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Seeing Through God’s Eyes

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I get songs stuck in my head very easily. I almost always have a tune and lyrics running through my mind.

This night on Outreach is no different. My partner is tired and conversation has died out as we head up to the ‘L’ station, our last stop for the night. We have to walk a long stretch of Halsted before we turn onto Belmont. Praise choruses aren’t always my favorite things, but as we hike along, I really like the one thrumming around in my head.

“There is hope in the promise of the cross.
You gave everything to save the world you love.
And this hope is an anchor for my soul…”

At first, I’m just stepping in time with the beat as we walk block after block. But then we pass a bar with a group of drag queens standing out front smoking, and abruptly I realize the simple truth of the lyrics humming through my mind.

“You gave everything to save the world you love.”…Wait a second. THIS is the world that you love, God?

Farther down the street, we pass some rowdy twenty-somethings who have had too much to drink. Then there’s a group of drug dealers crowded around a doorway, and a man urinating against a brick wall. A homeless guy out panhandling—one hand outstretched, the other cradling a bottle of vodka inside the flap of his coat. More drag queens, druggies, drunk people…the usual crowd.

God, seriously? This? You gave everything for THIS?

Yes, he did. And it’s ridiculous.

A holy God, pure and without sin, steps down into our filthy world. He should be disgusted by what he sees; instead, he gazes with compassion on the beggars, swindlers, addicts…and he decides that they’re worth his own life.

“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

If the world I see in Boystown is worth everything to Christ, then it’s also a world worth seeing through God’s eyes.

Breathe

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I’ve never tried scuba diving. Friends who do it say i would enjoy it, but the opportunity has never come up, and, you know – sharks.

But lately an image of scuba diving keeps pressing on me. Because of staff cuts, most of us at Emmaus are managing multiple roles. Two of my three current jobs here make me spend a lot of time in areas i’m either weak in or unqualified for. My to-do lists grow longer every day. I’ve completely missed one or two meetings. I’m training volunteers, which feels absurd to me. Emmaus is short on cash again. The city is breathing down our backs over permits. A few days ago, during a torrential rain, i walked into our boiler room to find water pouring down the wall over the back door. It’s overwhelming and frustrating and exhausting.

All of this sits on top of normal Emmaus feelings. Watching brothers i love kill themselves with shocking efficiency and self-awareness. Sitting with them on yet another rainy Wednesday night because they shouldn’t be alone, but unable to change anything, to really do anything.

I don’t want to be a whiner. I know plenty of people who are struggling far more than me. But i am in over my head. It feels like this ocean is pressing in around me, threatening to crush me. This has always been my reality, but current circumstances force me to open my eyes. I can’t survive here on my own. I need this tank, regulator, Holy Spirit, Jesus.

My one job: breathe.

The analogy goes on. It’s beautiful here. There are things i would never get to experience if i weren’t doing this work. And there are certainly ways i am growing. No one really grows when they’re comfortable.

I keep thinking of 2 Corinthians 12:9. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Too much of my life is lived with an illusion of self-control. But when circumstances unmask that illusion, when i stop taking credit for “my” work, i can witness that perfect power, the beauty of God’s work around me. I get to participate in that work – to live and work within that power.

I just have to remember to breathe.

Stuck Like Glue

annettes_diner-_tableI’m sitting in a diner on the outskirts of Chicago’s south suburbs. Al and I made the 45-minute drive to visit “Gary,” who is in the booth across from me. He has a warm smile that carries a hint of mischief, but right now he is dead serious.

“I guess my biggest question is …does God really forgive me every time I ask, even when I don’t feel sorry?” Gary’s voice is anxious, his brown eyes questioning, and in that moment I can almost see Jesus plopping into the booth next to him, smiling, and saying, “My son, you are not far from the Kingdom of God.”

