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3 Things I Learned From the Homeless

“Keep an eye out for watermelon boxes. They’re the thickest ones out there,” Fridge instructed as we headed for that night’s cardboard run.

It was only my second night sleeping on the streets, but I already knew exactly what Fridge—one of our guides for the weekend who has spent many years homeless—was talking about.

It was raining that late winter’s night in Melbourne, Australia and the temperature was expected to drop close to freezing. A thick piece of cardboard from a watermelon box would provide that extra few centimeters of distance from the cold, wet concrete sidewalk that I would try to sleep on as city trains, traffic, street lights, and noisy pedestrians did their best to keep me awake.

 

Waking up sore and tired, the way many rough sleepers have to do on a regular basis.

 

When I got the email a few weeks earlier inviting my wife and I to join a group becoming rough sleepers* for a weekend, I instantly felt nervous. I knew my wife would jump at the opportunity, since helping the disadvantaged and marginalized in society has a special place in her heart. But to be honest, I was a little scared.

We had both recently started leading a team from an organization called Many Rooms that provide meals and other services to the homeless and disadvantaged of Melbourne. Even though I was hesitant to give up the comforts of my home to sleep rough for two nights, I knew that the experience would give me a glimpse into what the homeless of my city and around the world face every day.

And so my wife and I joined a group of eight people associated with Many Rooms who would meet up with three men from Melbourne Rough Sleepers (MRS): Fridge, PJ, and John. These men have lived or still live as rough sleepers themselves, and they would act as our guides throughout the weekend.

 

Our first night rough sleeping. We would not get much sleep that cold, windy night.

 

Little did I know that the experience would be one that not only changed my perspective about the homeless community, but also made me realize things about myself that I had never known. Here are three lessons I learned that weekend:

 

1. Be Wary of Stereotypes

Whether consciously or subconsciously, we tend to generalize any group of society that we are not familiar with. When I started the weekend on the street, I realized that I had done the same with rough sleepers. The stereotype of those who are homeless being drunks, drug addicts, mentally ill, or just plain lazy, was not the reality of many that we met.

Instead, we heard stories of rough sleepers fleeing domestic violence, and learned that the best place for them to hide was sleeping on the street. Another common story was of middle-aged men caught up in messy divorces who would lose their houses and their savings on legal fees trying to get their kids back. One person we met had grown up in foster homes his entire childhood and ran away at 16 to literally join the circus. Eventually, he found his way to the street and has been a part of the community ever since. Another memorable person we talked to said he had “concrete in his blood” due to the decades living on the street. He shared about the anger and violence issues he has dealt with stemming from his childhood when he was sexually abused.

I learned that everyone has a unique story and is dealing with their own issues. It is so important that we do not let our pre-conceived notions about a group in society prevent us from seeing others as God sees them—as people created in His image and loved by Him. The experience also made me reflect on what other hidden or subconscious stereotypes I have and how that may be preventing me from serving and loving others in society as Jesus would want me to.

As I reflected on the weekend, I kept going back to Genesis 1:27—the assurance that God created all of us in His image. May we look at all of our fellow human beings in the same light, regardless of the stereotypes we may have.

 

2. The Gift of Time and Respect

One of the toughest moments of the weekend started with a challenge given by our guides: to ask people for a dollar coin or a cigarette. Two successes were required for you to “pass” the challenge.

Being asked for spare change from people on the street is not an uncommon experience for many who live in a city. But being on “the other side” was an eye-opening experience. I suddenly became aware of how I appeared (and probably how I smelled) after a couple days on the street. I would search the faces of pedestrians passing by, wondering who would be the kind soul that would say yes to a stranger asking for money.

As I did so, I realized it wasn’t the rejections to my pleas that hurt the most. It was the shake of a head without even a word to acknowledge my existence. It was the quickening of their steps to walk away from me after they had said no. It was the way they paid more attention to their phone than they did to me.

On the flip side, when people said yes, it wasn’t the coin or cigarette that meant the most. It was the acknowledgement of me as a person and the time they took to help out a fellow human being.

While talking with other rough sleepers and trying to discern how I could serve them better in my role with Many Rooms, the common theme that came up was their desire to be respected and treated as any other person.

