Thursday, June 26, 2014

We Are Frauds, Part 1

It's hard not to be a fraud.

There's a mini-mart across the street from the office building where I work in downtown Boise. There's a sidewalk lining the mini-mart, and as I approach in my humble compact car I see a man sitting on that sidewalk, legs out straight, his back up against the wall. It's June, and yet he's wearing long clothing and a coat -- the first sign of homelessness. And here's the problem: I need a cup of coffee from that mini-mart.

It's a problem because I have resolved to stop ignoring homeless people. It means today I must act. I must talk to him and begin the arduous task of building a relationship with someone alien. And before I can begin building a relationship, I must meet his most immediate need: breakfast.

My old church tradition was good at adding caveats to just about every word that came from the lips of Jesus. Especially when it came to loving the poor. I was taught that the natural contempt I had for such people was really love, because giving them anything (other than "the gospel") was hurting them, continuing their cycle of dependency. Because they had -- and still do have -- every opportunity to bootstrap themselves into any of the high office windows reflecting the rising of the sun around us. Because the most effective witness we can make is just being ourselves: modest but stylish, humble but well-educated, financially secure but knowing God may (but probably won't) taketh away. We were to make them jealous, you see. We were the Jets, snapping our fingers at the world.

But now I see the chronic poor -- especially the homeless -- as people in bondage. Not in bondage to themselves, as we'd like to think, but to the Principalities and Powers of this world. To the Accuser. To Satan. Yes, there are heartier meals to be had, but since his defeat at the Cross Satan has always been a petty tyrant.

So what do I say to the man on the sidewalk? I've never been one for small talk. I've never been good at making friends. And I'm afraid. Not that the man will harm me, or even that I'll fail.

I'm afraid I'll look like a fool.

After parking in the garage opposite the mini-mart, I cross the street at the signal and watch the man through the corner of my eye. And I can see now that he's holding a cup of coffee. And my old self snatches at that cup of coffee and begins making excuses: if he has coffee, he has probably already eaten. If he has coffee, someone must already have helped him. If he has coffee (and here the Accuser sets his hook), he might not be homeless at all, because coffee is a luxury, and a homeless man would never choose coffee over food, and how offended he would be if he was not homeless and yet I treated him as if he was.

I walk inside and start filling a 20 ounce cup (two-thirds cappuccino and one-third breakfast blend) hoping the Holy Spirit will descend upon me somewhere between the creamer station and the checkout line. But he doesn't. I pay for my coffee, get my patron card punched (three more coffees and I get a free one), and leave by a different exit. And I walk across the street to my office.

The moment I sit at my desk, I feel the weight of guilt and shame on my shoulders. It's the very guilt and shame my old church tradition worked so, so hard to eliminate with all its caveats, with all its redefining, with all its cold calculations.

But I refuse. Refuse. REFUSE. to rationalize my way out of helping that man.

Better to carry my guilt and shame openly because then at least there is hope that I will be compelled to overcome it.

Otherwise, I am damned.

When I see that man again in two day's time, things will go differently.

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