a family of missionaries. I’m the youngest of 4 kids and my older siblings loved to go rock climbing at the quarry just outside of the city where we lived. The cliff was about sixty feet tall and my brothers and sister would scamper up and down that rock-face every chance they got.

I was in 1st grade when I first attempted to climb to the top of that wall. I was so excited. I got my harness on, hooked the rope to it, asked the person holding me if I could start, and when they said the magic words, “belay on,” I started to climb.

There are a lot of advantages to climbing when you’re a 1st grade kid who does nothing but play outside in the African heat. I was pretty good. I was moving up that cliff like a monkey in a tree. The only disadvantage to rock climbing as a 1st grader was that I was short. The hand-holds that my siblings could reach easily, I could not.

I was about halfway up when I got stuck. I was hanging on to this tiny crack in the rock when I realized that I had nowhere to go. I could see the places that someone else might be able to reach if he or she was taller, but as hard as I tried I couldn’t get there. Someone was yelling something from down below, trying to give me directions, but I couldn’t hear them so I looked down to see who it was… Big mistake.

I’m not terribly afraid of heights, and when I was steadily moving upwards it was all well and good. But something about being stuck with no place to go but down made the distance from me to the ground below seem immeasurably worse. In that moment I was overcome with terror and I froze. I was a prisoner to my fear and I started to cry.

Have you ever been there? I realize it’s unlikely that anyone reading this has ever been rock climbing in a quarry in West Africa, but maybe you’ve reached a point in life where you feel imprisoned by fear?

Let’s be honest this world is a scary place. I talk to men and women every day who have seen the worst this world has to offer. People who have been attacked in the street, robbed, raped, abused, you name it. The reality is that most of us would be terrified if we stopped moving forward in life and looked “down” to notice for the first time just how far we are from safety.

“Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free.”

“Meanwhile, the disciples were in trouble far away from land, for a strong wind had risen, and they were fighting heavy waves. About three o’clock in the morning Jesus came toward them, walking on the water. When the disciples saw him walking on the water, they were terrified. In their fear, they cried out, ‘It’s a ghost!’ But Jesus spoke to them at once. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ he said. ‘Take courage. I am here!’ Then Peter called to him, ‘Lord, if it’s really you, tell me to come to you, walking on the water.’ ‘Yes, come,’ Jesus said. So Peter went over the side of the boat and walked on the water toward Jesus.” Matthew 14

When Peter sees Jesus and hears Him say, “Don’t be afraid,” he moves from being frozen in fear to being courageous in hope. He sees Jesus and is hopeful that Jesus is able to carry him on the water as well. He has hope that Jesus can keep him from drowning. The storm is still raging and the boat is still teetering, but seeing Jesus walking towards him on the water changes the lens through which he perceives the storm. In hope, he steps out.

The only antidote to the paralysis of fear is hope.

In this life, our circumstances can look really bad. In fact, in and of themselves, they are bad. Life is hard. Loved ones get sick. Bills pile up. Hatred is pervasive. Death is real. When we look at this life as it is, without any reason to expect things to change, fear is the only logical conclusion.

And yet:

“When Peter and his friends were far away from land and the wind had risen, and they were fighting heavy waves Jesus came toward them, walking on the water.”

I believe as bad as it seems right now, Jesus is walking toward you. I believe as hard as life can be, Jesus is walking toward you. I believe as scary as your circumstances are, and they are scary, Jesus is walking toward you. As badly as you’ve screwed up, Jesus is walking toward you. As lost as you are, Jesus is walking toward you.

When I was up on that cliff and I looked down, all I saw was the people that looked like ants crawling on the floor hundreds of miles away. I was so focussed and imprisoned by my fear, I didn’t see my older sister climbing up the rock toward me to show me the way out.

Maybe it’s time for you to break out of the prison of fear into the freedom of hope. Jesus is walking toward you.

Don’t be afraid.

He hears you.

He’s coming.

On the night that Jesus would be brutally tortured and killed, he said this to the same disciples who were on that boat:

“In this life you will have trouble. Take heart! I have overcome the world!” John 16:33

“Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free.”

Grace and Peace,

Josiah

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Consistency. Excellence. Dignity.

“Do you serve hot soup in the summer time too?” The question was from a resource partner I was introducing to our work at New York City Relief.

“Yes indeed. We serve the same soup all year round.”

“People still eat it when it’s 90 degrees out?” He seemed surprised.

