Why YOU Should Love the Homeless–Breaking the Cycle of Rejection

This past Saturday, my friends and I met Leonard, one of many living on the streets of LA, as we were walking in downtown.  Leonard started a conversation with us after we smiled and nodded at him when we were walking by.  Leonard was different because he enthusiastically responded to our small acknowledgement.  Most of the other people we encountered simply stared or totally ignored us.  This “hardness” is a natural result of their homelessness.

In order to survive, humans “harden” themselves to adverse circumstances. This hardness, or choosing not to care, protects from potential and constant disappointment.  In Wuthering Heights, Catherine’s father tells her again and again, “I cannot love thee.” At first, this made Catherine cry, but “then, being repulsed continually hardened her, and she laughed if I told her to say she was sorry for her faults(p43).”  Being rejected again and again hurts.  Better to be “safe” and closed off than to risk rejection by allowing other people’s actions to have sway.

Proverbs, too, sheds insight on this human response. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” (13:12)  For people like Catherine, the idea is better to not hope at all than to hope and lose. In Catherine’s case, she initially craves her father’s love, but continual rejection leads her to adapt in a way so as to protect herself from continual hurt. So she chooses not to hope for her father’s love so as not to be constantly hurt by hope deferred.  For others, like Leonard, hope deferred can relate to a much broader spectrum such as hope of acceptance in society, a job, value, a place to live, or simply a place to stay the night. Rejection is an everyday occurrence in the life of the homeless, primarily that from passerby.  No wonder so many we passed simply ignored us—they are used to being ignored so choose to ignore so as to protect themselves.

Our actions have a cyclical affect.  Personal rejection leads to your rejection of others.  Being often ignored causes you to often ignore others.  Our own experience of the world is drastically shaped by other people’s actions toward us.  Just as bad put in, causes bad to be put out, a “good” action will likely have a similar effect.  Paying for a stranger’s coffee one morning will likely make them much more inclined to be extra nice and generous towards other people that day.  Our talking to Leonard (hopefully) brightened his day.  However, there is a substantial difference between short and long term cyclical effects.

It will take much more than a brief encounter to reach someone hardened by a life-time of abuse.  The Proverbs concludes by saying, “But desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” The desire to be loved and accepted is at the core of our being.  However much we may pretend otherwise, or harden ourselves from this desire, it is impossible to be “okay” without feeling loved and accepted.  This feeling can come in many different ways—from a stranger, from God, from a significant other, from a friend.  Constant love is needed to break a cycle of constant hate.

We cannot provide a constant source of love for every hurting individual we meet.  But we can constantly be showing love to every individual we meet.  We are able to do this because of Christ’s love in us.  We love because He loves us.  The ultimate fix to despair is the Gospel. I like to think that Leonard was different—”soft,” receptive, open— because he had the Spirit of God dwelling inside of him.  During our conversation, Leonard shared some verses he had just memorized that day.  Leonard had an eternal hope that affected his perspective.  Yes, his earthly circumstances did not suck any less because of his faith.  But his hope-based perspective allowed him to face the world with expectation instead of deferred born complacency.

This is not to say we should not be concerned about very tangible and earthly needs.  We are very much supposed to be concerned about physical brokenness! We can often love the hurting best by providing for them in physical ways.  While I am not sure this was the best possible way to love Leonard, my friends and I chose not to give him money but instead buy him some food from a nearby store.  I would have felt very convicted if I prayed for Leonard without addressing his physical needs (James 2:16).  Providing for the hurting in physical ways often substantiates our verbal proclamation of love.

Even though most people did not respond to my smile or friendly hello, I still think it was right to do it.  If I stopped saying hello simply because I would get spurned, then I, too, would become a part of the destructive cycle.  Don’t let other people’s responses determine your actions.  We are called to be cycle breakers!  Wherever you go, whether it be walking down the streets of LA or in your office, look for opportunities to show Christ’s love—both through word and deed.  Whether it be a simple smile and a hello or buying a meal for a person, your small action can help break the cycle of a hope-deferred existence.

*Quotes taken from Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights.” Penguin Classics.

*Image via Wikimedia Commons

Muddying the Waters around Modesty

Whenever summer rolls around, the tide of links rises on my Facebook news feed. “Modesty,” they all say. Sometimes with a sneer, sometimes with a polemic defense, they all say, “modesty.” In theory, I appreciate the idea of modesty, and I think the arguments in its defense are justified. However, glancing over my wardrobe, I have to admit that I’m baffled as what exactly it means I should wear. And, genuinely unintentionally, I’ve stumbled upon the wrong choices on more than one occasion.

