Brown Bag Sunday

Ever since May of 2016, my husband Kenny and I have been pastoring a little church that meets in a coffee shop. We call it Brown Bag Sunday, and it’s made up of all sorts of people. Roughly 70 percent of them are homeless. Few things have brought me as much joy as this little gathering. We tell people to come as they are, and they do. We tell them they don’t even have to be sober to show up as long as they “behave.” Is that bad? Is that too permissive? I don’t think so. What do you do when you’re tormented by alcoholism or drug addiction but you also know that you need God? You come to Brown Bag Sunday.

Don’t misunderstand me. Not everyone who attends Brown Bag Sunday is homeless, or an addict, or an alcoholic. BBS has its share of hard-working, God-fearing congregants, some of whom are clean as freshly fallen snow (and others of whom are also homeless or addicted. You can’t be saved and addicted at the same time, you say? Puuulleeeeeeesee). Anyway, we’re a motley bunch of ragamuffins— to varying degrees flawed, homeless, employed, unemployed, addicted, straight, gay, victorious, depressed, hungry, full, fat, thin, sober, drunk, and so on. You get the picture.

I do know that we have a pretty high percentage of folks who would never walk into the typical church.

I love the local church. I have such respect for the local church! But one day, years ago, I brought some friends (a married couple) with me to church on Sunday. They didn’t smell very good, and their clothes were ragged. As soon as we walked into the building, one of the deacons offered the husband a clean jacket to put on. My friends were utterly humiliated, and I was appalled. They’d been deemed “not good enough” to be in that building, to be part of the Body of Christ. They were both Christians, both hungry for God, and both deserving of a little hospitality.

But their clothes weren’t fancy enough.

I never forgot that incident.

A handful of years later, around 2002, I was finally part of a church that loved the homeless. One morning, a certain homeless man named Paul walked into the building during the Sunday service and grabbed one of the big cornbread muffins that someone had laid out for anyone who needed a snack. As my pastor preached, Paul stood in the middle of the aisle and rubbed his thumb back and forth across that muffin, watching the crumbs fall to the floor. He didn’t stop till he’d destroyed the whole muffin. And what did the rest of us do? Nothing. We all knew that Paul just did this sort of thing. It was no big deal. Sometimes he talked to himself, but he was never belligerent. If he wanted to butcher a muffin, no one minded. If he talked to himself a little, fine.

As I watched Paul and the rest of my church family, I thought, This is church. This is IT. I knew I’d never again settle for being part of a congregation that didn’t accept the Pauls of this world. Never again would I be satisfied to call myself part of a so-called church that had no room for the mentally unstable, the addicted, the homeless, the “least of these.”

The fact that God is allowing Kenny and me to love, teach, and feed fifty people, some of them just like Paul, is an honor I don’t deserve.

 

My Husband and the Homeless Man

A year ago, I wrote the following entry for my husband’s blog, ProveItClarksville.com. If you’ve been following Doulos Chronicles for any length of time, you’ve probably realized that Kenny and I live a rather unusual life. We dated by hanging out in homeless camps, got married (i.e., eloped) beside a fountain without prior permission (and me in bare feet), and launched a soup kitchen six years ago that now distributes 25 thousand meals every year. In other words, we’ve had our share of adventures. A few of them have impacted me to the core. Last year, when Kenny voluntarily went homeless for the second time, was one of those occasions….

My husband Kenny was homeless for a while in ’96, while going through a divorce and trying to keep his business afloat. You’d think that one such experience would be enough for anyone, but last summer, in an attempt to give a face and a voice to the “invisible” population that is the homeless in our community, he lived as they do for two weeks. This year, he felt God nudging him to once again spend some time without a roof over his head. Two days ago—a week into the assignment—he came home for a visit.

kenny-julyWe decided when he first ventured out that we’d set aside Sunday to see one another and catch up. I’d pack a picnic, and the dog and I would meet him near his camp so we could all take a walk and eat lunch together. But the weather didn’t cooperate. So, rather than sit in the rain or try to squeeze all three of us into his tent, we decided he’d come home. We didn’t want to exploit the situation—after all, he was living as the homeless do—so we committed to sit on the porch rather than in the warmth and coziness of the house.

