Generosity? It’s complicated.

The other night I couldn’t sleep.

This is rare for me as I am a good sleeper.  I go to bed directly after I kiss my children good night.  I want to read.  I drift off many nights before ten o’clock.  But Saturday night I kept waking up feeling like I couldn’t breathe. Additionally I felt anxious about something that I could not name.  This happens to me sometimes.  My asthma acts up from years of smoking.  It was never the less keeping me awake.

As noxious thoughts began to swell and demand attention, circling like buzzards above me, I finally threw back the covers in frustration.  I got up.

I don’t do the middle of the night very well.

Sleepers generally don’t I think as we are not used to how different it is being awake in the middle of the night.  I was aware of all the fears I managed to push away which tend to take over during the nocturnal hours.

Gone is rationality.  Gone is perspective and patience.

And so, I found myself awake, breathing with difficulty at three in the morning and I finally decided to get up.

Creeping down the stairs and into the kitchen, I was going to use my inhaler and then write.  I find writing is the best way for me to sort out what is bothering me.

There were people in my living room!

I was shocked, though it is not as if it was totally unlikely.  Molly is often coming in from work or being out and it is usually in the hours long past midnight.  But she was sitting there idly chatting with our two guests at three in the morning.  They looked at me like I was crazy (for being up) and I looked at them the same way.  I quickly high tailed it out of there!  As I scuttled back to bed, pissed off and feeling as if I had done something wrong, I recalled the two young people who had slept in our basement off and on for the last week or so.

When we returned from Seattle, we found out that friends of Molly were “homeless” and living in their car.  They had stayed a few nights in our basement while we were away, but had cleared out when we returned.  So I invited them back again.

For months, years, I have tried to resolve where to step in to the tragedy of the homeless here in Madison.

I want to do something.  I want to be intelligent and compassionate about it.  We all do the various things like offer a ride or or give money to the person with a sign outside the mall. Bring a bag of food when our church asks.   But those are band aids (and some would say giving money to transients is wrong.  In Madison it is considered breaking the law).

But I want to help real people advance in their life situation.

And so, it was easy to take these two people in and allow them to sleep on our futon in the basement and eat a few meals. When I pursued their situation further, it turns out they are “intentionally without a home, off the grid, dependent on no-one.” Okay, I think.  Why not? We had no idea what their short and long-term plans were.  One more night quickly turned into a week, more…

We have so much.

As the week progressed, it became less convenient to have them in the basement where Tom’s studio is and where we have and do our laundry.  Dare I say inconvenient?  And we soon learned that our guests slept until two in the afternoon and stayed up all night, as I discovered when I wanted to use my computer in the middle of the night.

One day, as Tom and I cleaned toilets, washed dishes and laundry, they woke up late and laid about on the back porch. What had begun as an easy kindness had quickly become something else.  Something you hate to think, much less say out loud to one another in whispered annoyance.

I caught myself thinking “they’re just freeloaders.”  To be sure, by the end of the week, if they had not made their intentions clear to us we were going to ask, to clarify how long they would need our help.

I woke this morning to a note.  They are moving on — going to live with his parents for a while in Cleveland, work and pay off debt.  And though they were polite, and picked up after themselves, and were extremely appreciative, I was kind of relieved to see them go.

Generosity is quickly complicated when it involves real people.

And all too quickly I saw how small my heart is.  I felt willing to be generous as long as it didn’t infringe too much on my comforts and needs, my daily schedule or priorities.  I have to keep asking what’s next for us?  I let them stay with us because I wanted to “do something” for the homelessness.  They were just two people, fairly affluent with a car, cell phones, a laptop and other luxuries but they have no home.   I was surprised to learn that only 18% of the homeless are chronically homeless.  Perhaps more people on the street are like them?  I don’t know.

Generosity — yes it’s complicated.

Understanding homelessness requires a grasp of several social issues: poverty, affordable housing, disabilities, and others.

Having these kids living in our basement brought up all sorts of complicated feelings and thoughts.  Why aren’t they working?  And yet how can I not share the warmth and shelter that we are blessed with?

In a letter to our mayor Paul Soglin’s assistant, Brenda Konkel recently wrote:

Over the years a great many who live homeless in Madison have found daily shelter in either the basement of the State Capitol, or the Public Library on W. MIfflin St. As it currently stands soon neither will be available. Word from the State is that there are no plans to reopen the basement of the State Capitol to the public, and the downtown Public Library at its current location on Mifflin will close in October for approximately two years. The library’s temporary location will offer very limit seating and space.

The consequence of these two factors is to cast out many of our neighbors to the dangers and sufferings of winter.

This will be a grave time in Madison especially downtown if the people of our city do not take note.    What is being done?  What needs to be done?

Luke 3:11. And [John the Baptist] would answer and say to them, “Let the man with two tunics share with him who has none, and let him who has food do likewise.”

It’s a heavy thing all this knowledge–the question is what do we do with our knowledge and our power?  Do we have open generous hearts.  Are we willing to have our lives disrupted and changed by others who are less fortunate than we?

Selah. Yes, stop and listen.  No answers today, just hard questions.

