Encountering Homelessness

Check out the rest of Logan's series on friendship.

Working at Network Coffeehouse, the goal is to be friendly. Christians being friendly; that’s what Network is. That’s what we do.

Sounds pretty simple, but oddly this makes answering questions about what you do a little challenging. The never-ending question that follows after I’ve explained this is, “Do you have success getting people off the street?” or “What do you do to help people get off the street?” or “How many people get off the street there?”

People want to hear about goals and a narrative of meeting those goals. Numbers tell a surface-level story that is easily accessed, digested, and understood.[^1] Goals and mission statements are a narrative about what an organization will do. It’s a pitch. We then act within that story to conform to the pre-constructed narrative.

But Network is about encounter. Narrative—our attempt to construct meaning—only occurs after encounter has already taken place.[^2] John Hicks, the guy who founded Network, says, “We are friends with real-life poor people.” Friendship takes encountering another person and opening yourself up enough to be encountered by someone else.

The second part, opening your heart to another, is the really hard part. Ryan Taylor, the co-director of Network, has been saying for a few months that a major part of coming to Network as staff or a volunteer is encountering the beggar within you. When you serve the poor, especially at a place like Network where the distracting varnish of goals and pre-set narrative is nonexistent, you will encounter parts of yourself you otherwise try to ignore: racism, prejudice, anger, sadness, loss, loneliness. Every shift I run at Network I meet myself at my very best and my most callous, passionless worst—sometimes in the exact same interaction.

In a nutshell, I found myself saying this at a professional networking event last night. Let me tell you, people looked at me like I was a crazy person. This, too, reveals our poverty. Our unwillingness or inability to encounter a person beyond a narrow narrative constrained by success and failure is a kind of societal violence we participate in without even thinking about it. We minimize each other and ourselves when we fail to encounter each other fully.

Pay attention. It’s the only currency that matters.

  • [^1]: Kierkegaard calls this “glittering externality.”
  • [^2]: Narrative often (always?) functions as a way to gain power over our experiences or the experiences and actions of others.

The Easter Grump

Over Easter, I said to Logan (as part of a larger conversation) “One of my biggest problems with Easter…” Yeah, I know. “Problems with Easter.” I’m an asshole. I know.

But there was a point there, so let me finish. My biggest problem wasn’t that Easter falls into the trap of being an important Christian holiday because the only important Christian holidays (and by important I mean “gets a big to-do”) are the ones that are marketable to kids / are occasions for presents. But that is a problem I have with it. That’s another post, though. What I went on to tell Logan was this:

“All jokes aside, I think one of my biggest problems with Easter is that people treat it like we didn’t just go through Lent, or that we won’t go through it again next year.”

What I’m trying to get at is my frustration with our insistence on living linearly, when our actual sense of time is so damn circular. We use calendars. We rotate through a cycle of months, we live through the cycling seasons, OUR CLOCKS ARE ROUND. People want events and narratives to end and be definitive in their conclusions, but that's not how our lives play out, and it shouldn't be how our stories play out.

How we tell stories matters. How we communicate a narrative matters. Good stories tell us something true about human reality and our felt, lived existence. And Easter is a really good story. But one of the most critical things it communicates to us about reality is that “great stories are living stories.” They keep going.

Which is why Easter in the context of our circular lives is an even better story than the one people try to pigeonhole it as each year. “We are Easter people!” they exclaim. Yes, but you’ll be Lenten people next year. “God died! God is risen!” Yes, but it’s actually “God died! God is risen! God will die again! God will rise again!”

To me, that’s a truer, better story. It mirrors our daily lives. We go through the same stuff — good and bad, momentous and tiny — day in and day out. We age, which is linear on a small scale, but we die and our cells spread through the air and soil and pretty soon we’re as much like stardust as everything was in the beginning. Which is about as circular as it gets.

Advent4 & Christmas Day, 2014

We blew right past Advent4 into Christmas. Sorry about that. My 13 month old daughter has been giving us a real fresh reminder at night about what it was like a year ago when she was a newborn. Makes me think about this little guy, Jesus, whose birth we celebrate today.

Go, Jesus! Way to be born.

People take to churches, street corners, and social media to announce the birth. And, irresistibly, we inject the Easter stuff into the manger.[^2] “Christ was born to save,” we crow. That’s all fine.

But then again, Advent4 shows us Mary interpreting her own story. She’s given the news that she will bear a child for God and she busts out in this song. She shows us that her life isn’t solely determined by its utility as the God-bearer.[^3] She places her-self smack in the middle of a cosmic history spanning millennia. And look, I know there’s some salvific language in there, but I don’t know if she’s necessarily making a set in stone determination about who Jesus is going to be and what he’s going to do.

Maybe, ultimately, Jesus doesn’t get to be an end unto himself. His story is bigger than that. But there’s ample evidence throughout the scriptures that Jesus craved the ability to define his own narrative, one not set by empire, religious authority, family, his disciples, and ultimately even God.

Look, I know last week I was talking about how we have to look forward to Good Friday to get a full picture of what Advent and Christmas is about. But on Christmas Day that’s bunk. Whatever soteriology (theory of salvation) works for you or your tradition is all fine and good. But right now he’s just this little baby, you know? Mary and Joseph are too tired to think about the savior of a nation, I can tell you that. Can we put aside our narratives for a moment and dwell there with them?

Happy Jesus, everyone.