Gary is a new believer, and his history with Emmaus is long. Al would tell me later that Gary always seemed too kind to be a street hustler, yet he spent years selling his body to support his drug habit. The scars on Gary’s forearms tell of years of heroin usage, a habit that he recently quit cold turkey.

In his years of friendship with the staff of Emmaus, Gary heard much about Christ’s love. But he never believed in it.

A few years ago, Gary moved to Texas for rehab, then ended up in Indiana with his mom. Unfortunately, his mom is also using and, while living with her, he relapsed. Then, a few months ago, while high, Gary had a strange experience in which he met Jesus. He suddenly no longer felt high, and he realized that his whole life had to change. Through social media, Al found out about this experience, and he and Andi were able to visit with Gary. Soon thereafter, he moved back to Chicago, and I got to go along with Al on yet another Gary visit.

And so here we sit in the booth of a quiet diner – me, Al, Gary, and Jesus. As I listen to Gary and Al talk about forgiveness, video games, and funny stories from before my time at Emmaus, it occurs to me that what I now see is what we hope for every man who walks through the door of Emmaus: a broken and contrite heart leading to genuine faith and true life change.

The men at Emmaus can leave you dizzy: soaring joy one moment, crushing disappointment the next. But when you glimpse the end result of sticking with them, it’s all worth it.

Of course, our “sticking with” isn’t what rescued Gary – that’s all on Christ. But because Emmaus stuck with him through his highs and lows, we get to be here to celebrate his new life in Christ, to watch him grow, and to grow in our own faith because of him.

Food and Friendship

“I’m just so lonely!” Craig blurpancake-smileted out as he approached Andrew and me. We were on Outreach on a chilly Sunday evening.

You try not to pick favorites, but Craig has endeared himself to me. Whenever he sees me, he screams “MARY!” and scurries over to give me a hug. He towers over my six-foot frame, but is childlike in his demeanor.

Craig’s loneliness is a frequent conversation topic. That night he said, “All my friends do drugs, and I know it’s bad for me to be around them. I know I should not be out here, but I knew you all would be here and I wanted to hang out with you.”

The next day at the Ministry Center we cooked a meal that included ham and macaroni and cheese. During lunch, I invited Craig to join Andrew and me at a diner during our Outreach shift that night. His face lit up as he agreed.

When we got to our meeting spot, Craig was there, grinning and shouting our names. We entered the diner, chose a booth, took off our layers, and settled in for midnight pancakes, coffee, and conversation.

“What’s your dream?” I asked Craig. “If you could have any job and live in any location in the world, what would it be?”

“I want to be a CTA bus driver in Chicago!” he declared.

Craig talked about his aspirations and his love of driving. Andrew and I shared funny moments from our day. While we were eating and chatting and tossing back late-night coffee, Craig forgot that he would soon call a train seat a bed.

For me, it was just like hanging out with any friends of mine. It was almost a revelation to me later that Craig does have friends who don’t use. He has Andrew. He has me. He has other staff members and volunteers at Emmaus.

Jesus met people where they were, developed friendships, invited them to His table, and saw lives changed. We meet our guys where they are, develop friendships, invite them to share a meal, show them the love of Jesus and, little by little, start to see lives changed.

In my work with Emmaus, sometimes I’m a cook. Other times, I’m a counselor. But my favorite role is being a friend.

The Path through the Pain

tears_of_sadnessI was cooking in the Ministry Center when Emilio burst into the room and snatched his belongings out of the cupboard. “This place is no damn different,” he muttered under his breath. As I reminded him to respect the space (the men agree not to swear in the MC), he exclaimed “I’m gone!” and strode out the door.

Back out on the streets these days, Emilio has been using up the money in his bank account for drugs to escape and to quench his anger. My coworker Andrew had just tried to explain to him that he (Andrew) couldn’t do what Emilio had requested—in this case, contact Emilio’s mom about the debit card she was holding for him. Emilio’s anger choked off all our attempts to reason with him.