When I asked what were some ways people could show respect for them, the answer was time. Time going out of your way to share a meal with them. Time acknowledging them as human beings who are in a tough spot right now. Time spent sitting down and chatting about stuff, even if it’s about your favorite sports teams or debating the relevance of Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars.

Time and respect. Just like we all want.

This practice can also be applied to other aspects of our lives. Taking the time to chat with that elderly person even though we’re in a rush. Taking the time to patiently counsel a friend in need, even though we’d rather be bundled up on the couch watching Netflix. Taking the time to really learn about the needs and concerns of family members so we can serve and help them in a way that points them to the light of Jesus inside of us.

 

3. The Power of Light Over Darkness

When searching for a place to sleep each night, there were a few criteria that we were looking out for. One of the key ones was whether the area was well lit. We learned that there was less chances of danger in the light. And because of that, you could sleep with a bit more ease in the light.

At one point during the weekend, PJ, one of our guides, shared with me his favorite verse: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

“I’ve been through a lot of low points in my life, a lot of dark times,” PJ shared. “This verse helped me a lot during those times. To head towards the light even in the darkness.”

During that weekend, I heard many stories of those who have lived through dark times. And just like every human on earth, there is a light that we are searching for, that we all need. My prayer is that just as we strive to fill the physical and practical needs of the homeless in our cities, that they would also come to know the light that shines in the darkness. And that no matter how dark their pasts have been or how low they feel right now, the darkness will not overcome the light we find in Jesus. Because even in the darkest of times when there seems to be no way out, Jesus has promised us that He will be there, that He came to “seek and to save the lost.”

 

*A more friendly term for those who are homeless and sleeping on the street.

 

The last day of our weekend experience. Despite being tired, dirty and cold, we grew close as a team with our shared experiences.

 

Searching: How Far Will You Go For Your Loved Ones?

Screenshot taken from Official Trailer

 

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Searching, the first film from 27-year-old director Aneesh Chaganty, is a crime thriller starring John Cho who plays David, a father in a desperate search for his missing daughter.

After his daughter, Margot, goes missing, David is not allowed to take an active role in the police investigation, so the only way he can help is by combing through her digital persona in search for clues to her disappearance. Filmed from the unique perspective of smartphone and laptop screens, the movie explores the different masks that we put on to hide what is going on inside. Through the twists and turns of the investigation, David learns how little he knew of his own daughter and also what lengths he would go to find her.

Searching isn’t the first film shot from the exclusive point-of-view of a laptop screen, but it is by far the most engaging one, nearly perfectly capturing the millennial generation’s online experience. From its opening shot of booting up Windows XP, the film begins by playing on nostalgia with footages of the MSN messenger, the original YouTube interface and even the early versions of Facebook as we view memories from Margot’s childhood. I haven’t seen such an emotional first five minutes to a film since that heartbreaking opening sequence from Pixar’s Up.

The film proceeds to utilize present day communication apps like Facetime and iMessage as well as popular social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and even Tumblr to reveal the story of Margot’s disappearance. David even uses Google Sheets and Google Maps to help in his own private investigation. The little details from director Chaganty of the dropped frame rate during a video call or a typo while messaging or deciding to delete a 200-word rant and replace it with a short, passive aggressive sentence all added to the realism of the online experience.

Although the film-making techniques used to craft the story of Searching certainly make the movie unique, it is the emotional pull of David and Margot’s characters that makes the film a great one. Some of the buzz around Searching is that it is the first mainstream Hollywood thriller with an Asian actor as the lead. Interestingly though, John Cho being of Korean descent had very little to do with David’s character arc. The film instead focused on universal themes of complicated family dynamics, of grief and loss, and—most powerfully—of a father’s love.

This theme of a father’s love was the one that spoke to me the most when reflecting on the film. I was reminded of Jesus’ Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-7) where he tells us of the Shepherd who will “leave the ninety-nine” sheep and “go after the lost sheep until he finds it” (Luke 15:4).