I have no instincts and little training in this area. Growing up in a school with a uniform, I never was exposed to the peer vs. peer whisperings (i.e., “Can you believe she’s wearing that?!”) that offer the adolescent mind a social catechism (albeit a dubious one) about what outfit means what.

Additionally, if there’s a culture that epitomizes a schizophrenic balance of questing after external beauty while refusing to judge by appearances, it’s the one that raised me: SoCal. Of those two sides, I’ve always had a strong affinity for the latter; I learned a little too well not to judge by appearances. In college, I went to church and classes in jeans and sandals and shorts among others in jeans and sandals and shorts. Doing so is an expression of that culture’s most prized virtue. Yes, most groups develop a cardinal virtue; where some cultures – like the American south – are big on respect, California is big on genuineness. To a Californian, dressing formally can feel ingenuine (though, bizarrely. wearing make-up doesn’t).

And, to a Californian, being ingenuine is the second of the regionally deadly sins (after “being judgmental,” before “waiting until a green light to turn right”).

So, the articles on modesty always fill me with some terror of the unknown. Unfair as it might be, they center on those endowed by God with the quality of being women. I happen to have that very quality, and I discover every summer on my Facebook news feed that the gift is a liability rather than an asset. There’s some grave misuse of it which I may make any morning, and I don’t really understand where that misuse rests in order to avoid it.

Unlike most virtues, the practice of modesty is culturally defined. That doesn’t mean it isn’t real, just that it has a contingent reality. In Eden, nudity was not immodest. In Starbucks, it is. Some cultures hide ankles. Others, cleavage. This is not to say there is no such thing as modesty, only that modesty looks different in different places and different times. But, you’ve read all this before.

But what many of these articles miss is possibility of degrees of knowledge. While agreeing that modesty is culturally defined, most articles assume that everyone within a given culture understands what goes for “modesty” within that culture. But, every societal convention is better understood by some members of that society than others (see Jane Austen). There is a continuum of understanding often ignored by modesty articles.

And, even among those who understand, there exists a greater deal of confusion than most would admit. For instance, the conventions clearly vary from one body to another. Place a short girl in mid-thigh length shorts next to a tall girl in mid-thigh length shorts; proportionally identical exposure that would never be deemed immodest on my dachshund-like legs would be judged more harshly on hers. Last week, I asked some friends how long skirts should be, and my friends gave a clear answer: not-above-the-knee. Then, they immediately affirmed that the above-the-knee skirt I was wearing was “just fine.” The variability of answers to the modesty question can be exhausting.

At the same time as modesty is a moving target and a challenging one, I don’t want to diminish its importance. I don’t deny the virtue of it. I care about the relationship between God and every human being around me. I care about helping people be virtuous insofar as it rests with me. I do care about respect. I care about the reality of modesty, with its obscured goal which the social rules exist to achieve.

I care about it because, behind what sometimes looks like the rigid face of judgmental rule-enforcement, I still hear the soft-hearted echoes of love.

I believe that deep within the rules and the protection and the judgment there remains a reality. That reality says that my neighbor’s life is my life, and he is not as independent of me as I pretend. We draw hard lines between people, but the boundaries smudge more than we like to admit, perhaps nowhere as ubiquitously as with modesty. The modesty argument exposes our individualistic, court-room stance toward sin; at best, the conversation can remind us that we are morally bound to one another not by blame or fault but by the possibility of really harming or really helping one another.

While the liberal side may want to blame the harmed for being harmed, the conservative may want to cast all the blame on the immodest for being immodest, it seems like throwing blame around will not undo damage or prevent further harm. Without intending to, I can do genuine harm to others by my misunderstanding of modesty. This harm is no less real because it was unintended, nor is the fault either fully mine or fully that of the harmed. What the individualistic, juridical arguments often forget is that the harm of immodesty is not simply fault, but also damage. This is the highest calling of my wardrobe choices: that I do my best to make those choices in love, not simply on the basis of avoiding fault or denying that fault is possible.

So, my point is not to let anyone off the hook, but only to point out some of the complexity which the modesty debate tends to miss. We bear some responsibility for one another. Yet, those who “know” the rules of modesty must accept that the reasons for that pair of heels at that inappropriate time or place may be less intentional than they appear from outside.

Mad Libs: Are Christians Falling for Our Culture’s Gag?

Remember Mad Libs? I loved that game. Getting to throw random words into a story and laughing in pants-wetting glee at the nonsensical tales we made. In fact, let’s play a round right now. Quick – write one infinitive verb and one noun. Done? Now, fill them into the dialogue below.