Many times at Emmaus, we’re called to love the guys in the ways they need, not necessarily in the ways they ask. It’s difficult, and there’s always a work of discernment in understanding, from knowing their story and situation, what’s most likely to give them a foundation for moving forward.

Emilio reminds me of the title character in the film Good Will Hunting. Will is gifted with a remarkable intellect. He is able to solve a complex theorem that has the students at MIT—where he works as a custodian—scratching their heads. But past abuse haunts him, giving him an uncontrollable anger: a defense mechanism in the harsh street culture of South Boston. He lands himself in jail, losing his job before he is discovered by a math professor who takes him under his wing. As he slowly opens up through the help of a therapist, it becomes clear that past abusive treatment by his foster father is undermining not only his most important relationships, but also his ability to accept and use his gifts.

Like Will Hunting, Emilio’s anger has deep roots in a hard past. It derails his attempts to move forward, even at Emmaus, which is a safe place to grapple with the past.

Sometimes the path forward is messy. We encounter the bitter fruits of a past filled with unimaginable abuse as we point the men towards Christ. But this is the Christ who took on terrible pain and humiliation, and triumphed over the powers of Satan in His cross. With our pain-accepting God, we walk through the hurt, in the hope that by His wounds our guys might be made whole.

The Nasty Things We Step In

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I turn onto Halsted Street and immediately sidestep a chunky puddle of someone’s stomach contents. Half a block down, as we pass two men talking, one of them leans out to caution, “Careful of your step, babe.” I glance down in time to avoid a stream of what seems like urine running across the sidewalk.

A couple of minutes later, we reach the 7-Eleven parking lot, littered with the usual cigarette butts, puddles of unknowns liquids, trash and, yes, more urine running down from where some guy just peed on the brick wall.

We step in a lot of nasty things on Outreach. Thankfully, we wear shoes to keep the filth from touching our feet. But what if that wasn’t the case? What if we walked around the Boystown neighborhood barefoot?

I don’t know how many times I’ve read the passage about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in John 13 and understood it only as a command to serve others as Christ did. But recently I’ve been challenged to read this passage from the receiving end, not just the giving end. What is Jesus teaching us here?

In first century Jewish culture, foot washing was a task for the lowest of the low. Everyone walked everywhere and, with sandals on, the stuff that collected on their feet was not unlike the stuff I try to avoid on Outreach. And yet, Jesus knelt down to scrub the filth off the feet of these men. Men like Judas, who would betray him, and Peter, who would deny him.

Knowing full well who he was (the King of kings and Lord of lords) and that these men would flee in terror the moment he was arrested, Jesus STILL washed their feet. He didn’t run from their filth, but waded right into it.

I think of myself and the gunk Jesus would have to scrub off my feet if I walked around Boystown barefoot, and I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed of the filth I carry, inside and out. God forbid that the King of kings and Lord of lords should bow down and wash me clean!

Yet that’s exactly what he does. That’s how great his love is. He doesn’t run from the mess. All the urine, all the puke, and whatever grime I am holding in my heart…it’s not enough to deter God’s love. He comes into the mess, whether I want him to or not.

Heather has noticed that “God of the mess” seems to be a theme in her life since coming to Emmaus. To read more of her reflections along these lines, go to this blog post.

Silence

aldridge_february_blog_silence_imageA wood-burning stove, cozy blankets, snow that is actually white instead of greyish-brown, and my favorite thing in the world: SILENCE. This was the experience I was blessed with last year as the Kaio Community went on retreat at Plow Creek. I love the city—the activities, the diversity, being able to walk to the grocery store—but being in the country refreshes my soul.

I was once talking to Timothy as he was whipping up some hot soup to offset the frigid weather. He’s been to Plow Creek a few times over the years. When I asked him what his favorite part of those visits was, he said, “I love the quiet and the lack of distractions there.”

Wow, I thought, this lifelong city-dweller and I have that in common.

Something important happens when we are able to quiet the distractions in our lives: we make room for God to show himself.