“Yep. We sure do. We make really good soup.”

As the old adage goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” We have a profoundly simple operation. When asked to describe what we do, I like to steal Denzel Washington’s line from the movie Remember the Titans. As the new African-American head coach of a recently integrated high school, Denzel’s character, Coach Herman Boone, passes his play book out to the assistant coaches who used to run the team, prior to boarding a bus for summer training camp. One of the coaches remarks, “awful skinny play book ain’t it?”

Coach Boone replies: “I run 6 plays, split veer. It’s like Novocaine. Just give it time, always works.”

At New York City Relief, we don’t run a lot of plays. We don’t serve coffee with options for cream and sugar, decaf or regular. We don’t give out pants, shirts, sweaters, and underwear. We don’t serve meals with meat, dairy, or even deserts.

We serve the same vegetable rice soup, with juice or hot chocolate every day and we give away brand new socks and toiletry kits. That’s pretty much all we “do” but that is no where close to all we “are.”

The little that we “do” we do with excellence and we do with intention. We don’t “mix it up” a whole lot because, like Coach Boone says, “give it time, always works.”

Part of the reason we are able to be out in the streets week in and week out is because our operation is so simple. We offer consistency; rain or shine, we go. We have had some bad winters over the last few years, but we haven’t missed a scheduled outreach since Hurricane Sandy.

The people we serve can’t count on a lot, but they can count on us. One person we served described our consistency by saying, “they are faithful, like God is faithful.”

Beyond consistency, we also want to serve with excellence.

It’s the same soup every day, but like I told our new partner, we make good soup! There’s a rumor going around that it might be the best soup in NYC (I have no idea who started it)! We literally prepare our soup fresh every day with healthy ingredients. We also pick up a new batch of Portuguese rolls every day that are always delicious and never old. The socks we distribute run for the retail price of $20 for a pack of 6 and the hygiene kits are all prepackaged and even come with brand-name deodorant.

Not only do we serve consistently and with excellence, but we also strive to communicate dignity to each person that happens upon the Relief Bus or one of our Don’t Walk By outreach teams. We want each person who comes to the Relief Bus to be treated as a paying customer. Valuable. Empowered.

Too many people serving folks who can’t afford to spend money on their meals forget that none of us earns the physical capacity for wealth creation. None of us makes our heart beat properly and reliably. We all exist at the mercy of others, so we are not defined by our net worth or our ability to pay for stuff. Our value comes from God and He says that each person who sleeps in the street is worth Jesus being tortured and ripped apart from everything and everyone He loves. On the cross, Jesus does a price check on each human that has ever lived, and the sticker shock alone should knock us off our feet.

The people we serve have infinite value. They are literally priceless. The least we can do is act like it.

Ultimately, our end goal is to connect the people we serve to resources that could change the trajectory of their lives forever. We want to leverage the credibility we earn by being consistent, serving with excellence, and communicating worth and dignity to save lives. So many people living in the street are fighting for survival. We want to be the exit ramp off of the “highway to hell” and onto the road to redemption.

We build relationships with partner organizations that provide tangible help with things like detox, rehab, discipleship, housing, legal aid, counseling, food stamps, Medicaid, clothing, and many others. But we can’t connect anyone to anything if we aren’t consistent, if we don’t serve with excellence, and we don’t communicate dignity. Everything we do is designed to transform lives, both the lives of the people serving and the people being served. And in the Kingdom of God it’s not always clear which group is which.

Grace and Peace,

Josiah

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The Happiest Man in the World

IMG_5689I was walking the streets of Manhattan with two teenagers from North Carolina. The two teens were a part of a visiting team of 45 that joined us for our weekly Don’t Walk By outreach.

Every Thursday we split the center of midtown Manhattan into zones and we walk the streets from 6:30 – 9:15 PM in search of folks that the rest of the world has forgotten. We do a larger version of this outreach every Saturday in February with a consortium of Christ-centered organizations called the Rescue Alliance (www.dontwalkby.org).

On this particular Thursday I was leading a group from 7th Ave to Park Ave, and from 36th Street to 42nd. This area includes Bryant Park, which is right behind a massive public library that simultaneously attracts tourists and street-bound children of God. We had encountered a few people and had given away a few pairs of socks, but on the whole it was a slow night.

When we entered the park I saw a guy in a green uniform emptying out one of the trash cans so I decided to enlist his assistance.

