Saturday, January 1, 2011

Book Review: Under the Overpass

So a few weeks ago, Kathryn and I signed up with Blogging for Books by Waterbrook Multnomah. Essentially, they send us free books so we can read and post reviews on them. My first book to review is Under the Overpass by Mike Yankoski. (Check it out on Waterbrook's site here.)

The book tells the tale of a couple of guys on a journey that started with Mike, in a moment of conviction during a sermon where the pastor was urging believers to "be the Christian you say you are", asking himself this challenging question: "What if I stepped out of my comfortable life with nothing but God and put my faith to the test alongside of those who live with nothing every day?" The answer to that question led him and his traveling companion, Sam, to live life on the streets for five months, in six big U.S. cities - Denver, Washington D.C., Portland, San Francisco, Phoenix and San Diego.

But you can gather that much from the back cover. I'll get straight to what I think is the real beauty of this book. First, these guys demonstrate an admirable courage to dive right into the middle of a harsh reality that many of us probably avoid, whether intentionally or unintentionally. I know I at least have tended to stare straight ahead when I pull up to big city stoplights where a homeless person is asking for money. Mike offers very helpful, though surprising, advice for such situations.

He recommends that if you buy a homeless person food, or volunteer at a shelter, you should take the extra time to stay with them and have a conversation over the meal, or while they're waiting in line at the shelter. What's surprising about this, to me at least, is the reasoning behind it. Mike says that the most difficult thing about being on the streets isn't digging your food out of dumpsters, or sleeping under overpasses, or even enduring nights of stomach sickness where your makeshift bathroom is the bushes in a city park: instead, it's the loneliness. The dehumanizing and undignifying effects of homelessness took their toll, even despite having a traveling companion and knowledge that in five months, his difficult journey would end in a warm shower and clean bed.

Mike and Sam meet some inspiring people of faith in unlikely places and circumstances. My favorite was Rings, a Christian homeless man in San Diego. Not only had he gotten out of jail and beaten drug and alcohol addiction (how often do you think homeless alcoholics beat their alcoholism?), but he took it upon himself to spend his entire government checks buying food to feed the local homeless. When asked by Mike and Sam about more of his story, Rings replied, "It's been a crazy road, that's for sure, [but] come on - the road up ahead is always better than the road behind." As someone who has also struggled with addiction, those are words that can only be spoken through faith. Stuck in vicious cycles, it's the hardest thing in the world to imagine your life defined by something other than that struggle.

The book is a compelling read, though it starts out a bit slow. I found myself a bit confused at the beginning, and finding it hard to be drawn in to the story, though after a few chapters I found myself intrigued at what they would encounter in each new city.

The book's target audience seems to be perhaps a caricature of the suburban American Christian: someone fairly comfortable in coffee shops and sparkly church buildings, who doesn't use profanity or spend much time around those who do. I point that last bit out because the book has edited out all the profanity Mike and Sam were used to hearing as a normal part of their daily conversations. While I wouldn't necessarily say I'm sad to not read those words as part of the speech of the homeless people they encountered, I think it does make it a bit harder for them to communicate the grittiness one would expect from a life on the streets. At times they made this perfectly clear; at other times, I found myself thinking they didn't have it terribly difficult.

All in all, I recommend the book as helpful for bringing the world and plight of the homeless into perspective, and for offering insight into what the church can do to minister to the homeless in their communities. I especially recommend it if you've found ways to ignore the homeless people who ask you for money or position themselves in areas you walk or drive by. A fairly quick read, this book challenges all of us who follow Jesus to take seriously his words to clothe and feed the naked and hungry.

Official-esque FTC Disclaimer, like I mentioned above, but just so it's absolutely clear:
I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

God Bless America

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I voted tonight. It was kind of a last-minute deal brought on by peer pressure. It wasn't that I'd planned not to vote, I just had better things to do. Things like working to effect real change beyond what the people I didn't vote for will be able to do (none of my guys made it). But I'll get to that in a minute.

I won't say that voting wasn't worth it. They gave everyone a Kit Kat at the end.

I managed to vote for one Democrat, one Republican, and one Libertarian. The Democrat was because his Republican foe is screwing up the university where I work by making everything about customer satisfaction, and eroding the academic culture he doesn't understand in favor of a business culture (which maybe he does understand, I don't know). The Libertarian was because his Republican foe didn't know where he stood on the very issues he was running on. Perhaps if his campaign manager had been running for office, I'd have voted for him. The Republican was because he was a judge that I know, and also because there was no one running against him.