Melody

PS I did not take a photo of our guests.  This photograph was taken downtown Madison of a homeless woman.

Humility is hard. Humiliation is harder.

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I was asked to write some brief thoughts about the application of Philippians 2.1-11 to my life.

My thoughts are neither brief nor, sadly, do I see them applied very well thus far in my life. Thankfully, the journey of faith is a road slowly traveled and full of grace.

Melody

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united in Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had: Who, being the very nature of God, did not consider equality of God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death–even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

Obviously one cannot compare their life, whether you are a spiritual person or not, in any way to what Jesus Christ, the Son of God, gave up — his stature in heaven with God the Father — and Jesus did that for you and me.  And yet, that’s the irony right?  And the beauty.  We are so very human and yet in the words of the Apostle Paul in Philippians we are taught to behave so unnaturally, even supernaturally.  And we can’t.  We can’t do anything like that.  A human life can’t possibly compare.  What then?

Reread this section of Paul’s letter to the Philippians 2.1-11 in Today’s NIV (above).

Honestly, the Apostle Paul rubs me the wrong way, at times.  Especially the way he seems to command the church to do and not do so many things. That I have issues with control is no secret.  So, I struggle with Paul’s emphatic tone and his sometimes enigmatic letters full of instructions that are not always clear in their application today. (Just my opinion here.)

But I have come to respect Paul’s story; his passion, his purity of purpose, his agape love for each church that he started, his strong prayer life, and especially as it applies here, his willingness to make personal sacrifices every day for the cause of Christ.  What he was instructing the Philippians to do, he most definitely lived out himself.

Writing from a prison cell, it is striking that he says “fulfill my joy” or “make my joy complete” (depending on the translation) by having “the same mind and the same love, by being of one spirit and intent on one purpose.”  He’s not saying here’s a way to become a “cookie cutter Christian” thankfully. What he is saying emphatically is do this to be united! And he continues, be humble because it is impossible to be “one church” if you are living for yourself, for your own desires, agendas and needs; If you are constantly seeking those things that only create a better life for yourself, you are not united. And then, as if that were not clear enough he goes on to say don’t do anything out of selfishness and think of others as better than yourself.  And if you do this, the result will be unity.

I’m thinking at this point: “Okay, no biggie.  Have some humility.  Live for others.  Give up your “rights.”   Be unselfish.  Wow, I need to work on this!”  I just haven’t had it put so emphatically before.  It is as if the message of Christ depends on it. Unity. And I should want to live that way!  I guess it’s time to spend some time reflecting on whether that is true in my life.  I’m four verses in and I’m totally convicted that I rarely live as if  others are more important me.

Incredibly to me, at this point Paul becomes gentle so I guess he has a softer side.  I’ve judged him from the lists of dos and don’t in Corinthians.

In a poem he goes on to describe in beautiful words the utter humiliation of Christ for us — Christ’s descent from the throne of God to death as a human on a cross.  That is the humility Paul challenges the church of Philippi to and that is our example — Christ chose humiliation.  As Christ became human, he gave up being seen as God and emptied himself taking on the limitations of human flesh.  He never ceased to be fully God, but for a time he actually gave up GLORY for us.  If your mind isn’t blown at this point, well, you’re not fully taking it in.  It’s mind-boggling.  It is worth pondering a while over the Advent season.  It’s incredible.

Christ became human for me and wants me to become humble and unified with other believers in order to be more like him? NT Wright, in Paul for Everyone, says that an inner life of unity seems unattainable.  No kidding.  But, as we mature these things (paraphrased) should be true about us:

“1 We are to be bringing our thinking into line with one another.

2 Know the Gospel is the the final aim, not simply unity.   If “it” doesn’t align with the Gospel, we could be unified around Krispy Kreme donuts, but that’s not what Paul’s promoting.

3 We are to perform the extraordinary feat of looking at one another with the assumption that everyone else and their needs are more important than our own.”

Humility is hard. Humiliation is harder.

When Paul was writing about this idea to the church in Philippi, it must be said, that they didn’t hold a high view of humility.  No one aspired to be humble or to humiliation in the Greek world.  If I am totally honest, do I really hold that high a view of humility?  Being humble is hard!  When was the last time I gave up my rights?  My power.  That is a form of humility and I honestly do not even know.  That’s not really esteemed in our culture too much.   Paul says we are to regard others as higher than ourselves. And in case we’re still unclear, we are to voluntarily give up our rights (like Jesus.)

As a part of the bigger picture of Philippians, Paul says “True people of God are united by thinking of others as more important than themselves.”

These are difficult times.  The recession has effected so many people, that if you happen to have kept your job you feel incredibly grateful!  If you have lost a job or may have been forced by circumstance to live with family or a friend, you know you are one misstep away from potential disaster.  Perhaps even from joining the most powerless in our society — the poor, the elderly, many children, victims of domestic violence, youth fleeing abusive homes, many immigrants working two or three jobs to get by.  None of these groups of people have power or influence in society.  They are definitely “the least of these.”  Their lives are a struggle and at times unbearable.  At the bottom of this list, rock bottom I think, are those that are have lost their home and live now on the streets.