Once I knew he was on the way, I straightened up the porch, even setting out some candles. Back in the house to retrieve another match, I caught a fleeting glimpse of Kenny through the front window. Feeling suddenly like a teenager with a crush, I opened the door to greet him.

I wasn’t prepared for what I saw.

Let me interrupt myself here and say that there’s a look, a demeanor, that the chronically homeless have—but it’s more than the obvious. In fact, after you’ve interacted with the homeless long enough, you’ll spot “the look” even in those who go the extra mile to maintain their appearance, because it goes far deeper than the external.

aKenny had “the look.” What I saw as I peeked out our front door was a man who looked like he’d been on the streets for a very long time.

Granted, there were the obvious things: he was dressed in layers against the rain—stocking cap, raincoat, sweatshirt, T-shirt, and overalls. His shoes were soaked, and from his left shoulder hung his backpack, loaded down with essentials. His eyes and mouth were tight with pain as he gripped his cane and hobbled toward me with short, faltering steps.

Then there were the less obvious things—namely, the deep, vast heaviness in his eyes. He was clearly carrying burdens that had nothing to do with the gear in his backpack.

It’s nothing new for Kenny, who’s a bit rough around the edges and has never shied away from hard work, to look a little scruffy or exhausted. As a sound engineer, he has worked impossibly long and difficult gigs in brutal weather. I’ve seen him dazed from lack of sleep, and bone-tired from many hours of physical labor. But this was nothing like that. I realized I was seeing Kenny with what the Bible calls the eyes of my spirit. Here was a battle-scarred warrior. God had allowed one week of homelessness to affect Kenny exponentially and at an accelerated rate. As Director of Manna Cafe, he can’t “disappear” indefinitely, so God is ensuring that he feels the suffering of the homeless and identifies with their plight in just a short time. After all, suffering breeds compassion. The Lord allows it “so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Cor. 1).

A few skeptics have remarked that Kenny’s experiences in homelessness are nothing more than camping trips. If only that were true! He would never have ventured out right now if he didn’t feel compelled by God. In the natural, the timing was bad. There’s a great deal going on at Manna Cafe. Kenny has been burdened mentally and emotionally by some important issues. Then he spent his first day of homelessness with a stomach virus, and sleeping on the ground has been ruthless on his back. He can’t stand or exit his tent without a cane in each hand. He’s also withstood spiritual assault—the sort that’s overcome only with obedience and prayer.

For a long, painful moment I could only stare at him. Then I made the poor guy stand there for a moment longer as I snapped a photo because I didn’t want to forget what I was seeing. Finally, I wrapped my arms around him, and he relaxed.

And then he wept.

This would continue throughout the day: his voice would catch, or a tear would randomly roll down his cheek. At first, he was baffled and frustrated by his runaway emotions, but I knew there was more to it than either of us could comprehend. He realized that the weight and weariness he’d felt while praying and walking the streets of Clarksville, or crouching in his tent at night, had been less about back pain and falling temperatures than it had about spiritual warfare.

As Kenny shed his outer layer and changed his shoes, he looked around the room and said, “It looks good in here,” as though I’d painted or redecorated—or as though he’d been gone for months and had forgotten the details of the room. We spent the next hour or two wrapped in blankets and picnicking on the back porch. I caught myself not just watching but observing him. There are little gestures and nuances that belong to the homeless, and—once again, what should have taken weeks or a month had taken seven days—Kenny had already adopted a few of these gestures: the way he maneuvered a piece of smoked fish into his mouth with his fingers, the way he uncapped a bottle of water with his teeth.

I also noticed that Kenny seemed slightly out of place… but not because of his demeanor; we’ve had many homeless people in our home, and some have lived with us, but this was different. On one hand, he had all but melted into the seat, like one who finally feels safe after a harrowing experience; but on the other hand, it seemed he wasn’t allowing himself to truly be at home, or to separate himself from his camp and from the state of homelessness. He was there with me—but not quite. I was reminded that homelessness is not just a geographical condition but a state of mind.

“This doesn’t feel like your home right now, does it?” I asked.

“It feels foreign,” he admitted. “I feel out of place, like I don’t belong here.” Like many wives, I want my husband to feel like a king in his castle, so I was tempted to fly into action to ensure he was completely settled and comfortable—and present. But the Lord deterred me: This is how it has to be; he’s not finished out there yet.