“Excuse me. We are volunteering with an outreach event to help connect people living in the street to resources and help. Do you know where we could find anybody in need of a new pair of socks, hygiene kit, or a meal?”

“Right over there.” He pointed into the far corner. “God bless you, for what you’re doing.” He stuck out his hand with a big smile.

It doesn’t surprise me that there are angels working with the parks department.

We meandered over to where he had pointed and there was an older white man trying to plug his phone into an outlet. He was struggling. He had bags on a table nearby. His wrinkled face was rosy and he had layer upon layer of clothing to protect him from the elements.

“Are you trying to charge your phone?” I asked.

“Yes. But this doesn’t seem to be working. I don’t know how to use this thing. I got this ‘Obama-phone’ yesterday. It won’t charge.” While there are many folks living in the street who are tech-savvy, many are not.

“Let me take a look. I have some experience with these things.”

The “Obama-phone” is a government funded cell phone that is free for folks who qualify by being on food stamps, welfare, or SSI/SSD. One gets 250 minutes per month and free text messaging on a very basic device. I’ve spent hours over the last 5 years signing people up, charging, and calling folks with them.

I’m a huge fan of the program because it’s ridiculous to assume that someone can navigate a place like New York City, let alone get a job, if they can’t be reached. Those phones are often the difference between someone getting the help and encouragement they need and spending more nights in the street than they have to.

I plugged his phone in and the light didn’t go on, so I pulled it out and hit the power button. Sure enough the screen lit up like a Christmas tree and the little battery signal was saturated from top to bottom.

“It’s not charging because it’s already fully charged.” I told him, handing him his phone.

“Oh thank you. Thank you.” He replied as if I had pulled him from a burning building.

“What’s your name?” One of the teens with me spoke up.

“Bill,” he said. “What’s yours, young man?”

We told him our names and immediately Bill opened up. He started telling us about how beautiful the park is. How blessed he is to live in this magnificent city. He told us where and how to sneak into a Broadway show during the intermission because, in his words, “they don’t care at that theater, they are good people.”

When he told us he sleeps on the subway, he wasn’t complaining.

When we asked how we could pray for him, he directed us to pray foIMG_5686r others because, as he put it, “I’m truly happy. How could I not be happy? Look around.”

He dropped scripture on us, Matthew 6 to be precise. Bill was a living breathing example of a man who lived “like the lilies of the field.”

“Stop worrying,” he commandeed us. “Your Heavenly Father knows what you need.”

He prayed over us. For the “young man” he prayed that he would always trust God and not get distracted by what the world tells him is important.

Towards the end of our conversation, Bill said, “you never know how God is going to bless you. He sent me three beautiful people to talk to and make my day.”

People often think that we are the ones with something to offer people in the street. That they “need what we have.” And to a certain extent that’s true. We all do have something to offer. But in the same breath that I say that folks who are homeless need you, I will also say, “you need them.”

I needed to learn from Bill that night. I needed to sit at his feet and let him be the voice of God in my life. I needed to receive what he was giving away.

Next time you feel like serving in a soup kitchen, clothing bank, food pantry, or doing some other “good” or “charitable” deed, remember that each life that you touch has the capacity to touch you right back. And just as you give, if you are open to it, you will also receive.

Grace and Peace,

Josiah

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Peacemaking Starts with, “Hello.”

20131018-111246.jpgI interrupted my conversation with the new director of a local house of recovery in the South Bronx because I heard a commotion outside. I jumped through the front door of the Relief Bus to see two men staring each-other down with a woman between them caught in a spider’s web of tension and betrayal.

The man closest to me was new. I had never seen him at the Relief Bus before. He was easily 6 feet 4 with dark skin, short hair, wearing a blue winter vest and a scowl on his face. He was extremely drunk.

The other man was someone I’ve known for years. Significantly shorter, lighter skinned, jeans and a sweatshirt, Luis was a coiled spring just waiting for an excuse to explode on the much larger man who stood just paces away.

And then there was Mary.

Mary has been coming to the Relief Bus as far back as 2010. A Caucasian woman in her early fifties, she spent time in a partner rehab program upstate, but who for the last 5 years has seemed perpetually wired to self-destruct, be it through alcohol or men. This Saturday afternoon on Brook Ave was no exception.

I approached Luis first.

“What’s going on, here?” I placed myself directly between the bullets these men were staring at each other like a red light at a busy intersection.

