After a decade and a half of caring for street people, I often like to think I have this love your neighbor thing figured out.
But every time I get there, God reveals just one more thing. And I question everything.
Some years ago, I assisted a homeless vet named Bryan into a house. Besides declining health, he had most things working in his favor. He liked to fish and dress nicely. He was smart, earned a service-connected pension, and if I hadn’t told you he was homeless he would come across as any other retired guy.
Bryan was a one-time homeless guy, briefly ending up in shelter when his health prevented him from working at the same pace. He moved into a rented room and never lost his housing again.
It had been so many years since I had heard from Bryan that when the police called a few months ago asking for his next of kin, it took me a while to place the name and the face.
With Bryan gone, it wasn’t long before his roommate started worrying about the other half of the rent. It isn’t uncommon for us to patch a vacancy in a shared housing situation, when the loss of a roommate would cause another neighbor to lose their housing; so, she called.
“There’s just one problem,” she said. “His room is a mess, and I don’t know where to even begin.”
I’ve seen the worst of messes, take my word for it. And so, I didn’t think anything about climbing into my cleaning gear and heading over for a Saturday morning quick fix.
I had a roommate match in mind, and figured that a few hours of heavy-duty cleaning would do the trick.
It was, perhaps, the 28th bag of trash that Bryan’s roommate and I hauled from his apartment that my emotions got the best of me.
One time homeless.
No substance abuse issues.
Every reason to succeed independently.
And yet, his declining health and absence of community left him to die alone in a pile of trash.
You should know, I get so freaking mad at God in these moments. I make it about me and my organization. Then, I grieve the things I wish we had known and the ways I know it could have been different.
Eventually, I quell the pain enough to ask the most important question, “Where is God at work in this?”
It occurs to me in reflection on this recent experience that it is not uncommon for a disciple, even the original 12, to find themselves unknowingly asleep in the midst of divine activity. It is easy to grow complacent, to think we have all the answers, when we’ve spent so much time tracking the footsteps of Jesus. It was the disciples, after all, who fell asleep in the most critical hours preceding Christ’s betrayal (Mark 14: 32-42).
Just one passage earlier in the book of Mark, however, we are reminded of the difficulty in attentive living. The uncertainty of when and how Christ’s presence will be made known is grueling work. Keep awake. Stay alert. Remain on the watch, calls Mark 13: 24-37. Something is going to happen.
That means there is no actual point of arrival in our coming to understand and embody the essence of discipleship. In fact, every situation has the potential to reveal not just where God is at work, but where God needs us next.
I have grieved for our neighbor Bryan, and I am sad that he left this world with such despair. But I can lose myself in a pool of self-analysis, or can get to work. I can keep watch. And I can wait for the next opportunity to be an instrument in thy kingdom come.
“When Lord when,” will it all make sense we may sometimes wonder.
While we do not know what will come and how it will happen, we know who is to come.
And so, we watch.