04 January 2011

Atheist On a Street Corner at Midnight, Part II

I couldn’t get that man out of my head. The profundity of his objections to an easy faith echoed in my soul:
“You say your God is your life, because your life is good. Look at us. We are here in one of the poorest and most dangerous areas of the capital, homeless here on the street at 11pm, accepting hot soup from complete strangers. We have lived lives of suffering. Who are you to talk to us about a God that heals? About a God that saves? What do you know of such things?”

A few weeks later, in the comfort of my third floor apartment, I sat down to listen to a John Piper sermon on YouTube (“How Our Suffering Glorifies God” watch it, read it, or both—it’s worth every word.) I couldn't help but think of how relevant it was to that conversation on the street.

Think back to the times when you have hidden most under the shelter of the Almighty God, YHWH. Do you think of happy times, or do you think of the times when the peace you felt was unreasonable—a peace that passes all understanding? The times I have felt God’s presence most in my life have been in times of utter darkness, desperate pleas, and intense suffering. On the other hand, the times I feel farthest from God are the times when I am trying to shield my heart from suffering and pain, both in my own life and in the lives of those around me. This is how it is meant to be. If you question that, read the Bible. Jesus never guarantees us prosperity. He guarantees us suffering.

If we are living as if it’s about this life, Paul says “we are of all men most to be pitied.” What does our prosperity say to the weary multitudes? That our God is a God for the happy, the rich, the carefree? Or that the Kingdom of God belongs to the poor in spirit? That our treasure is on earth? Or that we count everything else as rubbish, that we may gain Christ?

If you are not experiencing any suffering at all, ask God to awaken your heart to the suffering of the atheist on the street corner. Plead that you might really understand what he is suffering, and really mourn with them. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

OK, so we suffer. Can we therefore boast in our suffering? Do I tell you all my sad stories so that you can feel like you’re not the only one? Is that the answer? No.

No, because  we will always find someone whose suffering is greater than ours. We can’t sit around comparing our sufferings to demonstrate that the Christian walk is valid.

To the itinerant in Panama City: I’m 99% sure I’ve suffered less than you have. But the suffering I have experienced has meaning, because there is One who gave it meaning through the ultimate sacrifice.
In the beginning, and in the end, we must turn to the CROSS. We must IDENTIFY with the cross in the deepest part of our souls. We must not boast in anything, no riches nor treasure nor earthly gain, nothing except the cross of Christ. We must pursue Christ, that we may know Him and the fellowship of His suffering, being made like Him in His death. We must remember that it isn’t about us: we have died, and our lives our hidden with Christ in God.

God’s supreme purpose in creating the universe is to display the greatness of the glory of his grace supremely through the suffering of His Son. That’s yesterday. Today, the summons: will you join the Son in displaying the supreme satisfaction of the glory of the grace, in joining Him in the Calvary Road of suffering… because there’s no other way the world is going to see the supreme glory Christ until we break free from the Disneyland of America and begin to live lifestyles of missionary sacrifice, that looks to the world like our treasure is on heaven and not on the earth. –John Piper

Acts 5:41: “They left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they had been counted worthy to suffer.”

03 January 2011

Atheist On a Street Corner at Midnight, Part I

In September, my friend Sara took me to “Sopa Caliente” (hot soup) with the “jovenes” (young people) from her church. At 9PM, we all piled into two full-size church buses and pulled out of the church parking lot. Destination: I still have no idea. All I know is that it was a hidden corner of this bustling metropolis—a place filled with poor people. Some homeless, some not, almost all with need in their eyes. We went out in groups of about 8, guys and girls, handing out hot soup and inviting them to the car wash where we had set up showers, and were offering free haircuts, shaving, and clothes—as well as more food for those who wanted it. There were so many people—both from the church and the streets.

The whole thing was bustling all night until after midnight. Groups passed out soup, invited people, returned for more soup, and marched out into the streets again.

I was in observer mode—just trying to witness this grand project and everyone involved in it. Of course, I participated, too. It’s not like I’ve never worked in the inner city before, or that I am a naturally quiet or introverted person—just that with a different culture and language and with people I don’t know very well, I tend to look and listen before I share my ideas and opinions. So I just followed my group, as we passed out soup and talked with those willing to talk. We would return to the car wash “base” with our new “recruits” and “march” off into the streets, “armed” with soup for anyone and everyone. It seemed a bit like a military operation.

But, there were a faithful few who would sit down and talk—really talk with these people. They treated them with dignity and compassion at the same time, making eye contact and really showing an interested in their lives. These few, unassuming, humble servants shone like “little Christs” on that dark night.

On our 3rd or 4th set of soup, we stopped at a curb where three men were seated. My friend Sara said “God bless you”, thereby instantly provoking a debate. Soon all three men were shouting over one another. I just stood there, not really picking out coherent ideas over the ruckus—until the third man addressed me.

“What does God mean to you?” he asked me in his rapid, slurred, probably intoxicated Spanish. The third time he asked, I finally understood. But I felt a little bit put on the spot—not everyone asks you to define something as big as God, just out of the blue like this. Slowly, I began.

“Well, God is everything to me… God is my life. God is…” but he didn’t let me continue. All this man had time for was my simple answer.

“See,” he said. “you are pretty.” He paused for a few seconds, waving his hand through the air between us. His angry face changed a little, and I nervously shifted my feet. Like any woman, I know when I am being looked up and down. Awaking from his reverie, he continued.

“You are pretty. You are rich. You have what you need. You have opportunities. I, on the other hand, have little left to live for.”

At least, I think that’s what he said. In that moment, it no longer seemed possible—or even necessary—to discern his exact words above the other two men, both engaged in their own shouting matches. But it didn’t matter—I was already hit in the gut by the impact of what I knew he was saying.

“God is my life.” Now, that was not a terrible answer, but for a man with no roof over his head,  intent on proving my God is irrelevant to the sufferings of the world, it fell flat. I could have said, God is the Great I AM, the Alpha and Omega, the Creator of the world, the suffering Savior, the strength for the weak. Who can really know how to describe this great God of ours?

But I didn’t get the chance to elaborate. The man kept talking, and my mind filled in the blanks where I didn’t catch the exact words: “You say your God is your life, because your life is good. Look at us. We are here in one of the poorest and most dangerous areas of the capital, homeless here on the street at 11pm, accepting hot soup from complete strangers. We have lived lives of suffering. Who are you to talk to us about a God that heals? About a God that saves? What do you know of such things?”

I just stood there. The weight of his suffering echoed within me. I felt a little sick to my stomach—perhaps a little like Jesus when He saw the multitudes and was “filled with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). 

Sara interrupted my thoughts by grabbing my arm.


The rest of the group was already leaving. I stayed back for a few seconds—not wanting to run from this moment if it really was an opportunity, but not being sure what I would say if he ever did stop talking—wishing I could understand more of his objections, but not wanting to be left alone. Finally, I had to interrupt him. My eyes filled with concern and reluctance, I simply said,