The rest, I didn't know anything about. Maybe I was lazy and didn't brush up on all the candidates and where they stand on the issues. That's partly true. For the other part, I was too busy living a life of real change, beyond the empty rhetoric of those ascending to and descending from Washington. Not that my track record is squeaky-clean or honestly even that impressive. But it does exist. It exists in the form of building a family life on the foundation of new possibilities. It exists in the form of building a communal life on the foundation of ultimate hope, showing up now in tangible ways. It exists, but even more, it thrives.

And the fleeting hope of American politics pales in comparison to that kind of change. Tonight we swung the balance of power in the House of Representatives based on voter discontent. Come to think of it, we founded our country based on the same spirit of discontent: "We won't stand for x!" Just how far can you get on discontent? Even if you get pretty far, aren't you miserable the whole way? Don't you get wherever you're going by repeating vicious cycle after vicious cycle?

I heard someone describe one of the candidates who got elected as a breath of fresh air. We Americans get like this near election days. By "like this", I mean we get selective memories and forget the hundreds of times we've turned on the very people we looked to for change because the old discontent set in. How long before we're ready to skewer this most recent batch of elected representatives?

Where I work, I have a small window in on some of the less glamorous inner workings of government. I wouldn't say that affords me any power, just perspective. And while I see some buffoons, I don't see any more than I saw anywhere else I worked. What I do see is people who work very hard to make a very hostile system work. We Americans love to build massive machines to do our work for us, and think that if we can keep them running then everything will work out okay. Some of the politicians who we scorn the most have taken up the job of working in the sweatiest, most jerry-rigged parts of these unwieldy machines (or at least, they have aides who do), finding a way to keep things from grinding to a screeching halt, and it really is thankless work. It's not all schemes and power plays and conspiracies forged in secret - some of it is just plain dull, like everyone's job is.

So God bless these guys I didn't vote for. Their jobs are sure to suck, and we're sure to give them crap for doing those jobs no matter how well they do them - that's the kind of people we've been and are becoming. I hope some of them even get crap for doing the right thing, because Jesus said those people are blessed in his upside-down Kingdom. And God bless those who are making real change in whatever spheres of influence they have, however small, however imperfectly, and however unnoticed it goes. God bless us, discontent and cynical as we are. God bless America.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Making Do

If there's some do to be made, you can bet I'll make it. While there's nothing awesome about missing Kathryn and Ewan while they're away in San Antonio, there might just be something nearly awesome about this:

My Dinner
Spamwich: pan-seared Spam on toasted oatmeal bread, with olive oil-sauteed Roma tomatoes and sliced avocado. Oh, and mayonnaise, plenty of mayonnaise.

Top that off with only the finest glass of box wine, and my friends, you have a bacheloresque meal worthy of setting before the King of Texas himself.

And as luck would have it, I've still got two-thirds of my can of Spam left. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Prayer and Profundity

Today my thoughts are with friends and family affected by unexplained/untreatable illness. I hope doctors can step up and find a cause, but if not, what else can we do but entrust ourselves to Jesus who has absolute authority over any and all disease? So that's what I'm doing today, for a fairly large number of people. May we be like the crowd, piling in together just to try and touch Jesus.

My other thought will hopefully put a smile on your face. I've also been thinking lately on the coming fullness of the now-and-coming Kingdom. Specifically, the anticipation of when the Lord does this:

He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
In light of this, I suggest we all give tanks to the Lord.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Part Two, Kindness Crash-Course

Admit it. When I said last time that I'd be back in a couple of days to end the cliffhanger, you expected something more like a couple of weeks or months. I'll own it - go ahead and admit it.

So I had mentioned that I had two blogworthy adventure-experiences this past weekend. The second happened on our way back to Bryan from Houston. We'd made the first leg of the trip through Houston and were close to turning off 290 when Ewan made it clear he'd like a break from his carseat. So we stopped here (caution: the website contains background music). Frazier's was a nice place - lots of neat fountains, concrete, and such. After about 30 minutes, we decided it was time to get on the road if we were going to make it back to church in time (hint: a quick scroll down the page to see how long this post is ought to clue you in on whether or not we made it back in time... but hey, read it all - it's good stuff!).

We loaded up in the car, and were just about to pull out of the parking lot when I noticed a car with a flat right front tire, that had two ladies in the front seat. Thinking they were about to drive away not knowing they had a flat, I went up to point this out to them. Upon speaking with them, I realized a few things:
1) They were, in fact, aware of the tire, and had been since about noon. (The time now was about 3:05 p.m.)
2) There was actually a third person in the car, a little lady about 3 months old.
3) These poor ladies were in some deep doodoo.

