Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Invisible Homeless Among Us

I am not an expert when it comes to serving our homeless population. But I am very aware of some of the hurdles that we face as we strive to actively express compassion to such individuals. Drug addiction and severe mental illness are among the list of difficulties. In recent months, it has become very clear to me that there is another kind of homeless population. There are the invisible homeless.

It seems like a day does not go by that I do not encounter someone who feels abandoned, lonely, or cast away. As far as I know, all of these individuals have a bed to crawl into at the end of a long day. Some of them  even live in beautiful homes. But nevertheless they feel homeless. 

I refer to them as the invisible homeless, because it is nearly impossible to recognize such people simply by observing their outward demeanor. They are gainfully employed. They have cars to drive and nice clothes to wear. But inwardly they are struggling.  Their family has rejected them.  They have made really poor life choices. Relationships have unraveled. In other cases, they have lost loved ones. Deep regrets are an integral part of their daily existence.

How do we serve this segment of the homeless population?  How do we touch the hearts of the invisible homeless?  I know there are hurdles to be jumped over in serving them too. But I only have one idea for now. Perhaps more will be forthcoming. But for now I only have one…

If we are interested loving the invisible homeless, then we have to start by acknowledging their existence in the first place. When I am walking in downtown Chicago or in parts of Austin, I know it is really tempting to just ignore that guy who is obviously homeless.  It is far less complicated if I just keep on walking. And the same is true in regard to the invisible homeless. 

If the invisibility is going to disappear, then we have to be willing to get in the relational trenches with people.  We have to be willing to be quick to listen and slow to speak.  In fact, we need to listen long enough and carefully enough to hear the real story. And when the story starts to surface, we can’t run for the hills. That is when the privilege of loving the invisible homeless begins.

 My one idea therefore is all about acknowledging.  We are able to recognize that a person is among the invisible homeless, because we choose to care enough to listen. Could it be that such a person could actually move out of that state of invisible homelessness a result?  I realize such situations are complicated, but I do believe that is a start… What homeless person will you touch this week?

Friday, March 29, 2013

You Blew It!! I am Going to Slice and Dice You...

Yesterday I judged at a UIL Lincoln Douglas Debate Competition in rural Brock, Texas. I thought my debate coaching and judging days were over after Daniel graduated from high school, but that is not to be the case apparently.  Yesterday there were several matches where an experienced high school debater was paired with a student that possessed little or no experience in a tournament setting. It could have been the equivalent of me going up against Tiger Woods in match play competition on the golf course. But that is not what unfolded yesterday.

I judged two rounds where highly competent high school debaters chose to reach out to their opponent in the mindset of a peer mentor. They still argued their case. They accomplished all of the objectives that are necessary for winning the round. But in the process, they chose to reach out to their struggling opponent instead of plowing over that person.

In terms of the rules of engagement in UIL Lincoln Douglas Debate, they could have shredded their rival intellectually by harping on every single dropped argument and by spending the remainder of their speaking time reinforcing their debate case from every possible angle.  There are a lot of ways they could have sliced and diced their challenger, and still have been well within the rules of the contest.  But in the case of two debaters I heard, that did not occur. They covered the necessary bases and then spent the remainder of their speaking time extending a helping hand.

What about us? What can we learn from these bright high school students? We are exposed to people on a pretty consistent basis that find themselves in a position of vulnerability. They have blown it. They are not prepared. They are the new kids on the block so to speak. They have a lot to learn.  In some situations, they have brought trouble on themselves by doing really thoughtless things.

What are we going to do?  I suppose we are well within the “rules” of life to point out their flaws. We can all too eagerly show them their failures. And we can launch into lengthy diatribes regarding the “right” way to do it. We can tell them what “sinners” they are. The possibilities really are limitless. But I think I saw a better way yesterday.  Highly skilled high school debaters from rural Texas schools reminded me of an important life lesson.

The expression of true compassion occurs when we are well within the “rules” to point out someone else’s flaws to them. But we choose instead to reach out. We commit to kindness and empathy. We choose to mentor instead of steam rolling someone. We don’t abuse the positional authority that has given to us for a brief moment.  And somewhere in the process, a vulnerable person is not plowed over. I believe that is a good thing.  Go easy on me Tiger. I could use some coaching on the golf course. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

What? You Too! I Thought I was the Only One!

