The Flip Side

Today I graduated from Seattle Pacific University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theology, with minors in Philosophy, History, Christian Scriptures, and Global & Urban Ministry.

Thought you might like to know.

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Working With the Poor is Beautiful

His name is John Sigl.  I told you there were too many Johns at UGM.  Actually there’s not enough johns and people are always waiting to use the bathroom, but that’s not the kind of john I’m talking about.

John Sigl reminds me of my dad.  It’s a strange thing, to have a homeless man remind you of your dad, but he does.  I think it’s because he’s always trying to help out.  My dad can’t sit still, and neither can John Sigl.  One time when I was walking to UGM John was in the middle of the road watching traffic like a hawk.  I think he was monitoring it for criminals or something.  I don’t really know what was going on in his brain.  Another time—one of the first times I worked at UGM, actually—John was on the phone with the FBI, demanding that they stop following him everywhere.

I wonder how often the FBI gets calls from homeless people.

One time he came out of Bible study just infuriated.  John’s voice is gravelly and harsh, like a logger or a coal miner.

“This guy in there,” he yells, “is tryin’ to tell me that Jesus didn’t know if he was gonna go to heaven.  ‘Are you an idiot?I says to him.  ‘It says right there in God’s Word that Jesus says he is going ahead to prepare a place for us.'”

“Bible ain’t easy to interpret, John,” says one of the guys in the back.  “Everybody got their own understanding of what it means.”

John is also always letting us know when somebody is doing something they’re not supposed to be doing.  He came out of chapel once to let me know that somebody was sleeping in the back row of chapel.

“He ain’t supposed to be doin’ that,” he says.

“I know, John, but it’s not a big deal.  Leave him be.”

Usually John is just a nuisance.  The truth is, though, sometimes John scares me to death.  The other day I was sitting with him having dinner.  John is also like my dad in that he will take anything as an excuse to start a conversation.  Unlike my dad, however, John doesn’t talk about work.  John talks about how someday he’s going to kill the man who raped his wife.

John’s face is gaunt and sullen; his eyes are set deep in his face and he looks out at you from under his eyebrows like he is further off than he is, like he is a thousand miles away.

John scares me.  The way he talks about vengeance and justice is terrifying.  He talks about himself like he is an instrument of God’s judgment.  When he talks about people doing something wrong he tells me that he is going to kill them, that people like that don’t deserve to live, and that given the chance he wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger.  This is pretty much every conversation I have with John Sigl.  He is a very disturbed man.

Once at UGM there was this terrible band playing at chapel.  You would think that the bands who come in to play for 150 homeless guys would consider their audience, but they don’t.  The main guy had a fauxhawk and sounded like Scott Stapp from Creed.  At the end of every phrase, he wouldn’t finish the word, he would just get louder and scream and pull away from the mic like he was, well, Scott Stapp.  Plus they were about twice as loud as they needed to be.  So loud, in fact, that a guy had a seizure in the prayer room.

I called 911 and when the paramedics arrived, they took a look at him and told me that they didn’t want to take him to the hospital, since he had been there twice already in the last 24 hours and was refusing treatment.  They went off to check on him some more and debate about whether to take him with them or leave him with us.

It was then that John Sigl wandered up to the front desk.  He looked at me with a depth and sanity that was almost unsettling.

“You know,” he said, “I could go with him to the hospital and make sure he gets treated.  I’ll make sure he doesn’t turn them down; I can just spend the night on the couch up there, it’s not too far.  And if he stays here, I’ll put my mat right next to his, and if he wakes up or has another seizure or anything, I’ll let you guys know.  Whatever I can do to help.”

Now, sending John to the hospital would have been a terrible idea.  But whether it was a good idea or not was hardly the point: the point was not the value of the idea, but the spirit of humility and self-sacrifice in which it was given.  For me, to see the Spirit of God moving so profoundly and plainly in a broken, tortured, homeless old man was like looking into a mirror.  I looked into the eyes of John Sigl and saw him, and saw myself, and saw Jesus, all at once.

I wouldn’t have offered that.  The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind.  I wanted a guaranteed night of quality sleep in my own bed, to wake up in a familiar place of safety and self-reliance.  But on that day, at least, John Sigl was a better man than me.

And he probably still is.

Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

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Reverse the Curse

Genesis 11:1-9:

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lordconfused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lordscattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Acts 2:1-12

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’

Happy Pentecost.  Let’s break down some walls.

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Working with the Poor is Ugly

The honeymoon phase is probably over now.  I was warned this would happen.

Connor is one of the program guys at work—he’s working behind the desk as part of “work therapy”, as an opportunity to learn basic job skills such as, say, multitasking, being polite, and so on.