In Searching, David discovers things about his daughter that he couldn’t have imagined were possible. He finds out how Margot has been deceiving him and doing things that he couldn’t believe she would do. At one point in the film, David laments to the lead investigator, “I did not know her. I did not know my daughter.” Despite those discoveries, David’s ultimate goal of finding his daughter never wavers.

In the same way, God’s love for us is constant and unwavering. But in contrast to David, our Heavenly Father knows His children intimately. He knows about the masks that we put on and the lies we tell people in order to fit in or seek approval. He knows about the sneaking around and our sinful behavior. He knows that we will disappoint and disobey Him and go our own way. And yet despite that, he will “leave the ninety-nine” and chase after us with an even greater fervency than David does in the film. In fact, our Heavenly Father has made the ultimate sacrifice for us, not because of anything good in us, but because of the intense love He has for His children.

Although we will hopefully never have to experience what David and Margot went through in the film, my prayer is that we all experience the love of our Heavenly Father and allow ourselves to be found in Him even if we lose our way.

Should Israel Folau Have Said What He Said?

Photo by Tremain Focused on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

 

Words can build up or destroy. For Australia rugby star Israel Folau, it was a lesson he had to learn the hard way after his response to a comment on his Instagram post went viral—and awry.

The Instagram post itself was a pretty standard one from the sporting celebrity with over 300K followers. Widely known to be an outspoken Christian, there was nothing out of the ordinary in the image he had posted earlier this month which quoted James 1:2-4, along with a diagram that showed the difference between our plans and God’s plan.

But amid the thousands of comments that streamed in, Folau’s response to one comment in particular would completely affect his life, put him in the headlines of multiple media outlets, and potentially ruin his rugby career.*

The comment: “what was gods plan for gay people??”

Folau’s response: “HELL..Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God.”

 

 

As soon as his response was published, battle lines were drawn across the internet. Some praised his bravery to speak up for his beliefs and supported his right to free speech. But the vast majority pummeled Folau for what they perceived as an anti-gay and homophobic comment.

The topic “Israel Folau says gay people will go to hell unless they repent” began to trend online. Many people across the country and the sporting world weighed in with their opinions. One of Australian rugby’s biggest sponsors, whose CEO is openly homosexual, threatened to pull their support. Several intense meetings between Folau and the Australian Rugby Union were held behind closed doors, discussing his future in the sport.

Over the last three weeks, I have followed the developing story with much interest and have learned much about the incredible power that words can have, particularly on social media.

 

To Communicate Truth Effectively

From a Biblical standpoint, Folau’s words seem to echo what the Bible has stated plainly. Romans 3:23 tells us that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and a few chapters later, that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:23). What this means is that all of us are destined for hell because of sin—regardless of whether our struggle is with homosexuality, selfishness, greed, pornography, lying, gossiping etc. But it doesn’t end there, as the second half of Romans 6:23 tells us that there is a way of escape in the free gift of eternal life, made possible through the unconditional, sacrificial love of Jesus who died for us.

Unfortunately, not all of that was communicated in the 11-word reply by Israel Folau. He did however, write a 2000+ word article two weeks later entitled “I’m a Sinner Too” to communicate those truths and his intent. In his response, he shared about the struggles he went through in his sporting career—letting fame get to his head early on, sinning with other women and battling alcohol addiction. Coming from a place of humility, he then shared how he personally experienced Jesus’ love and the peace he received when he opened his heart to God.

But it seemed as though his response may have come a bit too late—damage had already been done.

Words obviously have an incredible power, and as we have seen in the backlash to Folau’s Instagram comment, even a few words have the potential to hurt an entire community of people and possibly push them away from learning more about God. In a world hostile to the faith, it is ever so pertinent that we as believers in Christ speak truthfully, but also wisely and lovingly.

 

Would We Lay Down Our Rights?

The other major debate surrounding this episode was on the right of free speech. Was it Folau’s right to express his religious beliefs unreservedly? This seemed to be how Folau also felt, based on his tweet which quoted Matthew 5:11-12, suggesting that he felt persecuted for his comments.