When each of our boys started sleeping all the way through the night, it was a big deal.  Feedings in the wee hours of the morning soon ceased. Walking the floor with a baby suffering from colic lasted only a matter of weeks even though it seemed like months at the time!  Time marched on and they soon reached a point of seemingly staying up all night and sleeping during the day during school breaks.

It never occurred to me that a grown man could go decades without sleeping all the way through the night.  Last week as I visited with a lady who was married to a Vietnam veteran I learned otherwise.  During the course of our conversation she shared a significant event that took place in her husband’s life prior to his death.

Her husband came home from Vietnam damaged emotionally. I have no idea what kind of attention that he received as he readjusted to civilian life. Awareness of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is no doubt greater today than it was in 1973. She told me that he suffered from intrusive memories and painful nightmares on a very regular basis. She watched him suffer in the wee hours of the morning for years.

But in 2003, something of great significance took place. Her husband traveled to another state to reunite with fellow Vietnam Veterans that he served beside during his overseas service. The sense of community they experienced with each other was beyond words according to his wife. They shared openly about their pains and difficulties. It was profoundly healing. 

She also became acquainted with the spouses of the veterans that reunited. As the spouses continued to correspond with each other after the event, she discovered that some of the men slept all the way through the night for the first time in 40 years. The reunion with their fellow soldiers was that healing.

I visit with people every single day that are damaged emotionally in one form or another. I also interact with people that have been exposed to trauma. I hope that whatever contact I have with them is healing. I realize that emotional difficulties are infinitely complex, but positive interaction with other people can soothe damaged emotions. 

But I am also reminded that bringing people together that have had similar life difficulties is also imperative. C.S. Lewis was correct when he said: “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: "What! you too? I thought I was the only one.” Obviously the renewed friendships that took place at the reunion of Vietnam veterans were characterized by such revelations!  May your life be blessed with such moments of friendship.  Friendship heals. 

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Six Year Old's Do NOT Get Married...or Do They?

I received a message from a bride to be this week.  She asked me if I would officiate at her wedding.  My immediate reaction was to laugh.  In my mind, this precious little girl is still in the first grade at Dillman Elementary School. She needs to go and play on the swing set adjacent to the church building instead of sending messages about weddings. It is ridiculous. Six year old's don’t get married.

Fortunately I was jarred out of my walk down memory lane before I replied to her message. This beautiful young lady is 24 years old. She will soon graduate from Texas Tech School of Law.  My reply to her request sounded ever so professional.  But underneath the veneer of professionalism in my reply, I shed a tear or maybe two.  All of us mature men are sensitive old coots.  I had to smile to myself though…

Ministry has its perks. I don’t mean country club memberships or expense accounts.  Ministry has priceless perks.  One of those benefits is the privilege of officiating at weddings for girls that you have known since the first grade, or in some cases their entire life. I can’t describe what a privilege it is to watch a young lady and her father walk down the wedding aisle.  It is beyond words.

When I look back on my career someday, there will be significant events that I will forget. There will be regrets.  I am sure there will be issues that I had wished I had handled better.  And there could be days that I wished I had done something in ministry other than serving a local church.  But if had abandoned local congregational ministry, I would have missed out on the perks that go with it.

On July 5th, Kate’s dad will give her away.  I am glad it is him and not me. I am thankful that I raised a house full of boys. But I will be there to enjoy one of the perks of congregational ministry. The wedding guests will see a beautiful bride that day, but I will see a six year old girl. I just can’t help it. After all I am an old coot.

Good Intentions Can be Cruel

This week I heard the story of a man who attended the same university that I did for my undergraduate degree work. He was just a few years ahead of me, so he is in his early 50’s. His life however has taken an unexpected direction.  I don’t know the details, but I was made aware this week that he has lived alone in a nursing home for quite some time. Thankfully several alums from our alma mater have made a point to reach out to him.