Person 1: “Would you like [verb]?”

Person 2: “Not really.”

Person 1: “Come on – don’t be a [noun]!”

Person 2: “Well, okay.”

It’s funny how little sense it makes, right? Laughable. After all, the first term isn’t the opposite of the second; it can’t be, since the first is a verb and the second is a noun.

Hmm. I’m guessing that I haven’t caused anyone to roll on the floor, laughing out loud. It’s a shame, since it probably ought to. Unfortunately, we’ve internalized this exchange so thoroughly that it doesn’t sound quite as funny as it ought.

I’ll try to explain the joke.

Looking back over the exchange, you might think, “Oh, that’s peer pressure.” We remember it from school: peer pressure is a child’s problem and an adolescent’s problem. Of course, we adults are beyond peer pressure. Beyond, that is, in the sense of a terminal patient who is beyond treatment or a lost climber who is beyond the search party’s reach. Many of us are beyond peer pressure in the sense that we have internalized it so thoroughly that peers need not even enter the picture to hold sway over our choices. No longer do we need to have the above exchange aloud with another person – we can carry on the whole thing in our own heads.

We bow to the label peer pressure has pressed into our minds. Too many times, I’ve heard people who are deliberating over a decision say: “I would do this, but I don’t want to be a bigot/idiot/prude/slut/goody-two-shoes.” In short, they don’t want to be a label. Sadly, this fear even rises in people who are convicted that one action would be best, but simultaneously desire to avoid the label it may bring. Not even conscious they are avoiding shame, they avoid the label because their culture has so thoroughly infused them with a belief that a particular label is bad. When we are so desperate to avoid a label, for instance “intolerant,” that we bow to those who are intolerant, it is clear that intrinsic love of the virtue is not our motivator.

However, the moral weight of the label is unwarranted. Deliberating over a choice, the person holds on one hand a reasonable argument for behaving a certain way; on the other, she holds a label. It would be bizarre to give each equal weight. Choosing actions based on labels is a losing game since there is a label for everything. On one end of the spectrum, there’s “sloppy” and on the other, there’s “anal.” However, if you’re talking to the right person, “sloppy” could be “free-spirited,” and “anal” could be “organized.” If you avoid being “anal,” you immediately stop being “organized” and start being “sloppy.” So, any bad label you reject loses you a good label and gains you another bad label. (It sounds like a game, too; though much less fun than Mad Libs.)

I’ve presented opposites in moral choices here, so you may be ready to pull out the old trump card: moderation. (Moderation always wins!) And, certainly, it has its place here, but only after a little digging. If we were holding out two opposite verbs and trying to determine which is better, moderation may be the answer. But, one of these things is not like the other: we are holding out a verb and a noun. Finding the golden mean between an unripe apple and an overripe apple is moderation; finding the golden mean between an apple and an orange is nonsense.

Let’s examine these negative nouns assigned to persons, which I’m calling “labels.” Since we usually articulate our fear in a certain logical progression (i.e., “If I do [verb], then I’ll be a [noun]), let’s assume actions give rise to labels.

To give a charitable definition, labels are quick ways of articulating agreed-upon values. If a culture or group agrees that a certain pattern of actions are either detrimental or desirable, they may form a label for a person who displays those actions. The next generation may inherit that label as part of their vocabulary, whether or not they’ve gone through the examination that led to the creation of the label. So, those who are armed with the ability to use the label end up at least one degree removed from the original work of thinking about the actions. This leaves them with the label, but without direct connection to the reasons why a person who earns these labels is to be chastised or praised.

These labels may succinctly articulate genuinely useful ideas. For instance, labels like “heretic” and “racist” can be very useful, since they offer a quick articulation of a complicated and important idea. However, labels are only useful insofar as they draw their life from the roots of their history. For instance, if I call someone a racist, I should know to which set of actions I refer. When labels lose their roots, they become clubs with which to bludgeon others. And, I end up flinging the term “racist” at people I simply don’t like. Or, because I’ve internalized peer pressure so thoroughly, I may start avoiding being the kind of person who is called a racist by those who don’t know what the term means.

Yet, beneath and within these labels are actions. When trying to make moral decisions, those who unpack the labels may determine that the labelled set of behaviors are correctly judged; that person may choose to go along with the recommendation of the label in that specific instance. Or, by unpacking the term, they may determine that the label is an incorrect judgment. But, at least by opening up the label, the thoughtful person compares like things: actions to actions. Instead of “I could do this or be that,” the option becomes “I could do this or do that.”