There is a spiritual exercise that really exemplifies that for me. You find a peaceful place, spend a few minutes quieting your thoughts, then slowly read this well-known Bible verse, removing a word with each repetition until you are left with the most simple (and also most difficult) way to hear God:

Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am.
Be still and know.
Be still.
Be.

During this Lenten season, please consider, along with me, ways in which you can remove distractions to focus on your relationship with God and how much he loves you. Be still and know. Be.

Go God!

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“You know how you guys always pray for me before I leave? I am really looking forward to that prayer today. I need it!” Franklin said when he arrived at the Ministry Center.

“We can pray whenever you want. Let’s pray now,” I said. Andrew, Sill, Franklin, and I gathered in a circle. “Franklin, why don’t you lead us today?” Andrew asked.

As Franklin prayed, his voice rose to a shout.

“God, crack is killing me! I can taste it and smell it and I want it so badly. But I know it’s killing me! God! Help me escape this!”

By the time he finished praying, tears were streaming down Franklin’s face. It was evident that God had moved in his life. Andrew, Sill, and I had nothing to do with it—we merely witnessed it. Go God!

“Go God!”

It’s become common for us to hear this on the streets. A short, animated, and typically drunk man yells it when he sees Emmaus Outreach teams. It’s always funny to hear, but it’s also become a great reminder. God is working through me, yes; but any successes, like Franklin’s prayer, are because of Him. Go God!

It’s always a temptation to put pressure on myself to make our guys change. But it ultimately has nothing to do with me. I have to be available to be used by God, and it requires surrendering and trusting God with our guys, but He’s got this! He is more than enough. He is hope. He is greater than drugs, depression, loneliness, and even fear.

When the men come face to face with temptation and have even just one victorious battle in that war, go God! When Payton tells me that prayer works, go God! When Victor retells the gospel story that he heard at the church he recently visited, go God! When Franklin prays for his addiction, go God! When God uses me to point the guys to Him, go God!

He deserves all the glory!

Sprinting for the Train

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Remember the 70s? Everything was blurry back then!

On a recent night, I was watching my phone tick away precious minutes as my Amtrak train crawled into Union Station. With seven minutes to catch my Metra train, I shot out the Amtrak doors as soon as the conductor stepped off. I sprinted through the bowels of Union Station, up the escalator to the street, down the two and a half blocks to Ogilvie Transportation Center, through the revolving door, up another escalator, down to the last track, and onto my train—with two minutes to spare!

As I sat in my seat shedding layers of clothing, I wondered why I felt so bad after such a short run. Three to four miles is usually a comfortable distance for me. I looked at the overstuffed weekend bag I had carried over my shoulder with a new appreciation for the ROTC students I had seen running with huge packs on earlier that day.

I also understand so much better the words that one of our men, Bill, said to me in a recent phone conversation:

“I am bearing down. I have a race to run, and I don’t want to run it with the baggage I have been carrying for so much of my life. God is liberating me. I don’t need to carry that baggage anymore.”

Amen, brother!

Toothbrush, Toothpaste, Deodorant…

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I was working in the Ministry Center when I saw Franklin sitting by himself, writing on a piece of paper. Grabbing a cup of coffee, I sat down nearby and peeked at the paper.

It was a list. It looked a lot like my shopping lists:

Toothbrush
Toothpaste
Deodorant
Mouthwash
A pair of blue jeans
Shaving cream
Vitamins

“Is that your shopping list?” I asked.

“Not exactly,” he replied. “I made this list to encourage me to not buy drugs with my next paycheck. The drugs are killing me, and I need the things on this list to make my life better. If I buy drugs, I can’t have these things.”

Jesus works through small, ordinary things to do big, wonderful things. He used water to perform his first recorded miracle. He used two fish and five loaves to feed thousands. And that day, in the Ministry Center, he inspired Franklin to make a list so that he won’t buy drugs.

I’m waiting for a big, wonderful miracle.

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