Although I respect Folau for standing up for the Christian faith, particularly in the face of immense backlash from the world and at the risk of his own career, I wonder if the shift in conversation to the rights that Christians should have to defend our faith, rather than towards the truth about a loving Savior who wishes for us all to have relationship with Him, including those in LGBT community, is helpful.

I think of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9. Referring to a culturally accepted right that he had to request financial support from the Corinthian church, Paul says in verse 12 that he and Barnabas “did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.”

In the realm of online debates and “keyboard warriors”, believers can be caught up in our right to express our beliefs. No doubt there are many times when we should stand up for our faith in the face of evil and adversity, but we must be cautious about our intentions behind our actions. Are we speaking out just so we can prove to ourselves and others that we are “right”? Do the words we say and the actions we make actively lead others toward Christ?

Paul continues in verse 19 that “though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” Admittedly, I find that incredibly tough to live out. As human beings, there is a strong yearning in us to want to show and prove that our beliefs and ideas are correct and right. But Paul challenges us to flip that human desire on its head and instead make ourselves slaves, give up the rights we have to prove ourselves correct in order that the gospel can be shared freely and effectively to the world around us.

If there is one takeaway for all of us from this episode, it is this: To come before God and plead with the Holy Spirit to guide us daily, to speak through us, and to help us act wisely. May all that we do with our lives point others towards God and lead others to relationship with a Savior who desires more than we can ever imagine to save us from HELL. (2 Peter 3:9)

 

*At the time of this writing, Folau’s future in Australian rugby is still uncertain.

Remembering Anzac Day And An Exemplary Army Chaplain

The call for a “padre” rang out down the line. Some poor “digger” (the colloquial term for an Australian soldier) had died and a chaplain was needed for the burial service.

Joseph John Booth answered the call and made his way to the forward point on the line, his heart surely pounding in his chest. It was only his second evening on the front, a place where death was as common as life.

The year was 1917, and millions of young men from around the world were dying in the trenches of the Western Front. We would eventually call this awful cycle of death and destruction World War 1.

As Joseph arrived in the trench to give his first burial service, he trembled with the knowledge that German soldiers were merely 60 feet away in their own trenches, likely listening to every word he spoke. In the darkness, he could not read from his prayer book and was forced to do as much of the service as he could from memory. This would only be the first of countless funerals he would lead during the war.

 

Courtesy of ww1anzac.com

Joseph’s Story

I started learning about Joseph’s story out of a personal interest in World War 1 history. Anzac Day—a special annual tradition for Australians and New Zealanders to remember and appreciate the sacrifice of servicemen and women in the military—was just around the corner, and I found myself in the research room of the State Library Victoria, searching for stories about army chaplains who served during World War 1. It was here that I stumbled on Joseph’s personal letters to Beryl Bradshaw, the love of his life, that he wrote while serving in France.

Joseph was an orphan from England who moved to Australia in his early 20s, settling in the western Melbourne suburb of Footscray. In 1915, Joseph was ordained as an Anglican priest after studying theology at Ridley College. In the following year, he became engaged to Beryl and was also enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force as a “padre”—the affectionate term given to army chaplains by the enlisted men.

Joseph soon found himself on a troop ship heading to the battlefields of France, serving God and His people in a war half a world away. Was he caught up in the excitement of seeing the world, giving little thought to the terrors ahead? Or did he press forward even in the face of the death and destruction waiting ahead? How would his faith be tried in face of the worst war the world had ever seen?

Reading Joseph’s story comes at a point in my life where I, too, am beginning a new role in a Christian ministry. Although I don’t have a terrible war to face like Joseph did, the future is uncertain as I find my place in my new role in service to God. But in Joseph’s story, I see how God guided him to serve others in a time and place that was greatly needed. I, too, can take comfort that God also has a plan for my life, and is guiding me along my path as well.

 

Joseph’s Ministry

Soon after arriving in France, Joseph was attached to the 8th Battalion, a veteran unit and legendary for its role in the Gallipoli campaign, a series of battles in modern day Turkey early in the war that was fought by mainly soldiers from Australia and New Zealand.  It was not an easy start to his ministry, since Joseph was a “novice among seasoned veterans,” as he told Beryl in one of his letters. However, he seemed optimistic, perhaps fueled with a zeal for his new ministry. He began leading the regular, mandatory church service, often called a “church parade”. He reported the first one as “a very fine Brigade parade and a fairly happy communion service, though I shall not be satisfied until my numbers increase”.