Whenever Connor works in the Welcome Center I get really stressed out.  He was expelled from high school after pushing dope in the bathroom all day, punching his principal, and punching a district administrator.  He bragged about this yesterday as if it was a great victory of his, getting expelled from high school.  He seems unaware that this kind of behavior is exactly the reason he is now in the addiction recovery program at a homeless shelter.

In Connor’s world, the person sitting at the front desk is the person in charge.  Connor, as the alpha male, the self-proclaimed silverback of our tribe, wants to be in charge.  I’ve been booted out of the hot seat a couple of times by Connor for no good reason.  He seems to think he’s the only man competent enough to do it, and takes obvious pride in knowing all of the rules and schedules and how everything works.  I don’t really know how everything works yet, so maybe that’s why he keeps insisting on taking the hot seat.

The guys using the emergency services—the ones still on the streets—can be very irritable.  People think this is just because they’re homeless, but really, it’s because they’re afraid.  If you spell their name wrong accidentally, they insist on correcting you until you get it right, because they’re worried that if we don’t have the right name down, they’ll be sleeping in the cold tonight.  They’re very uptight about the process and making sure they get on the list, because, again, getting something wrong means that they’re sleeping on the pavement.

So, something happened in the chapel service after dinner, and two guys came back to the Welcome Center making sure they were set up right.  Connor was, unfortunately, the one to welcome them.

“No, no, no.  You need to get back in there and talk to Carl.  That’s his job and I ain’t gonna  let him not do his job because he’s too lazy to flip back through the list.  Get back in there.  That’s his damn job.”

His voice got louder as he said this.

“This is bullshit.”

Yelling and swearing at homeless people, by the way, is frowned upon at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission.

Eventually Carl Smart, who’s one of my favorite people at the mission, comes back behind the desk.  Carl is usually a pretty congenial guy.  Oftentimes he’s the one who will pass out mat tickets to the people in chapel (that’s his damn job).  But by this point Carl is really frustrated, because Connor is generally being an ass.  One minute later Connor, in the hot seat, is surrounded by two aggressive homeless people in front of him, and a large, angry Carl Smart behind him.  He’s visibly overwhelmed.

In the middle of all that, some guy wants to use the phone.  Connor snaps: “No!

By this point, I’m annoyed, but I want to help out so I beckon to the guy who wants to use the phone.  “There’s another phone back here you can use,” I say.  He comes back but the phone isn’t working right, so once things have cooled down I take him back to the front desk.

When I get back into the Welcome Center, Connor turns on me.  His face is red.  He raises his voice at  me, saying that I can’t go disrespecting him like that, and that I shouldn’t be trying to undercut his authority, that “no” means “no”.

“Look Connor, I was just trying to help you out.  That guy just wanted to use the phone, and there was no reason he couldn’t use the one back here while you were busy arguing with Carl.  There’s no need to get angry.”

It was all very dramatic.  Eventually Connor took a smoke break and I commandeered the front desk again.  I talked to John Walling, the man in charge that night, about it later and we prayed for Connor in the prayer room.  John asked me to write up a report for my hero John Herman (there’s way too many Johns at UGM).

I suppose what I learned from all this is that not every poor person is likable.  We have this tendency in Christian circles to romanticize poverty and the poor, but when you start to spend more time with them and the rose-colored glasses come off, you see that, well, many people are poor for a reason.  Connor has done plenty of time in jail because of his inability to manage his anger.  He still doesn’t have the people skills to hold a job, which is why he’s in a mission doing work therapy.

That’s all.

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Story, continued

Breaking up is a long, drawn-out, painful process.  I have never felt a sense of loss like this before.  The past three months have been the story of me giving things up.  The hard parts of that relationship, the things that I didn’t like and which ultimately led to our breakup, were fairly easy to get over.  It’s easy to lose something you never wanted in the first place.

What has been much more difficult is giving up on the good parts.  One of the great things about my relationship with this girl was that we had a great story.  We’d known each other since middle school, grew up next door to each other, our families were (and are!) really close, and we had big dreams for life.  We were going to live in a commune with other young, edgy evangelical couples and get master’s degrees and change the world.  I liked this story a lot; I was very committed to it.

What my commitment to this story concealed, however, in my mind, was that it never seemed to me that we could make the relationship work in the here and now.  The past and the future made so much sense.  The present was a little trickier.  I never let myself admit this while I was in the relationship, because I always expected the happy future to become the happy present.  When it didn’t—well, you see where this is going.

Humans are story-tellers.  We love to tell stories because we derive from them a sense of meaning and purpose.  This is a natural thing.  But I think we have to be very careful.

I think that stories can easily become idols.  What if the stories we want to tell about ourselves are not the stories that God wants to tell?  Indeed, how do we know that the stories we want to tell are not, in fact, in conflict with the stories God wants to tell?  We can’t live in the stories we create, because we created them!  The meaning-making that comes through story-telling—that is, the sense of identity we derive from the stories we tell about ourselves—is a rather arbitrary process.  We tend to pick and choose events that flatter us, and tell those stories to others.  This is natural enough as well.  It just isn’t very honest, and it doesn’t acknowledge the interpretive role we play as story-tellers.