We nibbled on grapes, talked, and watched our dog, Annie, play in the rain. At one point, she did something silly, and Kenny burst into laughter. For a moment, as he tilted his head and the corners of his eyes crinkled, I caught a glimpse of the Kenny who is a devoted husband, a prophetic musician, and a visionary who said yes when the Lord told him to feed the hungry. An instant later, he was gone, and the weary homeless man had returned. Back and forth it went for a few minutes, like the novelty collector’s cards we had as kids that shifted from one image to the other when we tilted them. I’ve said many times that we’re all just a hair’s breadth away from homelessness ourselves, but now, as I watched this vagabond who was also my strong and steadfast husband, I realized that the reverse is true as well. Underneath it all, we’re all the same.

Ours is a “hippie house,” which means we have a swinging bed on our porch, so when Kenny’s eyelids started to droop, he lay down and immediately feel into a deep, luxurious sleep. Several hours later, he woke and ate again, then allowed himself the extravagance of a shower. Too soon, it was time for him to go.

Needless to say, it was painful to watch him leave. But my consolation is that even as the Lord is allowing Kenny to be tested, His ways are perfect. Out of the weight that Kenny is carrying will come something priceless. As someone has said, “There is nothing heavier than compassion.”

Version 2

Kenny (second from R) with a few friends from our winter homeless shelter, 2014.

Pro-Lifers: How to Deal with the Phrase “Judge Not”

 

Once again, the catch phrase “judge not” has been tossed my way in an attempt to get me to quiet down about the abortion issue. At first I did what I always do when I hear that phrase—groan loudly and hold my head in my hands, because it’s such an absurd, senseless thing to say that I don’t even want to waste my breath talking about it…

Image: Nicole Cottrell

And yet I know that once in a while, it IS effective. Once in awhile, a pro-lifer hears, “Judge not!” and thinks to him/herself, “Oh gee, maybe I’m being judgmental” and brings it down a notch in their defense of the innocent. But the unborn can’t defend themselves, and we can’t continue to stand silently as they’re slaughtered, so I’ve got to address this nonsense.

First of all, by “Judge not,” what do the pro-abortionists mean? I dare say they don’t even know. It’s a phrase they’ve adopted and parroted for many years as though it’s a biblical principle when it’s nothing of the sort.

If by saying, “Judge not” the pro-abortionist means, “Stop making judgment calls as to what is right and wrong,” well, that’s just ludicrous. Human beings MUST use their mental faculties to discern right and wrong, and we do so every day, many times a day. If we had no right to do this, then we’d have no right to voice an opinion about much of anything; we’d no have no basis for insisting that someone stop abusing his wife or even for correcting a misbehaving toddler. After all, “Judge not.”

Maybe by saying, “Judge not,” the pro-abortionist means, “Don’t get involved when someone does something that you think is wrong,” but then they must be willing to carry that “logic” to its conclusion. If I see someone on the street yelling obscenities at an elderly or disabled person, am I to keep my opinions to myself and keep walking? Is that what you would do? These days, animals are far more valued than children, so let me use this example: If you look out your window tonight and see your neighbor beating his dog, are you going to keep quiet? According to your “logic,” you should not only hold your peace, you should fix that person a cup of hot chocolate and then hold it for him while he mistreats the poor animal.

Maybe the pro-abortionists mean, “Don’t condemn a woman who has already had an abortion.” In that case, I say, when have you ever, ever seen or heard me do that? Anyone who has known me for more than five minutes knows that I’ve dedicated my life to spreading the word about the radical love, forgiveness, and healing power of Jesus. I have never implied that women who have experienced the trauma of abortion are excluded from that love—especially when many of them made the choice to abort because they themselves were victimized and lied to by the abortion industry.

To believe that a certain behavior is a sin and a crime is NOT the same thing as dishonoring those who have “been there.” In the last week alone I’ve loved, laughed with, and shared a meal with several addicts and a couple of prostitutes. I’ve worked side by side and shared stories with a convicted felon, and hugged a former sex offender. So don’t even go there with me.

Fellow pro-lifer, don’t ever stop defending the innocent and unborn. Don’t ever sugarcoat the fact that abortion is child dismemberment, and always extend compassion to women who have “been there.” And in the meantime, when someone yells, “Judge not,” hear it for what it is: a lame, senseless attempt at making you stop talking about something that makes them uncomfortable. Human beings SHOULD be uncomfortable with the mass murder of children. Don’t ever forget that.