“He’s drunk. He’s trying to take Mary down with him, so he’s going to take a walk or he’s going to get hurt.”

“Alright, let me see what I can do, just be cool.” I turned to look up into the face of the man I didn’t know, but in one second I realized he had absolutely no interest in acknowledging my presence, let alone heeding my advice. I turned back to Luis.

“Look, man. You know me. You know this cannot happen here. You know what we are about. So what has to happen for this to go away?”

“She needs to come with me and he needs to walk away.”

I sarcastically thought to myself, “Oh? Is that all?” I turned to Mary. “Mary, are you okay? What do you want to do?”

Mary took the hands of the intoxicated giant and pleaded with him, “Tony, the people at this bus are my good friends. I’m going to go get my stuff and I’ll meet you later.”

“Meet me at the liquor store,” he slurred.

“No. I’ll meet you here, with these church people. They are my friends.”

“No. Meet me at the liquor store. If he tries anything I’ll get my cousin and we’ll…” As he said this he started to try to get closer to Luis.

I stood my ground.

The light was still red.

Mary tried again, “Tony, I’m just going for my stuff. I’ll meet you here.” It was at this moment that I realized she was lying to him. She didn’t want to be with him. She wanted to be with Luis. For better or worse, her history with Luis was triumphing over her present with Tony.

“Okay… Meet me at the liquor store. That’s where I’ll be.”

“Tony, these people are here to help. You should talk to them.” She gave his hands one more squeeze and walked away. Miraculously Tony did an about-face and walked in the opposite direction.

He had no interest in talking to me. For a second I thought he might, but I quickly realized he wasn’t walking back for soup, he was walking back to the liquor store.

I’m convinced that the only reason that situation didn’t escalate into bloodshed is because of the relationship I was able to leverage with Mary and Luis. The conversations we’ve had, the prayers we’ve prayed, and the consistency with which we’ve served are like bricks that form the foundation of peace.

People seem surprised that we don’t often have violence break out at the Relief Bus locations. They figure the people we serve are volatile and the neighborhoods on edge: a recipe for disaster.

But what I’ve noticed in the 4+ years of doing this is that people will, more often than not, demonstrate whatever level of grace they have received.

I’ve witnessed a man who is hard wired for survival and self-defense receive a punch to the face and simply reply with, “the Relief Bus saved your a** today.” Folks we serve treat our outreaches as sacred space. There are obviously exceptions, but again, usually the exceptions are perpetrated by people who don’t know us well enough to know what we give and what we ask.

We go above and beyond to treat every man or woman who comes to the Bus as the children of God that they are. We use words like, “sir” and “m’am.” We apologize for being in the way. We ask for permission before we pray. We invite, we don’t demand.

We are creating a culture of humanity in a population that is too often treated as an “issue” or a “problem.”

We are only able to communicate the value of peace in a war torn world when we, as followers of the Prince of Peace, demonstrate consistently, and methodically, the substance that we proclaim.

Our message is only as effective as our relationships are strong. Peacemaking starts with, “hello.”

Grace and Peace,

Josiah

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The Visible and the Invisible

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There are two populations living in NYC: the Visible and the Invisible.

The Visible move like a river at flood stage between the towering trees of economic development and fashion. They move with intention and direction, guided by the downward momentum of train schedules, dinner appointments, and show times. The Visible blanket sidewalks and subways, unintentionally, sometimes intentionally, pushing the Invisible into the shadows. Like a broken tree branch floating on the tides of time and space, the Invisible are crushed beneath the waves of progress.

The Invisible live beneath the trees, either in small communities of 2 to 5 people or completely alone. They live off of the fruit that falls to the ground but doesn’t get swept away by the undertow of profit and productivity. The Invisible plant themselves against structures they can hold onto for stability. They stay geographically consistent because survival is not a philosophy to live by, but a necessity to live for. Moving away from the anchor upon which they are tied could literally mean drowning or starving to death, so the Invisible hang on for dear life.

Many of the Invisible were once part of the river, racing from north to south, from point A to point B. But now they have been cast off by circumstance and hopelessness: stagnate.

The Invisible are camouflaged by the bark of cement and glass. The Visible step over them, around them, and through them without any awareness beyond the subtle change in direction or pace that is required to adapt to the “obstacle” they only felt for a second before the mighty river has its way.

I am one of the Visible.

Wealthy.

Privileged.