We need to remember that “I don’t want to be a [insert label here]” is very rarely, on its own, a reason not to do something. Because, any noun someone can label onto us verges on being a lie of omission – only one noun is true. You are a person. Fashioned in the image of God, fallen in the weakness of will, unchained from Satan, flirting with your old chains even as they nauseate you: you are a person. The labels all fade away before that fact.

Oh, Mad Libs. Getting to throw random words into someone else’s story and laughing in pants-wetting glee at the nonsense tales we made. Labels are stories our culture tells. Actions are stories the individual person tells. Funny how we fall for the culture’s nonsensical stories when we’re writing our own. Funny how we internalize our culture’s gag so that we don’t examine their labels, instead letting them write their choice words on the lines of our actions.  Not Mad Libs funny, though.

From Death to Life, Not Rot to Sanitation: Part 2

Three weeks ago I wrote about Christians having to live with TV and pop culture that is frankly yucky. I said that even though pop culture is often disgusting and rotten, Christians who are moving from death to life in Christ have to engage with it because 1. there is some good in it still and 2. they do not really have a choice not to have some level of interaction with it. In a discussion on Facebook, someone pointed out that I focused too much on tolerating evil than on moving toward good. Here I want to properly emphasize why Christians should learn to deal with stuff that is yucky and gross: the point is not merely to prolong our existence but to endure long enough to introduce what is truly good, free of taint and impurity. With that, I will turn once again to the video game Fallout 3. Continue reading From Death to Life, Not Rot to Sanitation: Part 2

Christians and Television: From Death to Life, Not Rot to Sanitation

A cadaver in a lab is no more alive than a corpse in a ditch, though it may smell a little less. In the end, both are buried. Rot looks alive compared to the sanitized corpse because rot is life that feeds on death, but sanitation’s sanctity is ultimately worth something. Because Christians identify with Christ’s resurrection as well as his death, merely sanitizing a corpse dignifies it but fails to perform the necessary resurrection from death to life. Continue reading Christians and Television: From Death to Life, Not Rot to Sanitation

Twenty | 25 June 2010

Twenty is a collection of apparently disparate images that have been thoughtfully selected to complement a great work of art (displayed first in the collection below).  Today’s featured image is the Doni Tondi by Michaelangelo.

Every individual image may be contemplated in conjunction with the original one (as a diptych), by itself (as a distinct work of art), or the collection may be experienced as a single unit (as a visual poem, story, or piece of music – pick your metaphor).  All images link to their source and are either public domain or copyright that source.  Any image that is not so linked is my own.

Twenty | 11 June 2010

Twenty is a collection of apparently disparate images that have been thoughtfully selected to complement a great work of art (displayed first in the collection below).  Today’s featured image is The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Every individual image may be contemplated in conjunction with the original one (as a diptych), by itself (as a distinct work of art), or the collection may be experienced as a single unit (as a visual poem, story, or piece of music – pick your metaphor).  All images link to their source and are either public domain or copyright that source.  Any image that is not so linked is my own.

Twenty | 4 June 2010

Twenty is a collection of apparently disparate images that have been thoughtfully selected to complement a great work of art (displayed first in the collection below).  Today’s featured image is Peace – The Burial at Sea by JMW Turner.

Every individual image may be contemplated in conjunction with the original one (as a diptych), by itself (as a distinct work of art), or the collection may be experienced as a single unit (as a visual poem, story, or piece of music – pick your metaphor).  All images link to their source and are either public domain or copyright that source.  Any image that is not so linked is my own.

Twenty | 28 May 2010

Twenty is a collection of apparently disparate images that have been thoughtfully selected to complement a great work of art (displayed first in the collection below).  Today’s featured image is Penelope Unravelling Her Web by Joseph Wright of Derby.

Every individual image may be contemplated in conjunction with the original one (as a diptych), by itself (as a distinct work of art), or the collection may be experienced as a single unit (as a visual poem, story, or piece of music – pick your metaphor).  All images link to their source and are either public domain or copyright that source.  Any image that is not so linked is my own.

Twenty | 21 May 2010

Two nights ago, five paintings were stolen from the Paris Museum of Modern Art.  Among them was this piece, L’Olivier pres de l’Estaque, by Georges Braque.

Twenty is a collection of apparently disparate images that have been thoughtfully selected to complement a great work of art (displayed first in the collection below).

Every individual image may be contemplated in conjunction with the original one (as a diptych), by itself (as a distinct work of art), or the collection may be experienced as a single unit (as a visual poem, story, or piece of music – pick your metaphor).  All images link to their source and are either public domain or copyright that source.  Any image that is not so linked is my own.