Brian – Another Starbucks Story

He’d been sitting in the Starbucks for ages. A man with grey hair and a gentle, intelligent face. He had dirty, ratty clothes, but despite that, he seemed very clean and well-groomed. At least, he was very well-groomed for a homeless man, which I gathered he was by his clothes. (How hard it must be to keep your clothes clean when you’re homeless.) He was just sitting. Doing nothing. He wasn’t talking to himself. He didn’t have any odd ticks, any of the signs of mental illness I see so often in homeless people. It struck me, how many of us can be truly still like that? I kind of admired him, truth be told. I’ve lost that ability a bit with all the distractions ever at my fingers. Stillness is a discipline, a muscle in my life that has atrophied. There was something about him I was drawn to, and I wanted to talk to him, but I was sitting across the store, working, focused, trying to get through my to-do list, so I didn’t try to talk to him. I just noticed his stillness, and felt that he was very alone, and eventually he left.

I got to a stopping point and had just enough time to grab some lunch before I had to be at the next thing, so I packed up my laptop and headed out. Then I saw him again. Sitting. Alone. Outside Starbucks—he hadn’t gone far. I honestly can’t remember who started the conversation. Maybe I said something about his beautiful stillness, or maybe he made a comment about the weather… probably both, but either way, we quickly ended up in a talk. A deep talk (I don’t think he knows any other kind).

He was struggling. He’d gotten depressed sitting so alone and so quiet in Starbucks. (So much for my thoughts about his beautiful quiet—it wasn’t peaceful, it was sad and depressed.) He’s actually quite the extrovert and so much time alone without any human connection was getting to him. He had gone to Starbucks hoping to talk to someone in the crowd, but everyone was like me—focused on their work, or they were there connecting with someone else, deep in a two-person conversation already. It’s true, the loneliest place to be is usually in the middle of a crowd. So he moved away from the crowd, at least his loneliness wasn’t so much in his face when he wasn’t surrounded by other people. Frankly, I know the feeling.

He started sharing his hurt and his disappointments with people which quickly led to his thoughts on Christians. I don’t think he knew I was one. Maybe he didn’t care. I wasn’t offended, but appreciated seeing life through his eyes. Sometimes we just don’t think about how we come across to someone on the “outside”—not necessarily outside our faith, but outside our world in any respect, our faith, our suburban life, our education, etc.

He said that Christians say they care, but won’t let him into their homes to just shower or share a meal. “They say it isn’t safe,” he said. He said he didn’t want them to necessarily provide the dinner, but to simply have him over, let him in. He’s offered to buy the groceries, bring the steaks…if they would just let him join them for some time around the grill (and maybe a shower). But the answer is always, “No. I’m sorry. It isn’t safe.”

What Brian longed for, more than anything, was to feel loved and accepted. He wanted to feel trusted. To feel human, to be part of a family and a community for a moment. More than money, more than charity and help, a meal or a shower, he simply wanted to be at the table with a family, to be included, to be loved. To feel that he’s enough just as he is, worthy enough to be in someone’s home and in their life. Having a shower wasn’t just about being clean. Having a meal wasn’t just about being fed. Those things are about someone telling you your heart is clean, and about feeding the needs of your soul. Just like when Jesus talked with the woman at the well—he saw her real need, the need for His living water. The outside was a symbol of what was needed on the inside.

Brian’s frustration with Christians was that they keep wanting to address the outside without seeing that what he really needs is on the inside. To him, that’s hypocritical. They say they care, but he’s not seeing it. They care only to the point where it’s still comfortable for them, not necessarily to the point where it’s actually comfortable for him. Ouch.

He’s difficult, granted. In about .5 seconds he had gone from friendly chatter to victim speech with me. He launched into his “here’s what’s wrong the world and everyone’s hypocrisy…especially the Christians” spiel in no time and clearly planned to stay there as long as I could listen. But he’s difficult because he’s wounded. I get a spiel going when I’m feeling wounded too…and just like Brian, it’s a speech I can’t seem to quit giving to everyone I’m around either. The answer is not to avoid him, but to love him more and help him heal. (And maybe set some boundaries for conversation to stop the track from playing on repeat.)

