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Exposure - It's About Time (Thoughts on My Service and Speaking at the Bowery Mission)

Originally written: October 24, 2004

So I've been back since Wednesday evening now, and I haven't written a word. Do I need more discipline in my life? Perhaps. Or perhaps I simply need something worthwhile to say.

The mere act of putting words on a page (or screen) is discipline. So many of our words are idle words, tossed off upon the breeze, spoken casually without regard for deeper meaning. Words upon the page return to us, for good or ill. They provoke an ongoing conversation.

I find myself in an odd situation, wanting and yet not wanting to write about my experience at the Bowery. I don't know whether people want to know how the experience changed me; I certainly don't want to impose on people, like that egotistical, solipsistic person who believes everyone wants to know his feelings. I think "sharing" is overvalued in evangelical culture.

So, enough of the not-wanting: I wouldn't be writing this at all, except that people ask me how it was, and I want something more to say than a one-sentence response. "It was good." What thoughts, what stresses, what experiences lies behind that phrase? If I don't write something, I'll never know.

This post wouldn't have come into existence except for these words from a friend of mine:

New York was...incredibly relaxing for me. It seemed like every little piece of me was accepted and affirmed. I could just be. And serve. And laugh. And observe the passage of my little stream of consciousness, without fear.

Relaxing? I found it stressful. But not because of the difficulty of serving (the work was easy; often there was too little for us to do, since the group was too large) and not because I saw people in need (they were surprisingly respectful in chapel, and more gracious, friendly, and sincere than many of us more "privileged" folk; not to mention that I've seen mental illness before; people are people no matter what, all children of the same Father, all made in His image). Not even because I had to give a sermon - preaching on Isaiah 6 and hearing the disciples (as the people in the program are called) say "Amen" in response was one of the most joyful experiences I've had...ever.

No, what made it stressful for me was the group dynamics, both with people inside the group and people outside. I was tremendously blessed to discover how many great people there were on our team whom I probably never would have met otherwise and I was often encouraged in my faith by the people in the program.

Still, it was draining. I am an introvert by nature; I need time to get away, recharge, and reflect. I didn't find much of that. I was always with other people, striving to relate to them as they desired to be related to. And sometimes I felt like I was being scrutinized.

One man from the program in particular kept looking into my eyes and asking why he saw sadness there. I don't think he saw sadness there; I was just thinking. But who knows? As it ended up, I was benching and he was spotting me, all the while encouraging me to give my life to Christ one hundred percent, body and soul. And I was saying, "I do believe. I do desire Him. I just have these struggles still, and I think that's part of life."

Christianity is a miracle, but it's not a miracle cure; it doesn't work over night. It won't bring all those people out of homelessness, necessarily. God wants to makes us holy before He makes us happy. He will make us happy, yes, but only once we learn that His holiness is the only true happiness. We can't escape that holiness, as I said in my sermon - "Even if I make my bed in the depths of Hell, Lord, You are there." And the Garden of Eden became a Hell when You were not there.

So for me, the Bowery trip was a time of serious reflection. Some of the things I learned about myself I don't feel comfortable sharing in such a public medium. It was those things, though, that I felt compelled to speak to people about while I was there, often. The one-on-one exchange, face to face, is the highest and the most basic of all human relationships. May we seek it out when we can, but don't expect it to be easy. The eyes of the other are a refiner's fire.