As time progressed, Joseph’s letters revealed that he became a well-respected man among the troops of his battalion. Perhaps he took to hear the advice given him by the Assistant Chaplain General on his arrival: “Never lower your standards, avoid being a Pharisee, avoid the whiskey bottle, take on every job that you possibly can, and remember that, as a servant of Jesus Christ, your duty is to make others comfortable, even though you yourself may need the comfort more.”

Soldiers certainly saw and respected his courage and integrity. They witnessed his sacrifices, and through his display of character, many who did not have a relationship with Christ were drawn to the truth of the gospel. As a result, Joseph’s church services grew in number.

I am challenged to live my life the same way that Joseph served as a padre: to stand firm in the face of growing pressure to lower my standards, to avoid being caught up in following rules and regulations like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, and to serve others even when it’s uncomfortable.

 

 

The Hardships of War

Although a padre’s main role was to act as a spiritual guide to soldiers and officers in the military, they faced many of the same dangers as fighting men. Throughout 1917, Joseph and the 8th Battalion were involved in some of the worst fighting up and down the Western Front. Joseph often found himself at the side of the unit’s doctor, helping out in whatever way he could.

There was one time when the doctor’s resources were drained dangerously low due to the number of wounded, so Joseph and a few other men voluntarily braved artillery-bombarded territory to retrieve medical supplies. After they had found the dearly-needed supplies, a sudden, terrifying artillery barrage caused them to cower in a gully. While waiting for the barrage to pass, Joseph got a premonition “in his mind’s eye” that they would be directly hit by a salvo of shells. He convinced the men to keep moving, and mere moments after they left, multiple shells exploded in the gully behind them. Joseph wrote to Beryl that if they had stayed, they “would have been wiped out almost without doubt”. He knew that God had providentially protected them in this near-death experience. Joseph would later receive the high military honor of the Military Cross from the King of England himself.

Men were dying by the hundreds and thousands every day all along the Western Front, and the duty that caused Joseph the greatest angst was the burial services of those who had died in action. During one of the intense episodes of the Battle of Passchendaele, Joseph was required to oversee the mass burial of 60 men from his battalion.

When his battalion was finally given relief and pulled out of the front line, Joseph wrote this in a letter, “perhaps one of the most pathetic experiences after a big battle is to go round the lines and discover the old friends who will serve the Army no more. The memory of those two days will lie heavy upon me even as long as I live. War is unspeakable and these men with whom one serves are indeed the very salt of humankind.

I have found that particularly on days like Anzac Day, our minds are drawn to the tragedy of war, the frailty of human life, and the condition of our souls. We search for the answers to why there is so much suffering, in times of war as well as in our relatively peaceful society today. In the purposelessness and tragedy of events like World War 1, where can we turn?

Daily, Joseph and the men he served faced this trauma. And yet through it all, his faith remained firm. How can that be? The only answer that I can find is in the hope of the truth of the Gospel. That despite the evil and destruction we see around us, there is a loving God who is yearning for us to be in relationship with Him, to accept the love that He is freely giving, and to live the life He intended us to live, whatever our circumstances.

Courtesy of ww1anzac.com

After the war, he married his sweetheart, Beryl, and served as vicar at St. Pauls in Fairfield, Melbourne. He would be remembered as a vicar who had a sympathetic understanding of people, as well as a remarkable memory for names and faces.

Joseph later made a collection of his letters, the same ones that I would find in the State Library many decades later. The postscript he wrote to this collection has stuck with me, “I hope those of you who read them [the letters] will find some little pleasure and gain some information, for future generations must surely learn that war is a filthy business, only lightened by the amazing courage and the wonderful comradeship of men of every race. The war is long over. It was to have ended war. Though it may not, it has begun a movement toward peace which, please God, will never die.

As I reflect on a war that ended a century ago, I pray that I would be dedicated to sharing the peace that can only come through Jesus, just as Joseph John Booth did with his life.