Why “especially Christians”? I mean, he touched on other religions too, but his focus was definitely Christians. I think it’s because we set ourselves up to a higher standard to begin with. Because we say we care and we love…and we say we trust the Lord. The thing is, what he has seen is that we only love to our comfort, not beyond it. We love to our safety, not beyond it. God doesn’t call us to comfort and safety; He calls us to obedience. Christ was obedient to death, which was neither comfortable nor safe. That’s who we say we follow. And then we refuse Brian a meal in our home.

We say we serve an all-powerful God who can deliver us, but we are afraid it’s too risky to let him use our shower. Maybe he’s right to call us out on our hypocrisy.

I’m not saying everyone should invite him into their home. Maybe not, for any number of reasons. But the issue is obedience, not assessment of risk. I wouldn’t advise foolishness. Truly, everything in me would tell you that Brian was safe…but that’s not the point. That’s not why I would have let him in, or not. Again, the issue is not an assessment of the risk, but of God’s will in that situation.

Let’s be honest, though. A lot of times we use safety as an excuse to avoid being inconvenienced. We don’t want to open Pandora’s Box. We don’t want to start something we can’t easily stop. He’s a lonely man. A talker. (And this from me, a talker myself.) A wounded, broken person with a victim mentality. We let him in and we might not get him to leave. He may, almost certainly, want to come back. He will likely be exhausting to be around. So, it’s easier to say it’s neither wise nor safe and just not go there.

The added bonus of which, is that we won’t have to see our lifestyle and selfishness and abundance through the eyes of a needy, homeless man. Because who wants that kind of conviction, right?

I think perhaps Brian was the most hurt by Christians because we espouse so much, promise so much, and yet deliver so little of what he truly needed—a sense of love, belonging and dignity. If we give from a distance, if we truly to keep ourselves sterile, our hands clean, our noses unoffended, etc., we aren’t being Christ to anyone. He came in utero, to show from the start that he was willing to get dirty to love us.

I keep thinking, you can’t clean up a baby with a dirty diaper without being close enough to smell and touch and get a bit messy yourself. If you try to clean a baby’s bottom without risking any smell or mess getting on you…then you just end up with a baby with a dirty bottom. Anytime we want to help clean up the mess in someone’s life, this is the process and the risk—we have to get close enough to get our hands dirty, too. We just know we can wash them off after we’re done.

And, while the issue isn’t safety but obedience, can I also just point out that bringing a youth pastor into your home, for example, or a priest, or any other church friend, isn’t necessarily any safer than bringing a homeless man into your home? It may be easier, it may feel safer, it may be less taxing on you, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also risky and potentially dangerous. It may even be more dangerous because you let your guard down and aren’t aware of the danger. Because even priests and youth pastors and well-educated, suburban friends with clean clothes and nice houses can have hidden sins and messy lives—the kind of messy that messes up others. There are no guarantees or promises of safety…only the promise that “in this life we will have trouble” and that God can “work all things for good”. So when we categorically say that one kind of person is safe and another isn’t, well, that’s just hogwash.

I’m not here to point fingers at Christians, remember, I’m one, too. I’m here to share the perspective I got from Brian. I’m here to share the ways he challenged me to love better. I’m here to challenge us all to consider obedience as the highest virtue, not risk assessment.

You may wonder what happened—well, I had to go. I had to cut him off and leave because I had somewhere I had to be. Did I invite him over? No. Not because I wouldn’t have… but because I wasn’t in my normal stomping grounds and home was nowhere near. Maybe that was God’s protection over me, that I wasn’t in a place where I could invite him over and offer him a shower or a home-cooked meal. I probably would have if I could have… it wouldn’t have been the first time, but that wasn’t what God asked of me that day.

What I realized is that I probably should have set aside my work for a bit when I first noticed him and talked with him. Maybe I should have recognized God’s nudging earlier, telling me that he was lonely, that he needed to feel connected and valued. I’m grateful I got a second chance. I couldn’t invite him over, but I did set aside lunch so that we could talk. And I did pray that God would bring someone along who could and would invite him over and let him be part of a family in a home sitting at a table together. I did pray that God would show him how much HE loves him and accepts him and values him, just as he is. Sometimes we are called to meet the need. Sometimes we are simply called to pray and trust God to send the right person to meet the need. Obedience, remember? It’s not always our job to say yes, just as it’s not always our job to protect ourselves. If we have the heart of Christ, full of compassion and willing to obey, He’ll show us what to do.

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