I haven’t quite thought this through yet, but to me it seems that we have two options here: one, to insist on being much more tentative about our stories than we usually are, or two, to abandon story-telling about ourselves entirely.  We must have the humility to admit that we don’t quite understand how our past got us to our present, and that we can’t even begin to know where the future might take us.  In short, we must live in the present, not the past or the future.  We must not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself.  Today’s duties are the only duties.

What does it mean to abandon the search for meaning and live in the eternal present?  To submit oneself to the story that God will someday tell about us, rather than worshiping the stories we ourselves have created?

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To live is to struggle.  That’s the way it seems these days.

We want our lives to make sense, to have a narrative arc, to have an introduction, exposition, conflict, climax, resolution.  We imagine that maybe, one day, a biographer or something will take note of the challenges we have faced, of our successes and failures and muddlings along, and write a great book or film a great movie about it–we hope that our lives will prove, in their own way, to be insights into the human condition, to be a retelling, in small letters, of some larger drama.

In truth I think that our lives are not stories, but made up of stories.  At any given times we are resolving some stories, at the climax of others, and beginning still others afresh.  These are the stories that we will tell at the end of our lives to our friends and neighbors and children and grandchildren: how we loved and lost, how we overcame our fears, how we defeated our adversaries, how we got married or got divorced or lost our jobs or got a promotion.

There are so many of these stories that they often seem to have lost their value.  What does it matter what stories we write with our lives?  What meaning is there in breaking up, in falling in love, in hearing one’s calling, in raising a family?  These things happen every day.

I wish I could end this post with some answers, but for now, I must be content to struggle with the questions.

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On Women and Modesty

My friend Christo recently wrote an opinion piece for the school paper that was quite inflammatory.  Every spring, when women on campus start to lose the jackets and go for the sun dresses, men start complaining a bit about their sisters “causing them to stumble”.  Christo wrote, essentially, that women should wear what they want, even if it’s (gasp!) sexy.  It’s pretty outrageous, but in the end, I agreed with him more than I disagreed.  Articles like this, however, tend to start something of a firestorm on this campus.  It’s kind of a touchy issue.

Realizing that everyone and their mom would have something to say about the issue, I decided to write a guest editorial for The Falcon.  I thought I’d share it with you: here’s what I wrote (at least, before my editor got to it).

The headline, which I didn’t come up with but really like, is “Men: Change How You See, Not What”:


As a feminist, I try to avoid telling women what to do.  But I do have something to say to my fellow men.

Guys, you commit sin when you tell women what to wear because you can’t deal with your own lustful desires, as if keeping women covered up somehow solved the problem of your lust.  Taking an alcoholic out of a liquor store won’t do anything to make him sober.  The problem with an alcoholic in a liquor store is not that he’s in a liquor store: it’s that he doesn’t know how to interact healthily with alcohol.  Similarly, asking or obligating women to cover up does not change the fundamental fact that you do not know how to interact healthily with sex and sexuality.  That’s why when women  make any suggestion of the fact that they are, in fact, sexual beings, you lose control.

In fact, my bet is that many of you who are the most insistent about women covering up are also the ones who struggle the most with pornography.  What you don’t realize is that those problems are two branches of the same tree: your struggle to view women as more than sexual objects, and their bodies as anything more than a source of temptation.

When Jesus addressed this problem, what did he say?  “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”  Not a word to the women about covering up.  Why?

Because it’s not women who need to change their behavior.  It is you who need to change the way you see the world: even if it means going half-blind.

So, here’ s a paradigm shift to get you started: women are created in the image of God.  Every woman, and every part of a woman—and I do mean every part—was fashioned by God in God’s own image.  That’s Genesis 1:27.  Wrestle with that for a while.  A woman’s body is a good thing, and her sexuality is a good thing: not a funny thing or a gross thing or an evil thing, but a godly thing.

So ask yourself this: what would happen if we knew and believed that every woman is a reflection of the divine?  That every woman on this campus is a moving picture of the One we worship?

I bet if we were able to fully grasp that truth, we could be in a place where women really could wear whatever they want without us being offended, because then the body wouldn’t be a source of temptation, but rather something that God, in the goodness of creation, has deemed of value.

And maybe, if we were able to understand women the way the Bible teaches us to understand them, women wouldn’t feel like they had to dress provocatively, because their bodies, as we would all acknowledge, are not valuable as objects of sexual pleasure, but as beautiful in their own right—beautiful because God is beautiful, and, as the Bible teaches us, women look like God, and God looks like women.

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