The Nature of Grace

There are a variety of opinions in regard to the homeless, and most of us have heard (or even voiced) the following: They don’t deserve a handout. No one is twisting their arms, forcing them to shoot up or buy another bottle. No one forced them to leave their families to go live under a bridge somewhere.

imagesPlenty of people land on the street through little or no fault of their own—yet it’s also true that some are less than model citizens. I learned this early on. Eight years ago, when my husband, Kenny, and I were serving in Tent City in Nashville, there was Howard, the sex offender. Then there was Sarah, a twenty-something girl who made money by posing for online porn photos. And there was Donny, who mentioned the first time I met him that he’d just finished a lengthy stint in prison. Within a month or so he ended up back in jail for threatening to remove a man’s head with a hacksaw. Every town, including Clarksville, has its Howards and Sarahs and Donnies. It’s not uncommon to ask about one of our mobile soup kitchen regulars only to be told, “He’s back in jail, didn’t ya hear?”

I love Kenny’s point of view. He’s convinced that if someone is capable of being a functioning member of society but chooses to live under a bridge, it’s because he believes it’s all he deserves, and therefore that person needs our acceptance even more than most. He needs to know that Jesus died for and loves him. Therefore, whatever the reason for a person’s destitution, it’s our duty to feed, love, and welcome him as much as possible.

Here’s the crazy thing about grace: The model citizen doesn’t deserve it any more than the pedophile or the prostitute or the guy who sells drugs to 12-year-olds. This seems outrageously unfair; surely Mother Teresa was at least a teeny bit more deserving of heaven than the repeat offender who made an eleventh-hour confession, right? Wrong. If grace were about fairness, it would cease to be grace.

Walk to the crossOne of the most liberating things you can do is be brutally honest about your own immense and imminent potential for sin. It will make you acutely aware of God’s mercy and prompt you to extend grace to others without hesitation. You’ll look at the homeless man and see yourself looking back. You’ll look in the mirror and see a thief. The person who lavishly loves others is the one who acknowledges, “I am the worst of sinners. I don’t deserve Jesus. And yet He loves me, and sees me as perfect and beautiful.”

Dancing Around Obedience

I, like many if not most believers, have a great collection of excuses I use to dance around obedience to God. Have you ever sensed the Lord’s displeasure about a certain behavior and prayed, “Lord, give me the grace to stop”? And yet He’s already provided the grace: “[God’s] commands are not a burden” (1 Jn. 5:3). And yet we try to convince ourselves that God doesn’t really expect us to obey until we feel like it. We want to be obedient, and surely that’s good enough, right?

Silhouette illustration of a woman hand grabbing an appleWe’re so silly! We don’t get brownie points with God for recognizing sin while failing to follow through—or for simply knowing we should obey—or for hoping that one day we will obey. We convince ourselves it’s ok to postpone obedience until it no longer requires sacrifice… until it no longer hurts… until it’s as easy as sinning.

If we’re completely honest, we’ll admit that we often try to bargain with God in regard to sin. We try to help Him see it our way, or to persuade Him that He’s being unreasonable in His expectations. We’re too cowardly to say what we really mean: “Lord, I hear what You’re asking of me, but I’d rather not, so… no.” God’s instructions are simple and straightforward: “If you love Me, you will keep My commands” (John 14:15). Our obedience should be just as simple and straightforward: “Yes, Sir.”

Pilate’s Mistake

Pilate didn’t have a problem with Jesus. In fact, he realized that Jesus was not at fault and that there was something unique about Him. The Bible makes it clear he even felt uncomfortable when he turned Jesus over to the horde. Pilate’s downfall wasn’t hostility toward Jesus. It was his decision to go along with the majority. To be politically correct. To let the demands of the people, no matter how wrong or evil, take precedence over truth. In Matthew 27, Pilate acknowledged that Jesus was “just”—and then he declared that he was innocent of the blood of Jesus.

Pilate believed that if he acquiesced to the majority, refused to stand for truth, and then symbolically washed his hands of the issue, he’d be free and clear of any responsibility. He was wrong.

Has the American church gone the way of Pilate? What do you think?