We make assumptions about the homeless and never question them.   For the most part we avert our eyes and walk quickly past.  There are homeless downtown that are the “stereo-typical homeless person —  male, impoverished, smelly panhandlers that smell like alcohol and are acting slightly off.”  But, actually, the average age for the homeless in Dane County is nine years old. My youngest is nine and he’s just a kid lucky enough to live in a house.  Why him?

hu. mil. i. a. tion. 

n.

1 degradation;2 the state of being disgraced; shame; 3 a humiliating condition or circumstance.

I cannot think of anything more degrading or humiliating than being homeless.  Often, if we think of the homeless at all, we convince ourselves that they somehow deserve it.  It’s not a clear thought and if we keep it ambiguous and undefined we don’t have to face it.  But we probably think that somehow homeless people chose.  I challenge that idea completely.

When you are homeless no one knows who you are or where you are.  You have lost everything:  your old life, important relationships, job safety, the security of a locked door, and more importantly being known by someone, giving and receiving love, feeling content, the goodwill of being in community or a family — They chose to give up all that to be a wanderer known by no one? With no history —  “lost” to your family and society — invisible — and somehow you chose that? This idea is absurd and is based on our chosen ignorance. Even selfishness.

Yes, the truth about homelessness is that it makes us uncomfortable.

A few facts:

The top three reasons people are homeless are:

1 mental illness,

2 domestic violence,

3 inability to pay rent.

In Dane County in 2008:

3,894 people were served in emergency shelters.

3,636 were turned away.

More than three thousand children, teens, elderly, veterans, mothers and fathers, uncles, aunts, PEOPLE were turned away from shelter for lack of space and resources in Madison alone.

A Simple Story.

As a member of BH Downtown, I was recently asked for$ .75  by a panhandler just outside of the Majestic.  I was disconcerted because this wouldn’t happen on the west-side of Madison and I was unsure what to do.  But I was with my kids.  So I dug in my pocket and gave it to him, mainly thinking we have so much and my kids know it.  And I wanted to show them that generosity is important.  (Subsequently I learned giving money to panhandlers in Madison is illegal.)  Looking back I think it is laughable that they might learn anything from our giving up less than a dollar to a homeless person.   There was no sacrifice and there was no lesson learned.

Actually, I have learned because as a member of a downtown Life Group I learned that there are “real” ways to help. (more later)

When it comes to the homeless in Madison, in the past I have consoled my aching conscience with a few dollars and moved on.  And I spent some hours thinking, reading, fretting about the complexity of the homeless situation, growing ever more hopeless about resolving the grander issues of funding and public apathy.

But, being downtown every week, if I choose to see the homeless, they are there.

There is a group here in Madison that does see the  homeless.

Free Food gathers once a week, at three o’clock in the afternoon on Sundays, at the top of State Street, bringing whatever food and goods they have and giving them away.  Variations of this group have been doing this for years.  They give what they have — any kind of food, sometimes new socks.  And now that it is cold they are seeking hats, gloves, blankets and anything to help someone stay warm on the street. (If purchasing some of these things interests you, shoot me an email and I can connect to pick them up.)

As I’ve thought about the Apostle Paul’s challenge to give up yourself for Christ, I see the actions of this group as an example of what Paul is talking about.  I cannot think of anything more humiliating than living on the street, not knowing your next meal will come from; perhaps only having water and a meal once a day.  Being constantly cold.  It sounds horrible.

Homeless people likely did not lose everything by choice, perhaps simply bad luck or a series of unfortunate circumstances.  The less power you have the more difficult it is to regain it.  Powerlessness begets powerlessness in America, that’s a fact.

Paul says regard others [the homeless, or anyone] as higher than yourself. Voluntarily give up your rights. One way to do this is to serve the humiliated.  See them.  Go to where they are. Listen to their story.  Be a friend.  Or just be a meal.  In these cold nights of Wisconsin winter you might even save someone’s life by providing a coat or blanket or warm meal.

If you want to help on any given Sunday you will find these good people giving away food and other resources.  Week in and week out, over the years, people have given up their time, money and things for the lowest and most humiliated in our city.

So even as I write these words in the comfort of my heated home and my belly growling just a bit from “forgetting” to eat dinner, I am convicted.   In my humanity I cannot do anything and I don’t really even want to sometimes. It’s unnatural to put yourself in a situation like that.  And, it is moving into winter and Sunday afternoons are cozy family times at home.  My mind is full of dozens of reasons why I don’t really want or need to help out.

But we are instructed to behave supernaturally.   Jesus Christ, the Son of God, gave up equality with God for you and me.  That’s the rub.  So I need to perhaps get cold and uncomfortable.  Go be something more than I really am, because Christ did so much more for me.  Not because I owe Him but because I am so grateful and humbled.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition

or vain conceit.  Rather,

in humility value others above

yourselves, not looking

to your own interests

but to the interests of others.

I am challenged by these words of Paul to be more like Christ.  Jesus was known for giving up his rights for the sake of the world. What am I known for?

And you?

———————————————————————————

Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, Tom Wright, Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.

The NIB Commentary, Volume XI, Abingdon Press, 2000