I have somewhere to be and a deadline to get there. I am not suffocated by the pressure and the pace; I am sustained by it. I can pillage the trees for my sustenance without fear or trepidation.

I am blinded by my own visibility.

Too often the only way for the Invisible to move from the shadows is for one of the Visible to choose to fight the flow of the river and stand side-by-side with those that are unseen.

Too often, the only way for the Invisible to become Visible is for one of the Visible to trade his place for hers.

Grace and Peace,

Josiah

 

 

 

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Resurrection

The Relief Bus was parked 50 feet away. I was asked to follow one of the guys who smokes K2 away from the high traffic area so we could talk about his situation in a more “private” setting (“Private” being some place he could keep smoking and still not be overheard by anyone interested in his business).

He asked me about the best way to get into rehab. He smokes crack, K2, and drinks. But he wanted to visit his kids, so rehab seemed like a good first step.

I agreed.

But as we spoke another guy from his community of mountain climbers got my attention and said he wanted to talk to me too.

It was just that kind of day.

I made a few calls for David, but he wasn’t quite ready to go at that moment and his insurance was going to force him to wait until Monday. I prayed for him. I found his friend.

“What’s going on, man?”

He was short, light skin, with a beard, rags for clothes, and dirt under his fingernails. He was as high as the peak that shares its name with the drug of choice that’s sweeping the nation.

“It’s complicated,” he said. He dropped his voice to a whisper and continued. “I’m from Argentina. I came to this country illegally; I have no papers. I was a drug addict in Argentina and when I came here I started using dope. I don’t know what to do. I have no family. Everyone who knew me before has died.” Tears started to flood his eyes.

“How much do you use-a-day?” I asked.

“When I have money, I can use up to a bundle. But today I robbed my boss to buy enough to get me through. I’m starting to get very sick.” He continued. “I hate my life. I hate myself for not being there with my family in Argentina. My mother died, and I wasn’t there. I feel so guilty. Sometimes I want to die.”

“Listen to me. Do you know what we are celebrating tomorrow?”

“Easter.” Maybe not as high as I thought.

“Yes. Tomorrow we celebrate resurrection. Life conquering death. Jesus died on the cross so that you and I can rise from the dead too! There is hope! I know a place that will detox you from heroin with no papers and no insurance, but you will have to make it until Monday.”

His tears were now streaming down his cheeks as he fell into my chest shaking.

“Thank you. Thank you.”

“I’ll tell you how to get there, but you will need to find a way. Can you do that?”

“Yes. Yes.”

I wrote him a referral with step by step instructions. As I gave him the paper I told him, “this year we can celebrate your resurrection too!”

Grace and Peace,

Josiah    

 

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The One that Got Away

NYCskyline3Serving at New York City Relief is bigger than me. It’s bigger than you. It’s bigger than New York City, New Jersey, and the United States of America. Every time we have the privilege of walking the streets in search of lonely people who desperately matter to God, we are participating in a cosmic search party that started when humans first started running.

The narrative of scripture is consistent: God loves his children. God’s children run and hide. God pursues the one that got away.

“This is my story.
This is my song.
Praising my Savior, all the day long.”

In Genesis Adam and Eve betrayed their very nature, by trying to become like God in a way that they were never meant to be “like God.” They ran. They hid. God pursued. He’s been pursuing ever since.

God set apart a people that would be a blessing “to all nations.” The story of Israel, from Abraham, to Moses, to David, to Isaiah, is the same: God loves his children. God’s children run and hide. God pursues His children.

“This is my story.
This is my song.
Praising my Savior, all the day long.”

Then God doubled-down in his pursuit. For thousands of years He was sending messengers: prophets, judges, and kings, as ambassadors and spokespeople to track down his wayward kids. But then the story changes: God himself walks the streets in the person of Jesus.

Jesus touches people and makes them well. He speaks life into dead bodies. He speaks hope into hopeless hearts. God is so desperate to find his children, all His children, that he will stop at nothing to find the one that got away.

“This is my story.
This is my song.
Praising my Savior, all the day long.”

But Jesus is interested in finding more than one lost generation. The story goes that He died to find the lost children that were hiding where no one could ever go looking for them. This cosmic search party is not limited to the dimmensions of time and space.

Jesus came back from the dead, bringing with him a multitude of those who would be found.

“This is my story.
This is my song.
Praising my Savior, all the day long.”

From start to finish the Bible tells the story of a God who refuses to sit back and wait for people to “get it together.” 