One of those kind souls who have touched his life made a comment that I cannot get out of my mind.  She said:  We can’t just go see someone like him one time.  That would be cruel.  I found that to be profound. She of course is right. When we go see a younger person living in a nursing home, we get their hopes up. They think that person really cares.  And so naturally they anticipate further contact from the visitor.  It would be cruel to leave them sitting there all alone after one visit…

It occurs to me that we pat ourselves on the back for going to feed the homeless one time.  Or we help needy children during the Christmas season. It is a one day event.  We take teens from our church youth group to clean an elderly person’s yard for one day. We do so many things “one time.”  I sometimes wonder if we spend more time patting ourselves on the back then we do in actual service to others.

Today I am thinking about a friend of mine that visits a young man with Down’s syndrome in a nursing home every single Friday. They go to lunch or get out for a soft drink. I am thinking of friends that volunteer for hospice. One of my friends sits with hospice patients at nursing home facilities for hours at a time several days a week. When the patient dies, she grieves with them.  And I am thinking about a lady I read about recently who meets military personnel returning from overseas assignments at the airport. She calls herself the “hugging lady.”  She hugs every single soldier as they arrive. She has provided this service for years now.  I also appreciate a friend of mine who was recently widowed. He often spends his days visiting people in assisted living facilities. And I think of my friend Laverne.  I officiated at Laverne’s funeral recently.  Prior to her death she and a group of ladies did what they referred to as “calling and caring.”  Every week they called and sent cards to elderly people that were home-bound.

What about this young man who lives in a nursing home? We can’t just visit him one time. That would be cruel….She is right. And so I am reminded that commitment to serving others is characterized by consistency. And I am thinking that serving a few people really well is better than spreading ourselves too thin.  And I am convicted by the fact that I have gone to see way too many people only one time.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Lessons Learned on the Burn Unit at Parkland Hospital

I am not one apt to complain.  At least that is the perception I have of myself. There is a distinct possibility that such self understanding is way off base. I am capable of whining about anything and everything.  I realized I have nothing to grumble about, because I spent today spent visiting friends at Parkland Hospital’s Burn Unit in Dallas.

I have a friend whom I privileged to serve at the Granbury Police Department that has been with her husband in the hospital since January 10th.  The “septic” infection in his body caused burns that led to admission to the ICU Unit at Parkland on the burn floor after being previously hospitalized in Ft. Worth. His ongoing recovery is nothing short of a miracle. His tenacity and courage is beyond description. As I visited with Doug and Sharon today, I learned a few things.

I discovered that there are a lot of really decent people in the world.  The two men that drive the shuttle bus from the hotel to the hospital have asked Sharon every single day about Doug’s progress. One of the gentlemen told her that he and his wife pray for Doug every evening at their home. Other hotel employees have extended similar kindnesses.  Several days ago an elderly couple encountered Sharon and her sister in a small “family room” on the burn floor.  After exchanging very brief pleasantries, these total strangers shed genuine tears as they listened to Doug’s story. They led a moving prayer for Doug and went about their way. Sharon asked her sister if they had just encountered two angels…No doubt they did.

My faith in health care professionals has been renewed.  The physician who took care of Doug in the emergency room at Harris Hospital in downtown Ft. Worth on January 10th took the time to call Sharon recently just to check on Doug’s progress.  Nurses from the first ICU unit Doug was admitted to at Harris Hospital have made similar gestures. I marveled at the compassionate and competent care that he received today at Parkland

As I visited with them at the acute burn unit, I heard about the 7 year old patient across the hall from Doug’s room. The little boy's pain has been awful. I stopped to visit with a lady that I had seen in hallway through the course of the day.  Her 22 year old son was burned in a house fire last Sunday morning.  I heard about patients literally screaming out in pain during wound care procedures.

One of Sharon’s co-workers from the police department joined me in my trek to Parkland today. Her concern reflects a recurring theme I have seen at the police department starting with the chief and moving through the ranks of officers and civilian employees. They care. I mean they really care.  I watched an officer “stand guard” over Sharon the very first night that Doug was admitted, so she could rest securely in the ICU waiting room. They have been generous with their time and their money.