There were the grandmother, the mom, and the baby. (I actually mistook the grandmother for the baby's mom - she couldn't have been older than her early forties - let's hope she took it as a compliment.) They had been calling all the tire places in Hempstead and having no luck finding a place open. The G-ma had called her sister, who lives in Round Rock, to come and help, but the sister was stuck in traffic in an accident in Elgin at the time I arrived on the scene (we later found out she had also gotten lost - which only makes sense... remember what kind of story I said this was?). So they were effectively stuck unless they could make it to Brenham, where the Wal-mart was still open and had a tire shop, unlike its counterpart in Hempstead.

But wait, there was another store in Hempstead, and the G-ma got on the phone and managed to speak to a person after having connected to the fax line all afternoon, and that person said that yes, they were open! If only we could get to the tire shop, they could get the tire and have the guys there put on the new one. If only. As it were, the ladies were without a lug wrench. At this point, my task seemed simple: find a lug wrench, put the spare tire on, and send the ladies on their way to the tire shop to get the new tire. Okay - first, find a lug wrench.

They didn't have one. Hm. Let me check my trunk. Oops, let me unpack it first. Nope, we don't have one either. Hm. Oh, maybe that guy - he's just sitting in his SUV watching his dogs and browsing his smartphone. Oh, you'd have to unpack your trunk? Never mind, wouldn't want to trouble you. What's that? Yes, I suppose I'm dog-friendly - I can watch them while you check for your lug wrench. Ah, you found one? Okay, I'll be right back - let me see if it works. (Time passes.) Nope, it didn't work. Thanks for trying, though. Oh, maybe those guys - they are leaving, but maybe since they're college guys they'll have a sense of service or adventure or something. Ah, so you are about to head out? But you wouldn't mind checking anyway? That'd be great. Oh, so you've now decided for the heading out. Okay. Thanks for the "good luck anyway", I'm sure that will come in handy at some point in the next couple of hours. Oh, maybe this Indian couple, they're just pulling up. (Awkward space where it's obvious I'm waiting for them to get out of their car so I can hit them up for something.) Sorry to bother you, but is there any chance you have a lug wrench? You'll check? Great, thanks! Aww, you don't have one? Well, thanks for looking. Well, hm. I could try the store owner. (I try the store owner. He left it in his trailer at home.) Hm.

Okay, new plan. If we can clear enough space in my car to take the G-ma up to the tire shop, we can ask them to borrow their lug wrench, go back to Frazier's, change the tire out for the spare, and drive back to the tire shop to put the tire on and return the lug wrench. So we make our way for the tire shop. Our conversation on the way:

G-ma: Thank you so much for helping. Do you know how many people we've talked to today who haven't done anything to help?
Me: No problem, glad I can help. (Then silence - I assumed this last one was a rhetorical question.)
G-ma: You're the 21st person.
Me: 21 people?
G-ma: That's right, and it's been really difficult with the baby - we're trying to keep her from getting too hot in that car.
Me: Yeah, and it's hot inside Frazier's (they only had A/C in the bathrooms). What's the baby's name?
G-ma: Serenity.
Me: That's a beautiful name.
G-ma: Thank you.
Me: So I don't know exactly where I'm driving - you said to go 290 towards Houston? I think I should take this first exit here.

After a couple more lucky turns on my part, we spotted the tire shop. I get out of the car, walk up to the door, and it doesn't budge. I check the sign in the window: OPEN, COME IN. I try the door again, and it continues not to budge. I walk around to the garage side. The gate is closed. As G-ma and I are starting to feel this sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs, a truck pulls up with a guy making signs to us that they are closed. He gets out of the car and confirms this. G-ma, as you might imagine, is not going to concede so easily. Without flipping her lid, she begins passionately explaining how the arc of her day has led her to this particular point in time, shortly after the point in time when she had called and they had said, "yes, we're open", and why at this particular point in time it was rather critical for her, her daughter, and her 3-month old granddaughter that they get the tire they need now, and not in a couple of days (if you'll remember last weekend, Monday was Labor Day - can you imagine how many places in Hempstead are likely to open on Labor Day? Neither can I.). To his credit, the guy agrees to take a look at the tire.

If you're hoping that this is the turning point in the story for the fortunes of the three ladies, I won't lead you on. They didn't have a tire, used or new, that would fit their car. Despite G-ma's attempt over the next 5 minutes to clarify this truth into some kind of communication gap, it remained a truth and not a misunderstanding. Hm.

We made our way back to Frazier's, though after making absolutely certain that all the tire shops on the main drag were also closed. By this time it was about 4:45. Having run out of options in Hempstead, and since her sister still wasn't close to arriving, I had to decide whether I would be able to continue helping by driving her to Brenham to pick up a tire at the Wal-mart there (which was probably going to be another hour round-trip), or if Kathryn and baby were going to be too worn out and sweaty and needing to get home before they reached their limit.