From beginning to end we see a God who doesn’t assume that we will just “figure it out.” 

From the first page to the last page, God sends out messengers of hope, redemption, & restoration to the hopeless, forgotten, & broken, culminating in the person of Jesus literally going to the grave to make sure that no one gets left behind. 

So today I have the privilege of serving with New York City Relief. But it’s bigger than me. It’s bigger than you. It’s bigger than New York City, New Jersey, and even the United States of America. God is still out there tipping over furniture, ducking into subway stations, waving down complete strangers, all in the hope of finding the one that got away.

Grace and Peace,

Josiah Haken

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A Winning Lottery Ticket

200162_10150152565506458_35473056457_8280517_5570350_nHe was walking quickly past me, but something about him grabbed my attention. I don’t know if it was the camouflage jacket, the weathered face, or just a moment of divine intervention.

“Hey, my friend, how are you doing today?” Sometimes the simplest introductions work the best.

“I’m fine… This is my first time here. What is happening?”

“Wow, it’s your first time? Well, we are giving away free soup, hot chocolate, we have socks, and hygiene kits as well. All free.”

“Free?”

I walked him over to the serving window and got him a hot chocolate. We chatted about this and that. He told me he was homeless. He said he had served in the Marines. He did one tour, then when he came home, he volunteered to go back for a second.

“My wife thought I was crazy. She divorced me…” He started crying. “I don’t know why I’m even telling you this.”

“It’s good, man. Tears can be really good.” I put my hand on his shoulder as he cried. He told me he ended up doing three tours. He told me he did terrible things. He saw his friends killed in front of him. He said that what he saw filled him with anger and hatred.

“That’s why I kept volunteering to go back. I did terrible things. I was rebellious. I wanted to avenge my friends. I did terrible things.” He was silent for a long time, then he said,”Do you think that’s why I’m homeless? Is God punishing me for what I’ve done?”

I’ve been working with the New York City Relief and leading outreaches with the Relief Bus for over 4 years now. So many folks in the street have been told by their families, neighbors, churches, and friends that they deserve to live in the street; they brought this on themselves.

In our desperate attempt to find meaning in the worst that life has to offer we end up ascribing fault and blame on God’s behalf. We need to blame someone. Ever since we ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we’ve made the tragic assumption that knowledge is the same as understanding.

“No. God is not punishing you. In fact, I believe, that the cross is proof that not only will God forgive you, but that God has already forgiven you. There is nothing you have done, are doing, will do, or could do, that could make God love you any less than He does at this very moment.” Tears ran down his cheeks. “I want to show you something.” I ran into the Relief Bus and grabbed a Bible.

“I want you to have this. But I want to read you something first.” I opened it to John 3:16 and read out loud,

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life…” 

He interrupted me. “How did I know you were going to read that verse?” He was laughing through his tears now.

“Because everyone knows that verse.” I replied. But that’s not the main verse I wanted you to hear. Listen to what comes next:

‘For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.’

“So many people think that God is up in heaven just waiting to smite anyone who steps out of line. They turn the story of Jesus into a message about judgment and punishment instead of mercy and grace. Remember the murderer who was crucified next to Jesus? There were 3 crosses on that hill. Two for guilty men and one for an innocent God. One of the guilty ones said to Jesus, ‘remember me when you come into your Kingdom.’ And Jesus replied, ‘truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.'”

His bloodshot, puffy eyes were locked in on mine.

“So the question is not whether or not God is punishing you, or even if you have been forgiven. The question is, will you walk away from this spot, having received that forgiveness? It’s sort of like a winning lottery ticket. It’s only worth anything if you cash it in. God has already forgiven you. He is not angry at you. He is not annoyed with you. He is not even disappointed in you. You’ve won the lottery for crying out loud! Now you just need to cash in your winning ticket and receive the gift of forgiveness that Jesus won for you. It’s not a magic trick. It’s reality. The weight of your mistakes and my mistakes is too heavy for anyone but Jesus to carry. He doesn’t want you to drag that around anymore.”

He hugged me. Like one of those long, uncomfortable hugs that leaves you wondering if he is ever going to let go.

I prayed for him and he walked away.

So what about you? Are you living under a judgment that was lifted 2000 years ago? Maybe nobody has ever told you that your horrible pain is not evidence of God’s divine wrath for mistakes you’ve made along the way. Maybe you grew up thinking that John 3:16 is where the story ends and since you struggle to cognitively assent to the narrative you’ve been given about Jesus, you might not belong in the elite “whoever believes in him club.”