I am supposed to be the police chaplain. I am supposed to be one providing spiritual care. But I am finding that they are teaching me how to serve.  And I found today that being in a burn unit at a large hospital taught me that I have nothing to complain about and everything to be thankful for. I will still be the chaplain tomorrow, but I think I will serve with a much better outlook. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Do we Value and Respect Those Closest to Us?

Driving Miss Daisy won the Academy Award for best picture in 1990. The story line revolves around the relationship of an elderly Jewish woman from Atlanta, GA and her African American chauffer, Hoke.  Jessica Tandy won the Academy Award for best actress in a leading role that year.  Morgan Freeman was nominated for best actor for his portrayal of Hoke.

In one particular scene, Miss Daisy is going to a formal banquet to hear after dinner speaker, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  In a round about way, Miss Daisy asks Hoke as he is about to drop her off at the banquet if he would like to attend the event with her. His response was:  If you are going to invite me to go you are going to ask me “proper.” Needless to say Hoke did not accompany her to the banquet that evening.

Isn’t it true that all of us appreciate being asked “proper?” If someone asks us to join them at an event as afterthought, it is not affirming. One way we can affirm another person’s value is to ask them well in advance to accompany us to some social gathering.  If I have a friend with a birthday coming up, asking him to join me for dinner or a round of golf well in advance conveys that his birthday is important. I value him enough to make plans.

I love being spontaneous. And I am the most disorganized person on the face of the earth. But I try to think through how I can honor those I love well in advance on their birthdays or on other special occasions. My best surprises often take months to think through and plan.  It is great fun, but it requires advance thought.

I recall an event when some friends made plans to attend an event that my kids would have enjoyed. They secured their tickets and made plans weeks in advance. Two days before the outing I was asked if I wanted to bring my boys and join them.  At that point, I felt like an afterthought. I graciously declined. You could say that I was being hypersensitive, but I tend to think like Hoke. I appreciate being asked “proper.”  Let’s try this week to treat all of our friends “properly” and thus show them the respect they deserve.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Saying Goodbye to Another Mentor...

He opened the cash register and handed me a dollar bill…What’s this for, I asked? Well it is obvious you can’t afford a razor, so here is a dollar to go buy one.  I got the message…I was expected to show up for work clean shaven. I was an 18 year old freshman at Texas Tech University in the fall of 1980.  The man offering me the necessary funds to buy a razor was Bill Groux.

Bill owned and operated one of the last truly full service gas stations and auto repair shops that existed in Lubbock.  We had no self serve pumps…Bill expected us to wear clean Texaco uniforms. We pumped the gas, cleaned windshields, and checked the oil and the tire pressure for every single customer. In addition to fuel sales, we hand washed cars, changed oil, fixed flat tires, and did minor mechanical repairs. He also had a full time mechanic who did more complicated repair jobs.  Interestingly enough Bill was not a proficient mechanic.  He could hire people to do that job.  His talents laid elsewhere.

Mr. Groux (as we called him) possessed outstanding people skills. Customers would come in to purchase gas or pick up their vehicles after a repair job only to talk to Bill for extended periods of time.  He was an excellent listener.  There is no telling how many troubled souls were impacted by his ability to listen and empathize. He could relate to all kinds of people. He was excellent business manager.  And he understood the essence of customer service.  I ended up working for Bill until I graduated from college in 1984. I walked away a far more mature young man.

Bill modeled good people skills and I took equally good mental notes. He encouraged me to stay in college when I really wanted to quit.  His favorite phrase was: Get that knowledge!   I heard him say that over and over and over again. At one point, I was going to move in with a bunch of guys in a situation that would have torpedoed my educational endeavors.  He called me in his office one day and informed me I would not be making that move. And I didn’t…

In 1980, I was a fatherless 18 year old who did not have enough sense to show up at work clean shaven. He was far more than employer. He recognized my vulnerability. He took me in and took care of me. He taught me respect. I don't think he would have used the word mentor, but that is what he did. I will be forever indebted to him.

Mr. Groux passed from this life last Friday. Tomorrow I will make the trek to Lubbock to attend his funeral.  I knew this day was coming, but I am just not ready.  He was 84 years old.  That means he was 51 years old when he hired me in 1980.  I turn 51 this year…I wonder who God will bring in my life to mentor and love as Bill did for me.