Unfortunately for the ladies, once I got back and talked to Kathryn, we decided we couldn't push Ewan past the couple of hours we'd already done. He'd gone for way too long without a nap, and the only place we could effectively make that happen for him would be at home. Upon talking with the ladies, I asked if there was some place in town I could take them where they could be in the cool air and not stuck in a car that wasn't cool enough. They said the Wal-mart would actually be a good place, since they were running out of diapers. We had a bunch of diapers with us that were the next size up from what they used, but I handed a few over just in case.

So I drove the ladies in town and dropped them off at the Wal-mart. They were grateful for the help we were able to give, but we were still sad that after all that, leaving them at Wal-mart was the best we could do.

If you think that's rough, I haven't even mentioned what Kathryn experienced during all that time. For a couple of hours, she'd been sitting on a bench outside of the store, with a baby in her arms, and next to a pile of some of our luggage (which we'd removed from the car to make room to transport the ladies-in-distress). Wanna take a wild guess how many people spoke to her and asked her if she was okay? For several of them, this involved walking by her twice - on their way in and out of the store. It included a couple with crosses hung around their necks, large enough for Kathryn to spot while they were still in the parking lot - they managed to look away at the last second and pass right by Kathryn. At least the woman from the Indian couple smiled at Kathryn as she went by.

That's right, in two hours, noone checked to make sure Kathryn and Ewan were okay. Maybe she didn't look distressed enough, I don't know. But I can't imagine the 2 women with the baby didn't at least look distressed enough for 20 people to do more than offer their sympathy.

It still amazes and troubles me. Let's hope they eventually got the help they needed.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A crash course (or two) in kindness

Adventures often seem to happen when you least expect them. Maybe that's part of what makes adventures what they are - but I don't think I've always known that about them. I would have probably thought adventures were 'started out on' or 'begun' in some intentional kind of way. Not mine. They tend to have humble beginnings in a subtle "oh, crap" moment, then gain a bit of momentum into the realization that "this is more of a mess than I first realized", moving right into the 'heat of battle' where there's no time for realizations, before finding some kind of resolution and a feeling somewhere between "that was awesome!" and "I had hoped never to have to learn that, but oh well".

As it were, I found myself on two such adventures just this past weekend. And both situations, it turns out, became studies in kindness: humanity at its best, and humanity preoccupied.

Our first adventure began Friday night, upon arriving in Houston at my sister's house for my mom's nth birthday party, to be held the following night (the party was to be Oscar Night themed, and Kathryn had gone to great lengths to make a Hollywood star for my mom): that was when we realized we'd left the star at home. We made an email to our friends and posted on Facebook, hoping there was a slight chance someone would be coming from Bryan to Houston Saturday - no luck.

We discussed our options. Although the four hours it would take to go back home and get it weren't feasible, we definitely both thought about it. There was the possibility of just making a new one, but we had a lot of preparations to make for the party that night. I thought, I'll try a last ditch effort and post on myBCS to see if we can connect with someone that way. So I did, but by this time, it's Saturday morning.

Fast-forward two hours - I've had two calls from people reading my post online, who are coming to Houston. The first one was coming with her family to the Houston Children's Museum, near downtown - which wasn't super close to Pasadena, but was certainly doable. This thing was going to turn out okay! The lady who called could drop by our house, and our housemate Sarah could put it out on the porch, then they'd pick it up, make their way to Houston, and finally I would meet them at the museum.

And that's what happened! People who we'd never met before made space in their busy schedule to help out someone in need. Think about your family dynamic when you are packing for a trip, or getting ready to head out the door. For most of us, it's probably not the time to think about what else we can fit in, unless it's our own stuff, and it's critical stuff that has to happen before leaving town for a few days (pick up prescriptions, take out the trash, etc.). But someone else's stuff? Bravo to our neighbor who was sensitive enough to life's unpredictability that she was ready and able to help a person in need. There's a term for that - it's called spiritual discipline. That, and it's also called kindness.

I wish I could say our other story painted as bright a picture of humanity at its best, looking out for the needs of others. In one sense it does, but it's at the same time more saddening. Don't get me wrong, it's a good story, but it's got its sad moments.

I'll try to get on here and tell it in the next couple of days. For now, I bid you good night. May you be blessed to give and receive kindness.

Monday, August 23, 2010

...but hopefully not at the same time

That's what I'm thinking after reading this on my bag of dried figs:

"Delicious paired with cheese and chocolate"

Happy Monday morning, everyone.