Jesus didn’t come into the world to condemn you, but to save you. To save you from the lie that you aren’t enough. To save you from the lie that you are too far gone. To save you from the lie that your past will determine your future. Don’t walk away carrying the weight of mistakes that you were never meant to carry. You’re holding a winning lottery ticket. Now all you’ve got to do is cash it in.

Grace and Peace,

Josiah

 

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Gratitude

hakens_dec2014_046Have you ever jumped into an icy swimming pool after sitting in a hot tub for thirty minutes? You know that feeling of shock as your nerves explode in transition from hot to cold? Every now and then the feeling of gratitude hits my system just like that.

For the last three weeks we’ve had the honor of hosting a writer from the online magazine called World Next Door (www.worldnextdoor.org). Today she had a flight to catch at 6:30 am which means she would have to be at Newark Airport by 5:30 am. I volunteered to give her a ride because knowing my two kids, there was a 50/50 chance that I would be up anyway.

Sure enough 4 am arrived and my son started making noise.

I got up.

I started a podcast and walked outside. It was raining. Not a fierce rain like we had where I grew up in West Africa, this was a misty rain like I stepped into a cloud that was crying.

I picked Sarah up and took her to the airport. As I merged into the lane of traffic exiting the airport, it was like I had jumped out of the hot tub and was falling into a cold swimming pool of gratitude in slow motion.

It was still dark out and I had too much time before work to head back to the office so I decided to go back home and lay down on the couch in my living room. It struck me that I have a house with heat just sitting there, waiting for me should I ever have an hour to kill and nowhere to be.

My roof works. The rain that saturates everything outside is powerless against the shingles intentionally and meticulously installed to keep the people and the contents of my house dry.

It occurred to me that there is a couch with soft pillows inside this warm dry house, which at this hour would inevitably be reserved just for me.

I went to the store yesterday and got some coffee. I have french vanilla creamer in the fridge. There is cereal and milk there too. Just sitting. Waiting for my signal.

My kids are upstairs. Eden is probably curled up in a ball with her Goofy and Mickey Mouse stuffed animals close by. Ahron turned one last week. As of this morning, they are both healthy and strong. Making my life challenging by getting smarter and more creatively rebellious and destructive every day.

Chelsea is upstairs too. Hopefully she is asleep. She agreed to marry me ten years ago this month. Neither of us had any clue what that meant or what we had in store. But yet, to her credit, we are still best friends.

The downside to having a functional nervous system is that the human body will inevitably adapt to changes in temperature. I can already feel my senses adjusting to the gratitude that I felt fifteen minutes ago as I drove from the airport to my house.

But yet, I want those of you who read this to know that you are being used by God to make moments like this morning possible. I can’t begin to say “thank you” enough for loving my family so well. I can’t even list all the times we were living without any clue how the math was going to add up and someone randomly sent us a check. I can’t even list all the necessities we have as a direct result of one, or many, of you guys simply deciding to make it happen. Everything from our children’s winter clothes, to the oven we cook with, to the house that we get to call home, and everything else in between.

I tell people a lot that living on the financial support and generosity of folks like you isn’t very different than just getting a paycheck from a company or organization every two weeks, except that we don’t even have the option of living under the illusion of self-sufficiency.

Your job, your house, your food, your family, and everything else, come from the same place that ours do. It says in James 1:17 that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”

There’s a reason the Church is referred to as the “Body of Christ.” Sometimes people think that God isn’t real because He is invisible. Well, let me just tell you, our family has seen Him. Every day that we wake up indoors gives us a glimpse of the divine. We see His hands, His feet, His eyes. We see and feel His love every day that we wake up and have food to feed our children.

We’ve seen his body; we see you.

Thank you, and Merry Christmas,

Josiah

 

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A Sacred Act of Worship

chelsea422_26When Jose approached me I stifled a laugh. He was a big guy, at least 6 foot 2, and easily weighing 250 pounds. He wore a sweater that looked like it belonged to his grandmother and he had dress slacks on that didn’t match anything else, least of all the crocodile skin shoes that were 2 sizes two big.

In very broken English he said the one thing that his appearance had already communicated loud and clear, “I need clothes.”

I went ahead and assumed that he preferred Spanish so I answered, “lo siento, no tenemos ropa, pero, podemos hablar y es posible que podamos enviarle un lugar para conseguir algo (I’m sorry, we don’t have clothes, but we can talk and it’s posible that we can tell you where you can get something).

We went into the office area of the front of the Relief Bus and sat down. He was so appreciative that I understood Spanish.

He told me that he had gotten out of jail the day before after serving a 6 year sentence. That night he stayed at one of the New York City shelters that we hear so much about. His first stop after being released was a clothing store where he spent all the money he had in the world on a pair of boots, jeans, and a hoodie. He placed these items beside his bed at the shelter and when he woke up they were gone.

Fresh out of jail, with all of his earthly possessions in the wind, he approached a security guard to report the theft. He told me that this particular security guard was wearing a different pair of shoes than he had started his shift with the night before and that his new footwear looked remarkably like the shoes he had put beside his bed.

Livid with frustration, barefoot, and wearing nothing but his underwear and an undershirt, he went to the office of the supervisor and told him that one of the security guards had stolen his stuff. He received no compassion. The supervisor directed him to a clothing donation room where all he found that he could physically fit into were the clothes he was wearing at that moment.

Now, we tell volunteers all the time that one of the main priorities of our organization is to “love the person in front of you.” We also believe that the mandate of Isaiah 58 to “clothe the naked” is not just a cherry on top of our theological sunday. This is why we give out new socks and toiletry kits. On the other hand, we specifically choose NOT to give away miscellaneous clothing for a reason: our goal is to connect people to local resources and often times programs that offer clothes to the needy and naked also offer the chance at a new life through advocacy and rehabilitation. The other reason is that our mobile outreach doesn’t lend itself to sorting, washing, and distributing clothing in a safe and productive manner.

In this case I felt God telling me to make an exception.

I talked to the co-leader of the outreach that day and told him that I was going to take Jose shopping. We went around the corner to a local sporting goods store and did just that. He had gained a lot of weight in prison and didn’t have a clue what size he was. He tried on everything. He looked for the cheapest prices (which is very doable when you’re shopping in the South Bronx). The first style of hoodie he really wanted had a busted zipper. But instead of just trying a different one, Jose spent 10 minutes trying to fix it. Finally, he put it back and tried a different version of the same style and once again the zipper broke. He took it to the back of the store where the employees seemed to all be furiously trying to repair and sort random articles of clothing. He told them the zipper was broken and they took it and started working on it.

We shopped some more.

I should probably mention, and my wife can vouch for this, that I hate shopping. But there was something sacred about that time. There was something beautiful about Jose wearing his woman’s sweater and crocodile skin shoes trying on new hoodies and pants that made him feel human again.

When he had finally selected his clothes, we paid and we started to head for the exit.

“Now we need to get you some boots.”

“Really?” His face lit up like a Christmas tree.

And for the first time ever, I wasn’t rushing to get out of a store. We went downstairs, found the shoe section, and started all over again.

We walked out of the store and he had all of his new stuff in bags.

He held them close.

We went to a local Burger King so that he could put on his new clothes.

We walked back to the Relief Bus and he couldn’t stop thanking me.

“Listen, I should be thanking you,” I said. “God is the one who told me to get you some new clothes. The only reason I CAN do this is because God provides. It’s all his stuff anyway. He wanted you to experience His love today. God has not forgotten you.”

When we got back to the Relief Bus, Jose immediately picked up our trash picker and started cleaning up the entire block. He worked with us the rest of the day. The following Saturday he came back and served with us again for another 4 hours doing whatever was needed, including some much needed Spanish translations for the prayers that we offer up on behalf of our guests.

Then he was gone.

4 months later I was back in the South Bronx doing the same thing we do every week: trying to love the person in front of me.

I heard a car horn and I turned around to see a utility van double-parked beside the Relief Bus with a driver furiously gesturing for my attention. Being the eternal optimist, I assumed he wanted us to move the Bus or complain about the crowd that our outreach had created on the sidewalk, so I approached with caution.

Then I saw him.

Jose was sitting in the driver’s seat looking fit, well-dressed, and all smiles.

“I’ve got a job making $20 an hour! I have a nice place and it’s thanks to YOU!”

I pointed up at the sky, and said, “hermano, all I did was get you some clothes. You and God worked out the rest.”

Sometimes even shopping can be a sacred act of worship… sometimes.

Grace and Peace,

Josiah

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