When I Bear-Hugged a Hero in Burger King

 

homeless, veteran, afghanistan

Photo by Franco Folini (Creative Commons)

One January day in downtown Phoenix, a man in his mid-twenties limped up to me and asked if I could buy him some lunch. After saying yes, I walked with him to Burger King, listening to his story:

He was in the Army, deployed to Afghanistan. After being there for six weeks, his leg got blown off right below the knee. He was sent home. The VA built him a prosthetic leg, gave him time to start healing, and sent him to a rehab hospital to strengthen his ‘new’ leg. He was there for five months and released to rebuild his life.

He had no family to rely upon to support him, since he was unmarried and his parents were dead.  He was barely able to walk. For some reason, this young man was denied military disability benefits.

So this veteran who was wounded protecting my freedom was left homeless and begging on the street for a hand-out.

My emotions were in my throat as I listened to his story. I thanked him for his bravery in serving his country as he did, and asked him if he had any friends in the area. He pulled out a wrinkled piece of paper with a few names and phone numbers scribbled on it, most of them crossed off.

He said, “There are still a few names left on this list for me to call. Stan said I could stay with him after Christmas, so I should be okay for a few days now.”

He paused, then turned to me and said,

Thanks for treating me like a human being. It’s great that you’re buying me lunch, but better that you’re treating me as an equal and listening to my story. Most people just throw money down on the ground, like I am less than they are. You treated me with dignity.

Then this real-life hero who has more bravery in his left pinky fingernail than I have in my body bear-hugged me in Burger King. For a long time, almost long enough for it to be awkward. “So….about that food,” he said to reduce the weirdness. I bought him a Whopper and a gift card for another week’s worth of meals.

I walked out feeling good about myself

I had made a small dent in the darkness of this world…but it didn’t last.

A moment later another man stumbled toward me, reeking of alcohol. “It’s my birthday and I haven’t had a coffee in years. Would you buy me a coffee so my life has meaning again?”

I’d love to tell you I continued my generosity, that I bought him a coffee plus a gift card. But I didn’t. I am not even sure why, to be honest with you. It’s been over a year now, and I am still bothered by why I said yes to one man and no to another.

I knew he wanted a hand-out from the second he made eye contact with me, but I knew the same thing with the Afghanistan veteran too.

It could be I deemed him unworthy because of a toothy grin. Something about the way he grinned made me feel he was untrustworthy. But it isn’t his fault his smile looks the way it does.

I might have felt I had done my good deed for the day, that I had already served the less fortunate in my community. I don’t think I keep a mental tally of good deeds, but maybe I do and I just don’t recognize it.

Perhaps I heard echoes of my uncles from my childhood. They told me every time we passed a homeless man it was his own fault he wasn’t employed, and he was just a useless drunk or druggie anyway.

What I can tell you is this – every time I think of that toothy drunk man, I feel sorrow in my heart. In my heart, I believe that Jesus wouldn’t be turned off by slurred speech and a stumble. Yet I know if I came across this man today, I would probably respond in exactly the same way.

I am certain that feeding a war veteran for a couple days doesn’t make me a hero. Mostly, I just walk on by and live my own life. I know I am called to do more, but I feel so overwhelmed by the poor. I don’t know what to do, how to help, where to give.

We Are Not Okay Even When We Say We Are Great

okay, not okay,

Photo by Thomas Kohler (Creative Commons)

“How are you doing?”

“I’m good, great actually. How about you?”

“No complaints!”

This is the most repeated lie in the world today. The truth is much more complex.

Maybe one person in this conversation is struggling with depression and wondering if it will cost them a job. Perhaps the other heard last week their mother has terminal cancer.

Neither person is good, much less great. There are complaints aplenty to go around.

And the same is probably true in our lives, either today or some day in the near future. None of us have a trouble-free life. We all have smooth seasons and terrible times.

We Don’t Want to Burden Someone Else

Still we contribute to the deception everyone’s lives are comprised of rainbows, unicorns, and sunshine each day. In part, we believe having a bit of honesty in even a casual conversation will create awkwardness for the other person. As if a simple response would create an enemy.

We could say, “It’s been tough lately. I have some challenges in my family, and it’s creating stress. How are you doing?”

What decent person would respond angrily to this type of answer? Nobody.

We Don’t Want to Be the Only Imperfect One

We know in our minds everyone is a mess, or has recovered from a mess. Nobody has it all together, and even if they do it’s because they have strained and stressed and struggled to arrive at “okay.”

Yet we hang on to the lie everyone else is better than us. We buy the misinformation that the rest of the world is all-put-together and we are the only messed up ones.

So we stick with platitudes. We tell half-truths to each other, and we stay hidden.

We Can Open the Door to Real Connections

I spent a lot of years doing this very thing, but I am getting better at this. Some days, I still catch myself falling into the old habit of acting as though everything is beautiful. Yet I am learning a new pattern. I am practicing honesty in every conversation, even the little ones.

The results are incredible. Instead of awkwardness, my transparency is met with authenticity and safety. When I take my mask off first or show my bruises, it gives the person I am talking to permission to do the same. Instead of skin-deep half-truths, I find real connections and common experiences.

Just the other day, I found myself in a very gritty conversation with a coworker. We talked about why our marriages are both “working” after over a decade, though many of our friends have long since divorced. We both walked away encouraged and strengthened, because we were reminded we are not alone.

How did this great conversation begin? What magic words did I utter to produce such honesty? Nothing special. She asked me how I’m doing, and I told her it’s been a tough month. Then the floodgates of real conversation were opened.

WWJS?

Truth is, this type of conversation is exactly what we see Jesus engaged in all over the Gospel narratives. The Samaritan woman at the well is perhaps the most well-known example. Jesus seamlessly transitioned from a dry throat to a life-changing conversation, because he took the first step into deep waters (no pun intended). He was constantly looking for opportunities to speak into the real issues of people’s souls.

Jesus was never satisfied with half-truths. He did not settle for platitudes. He yearned for true connections with others. So maybe, instead of trotting out the old WWJD? wristbands, we should ask ourselves a different question:

What

Would

Jesus

Say?

I am convinced we can have remarkable and significant conversations in a shallow world, if we will simply jump first, if we will risk first, if we will pull off our masks and admit we are not okay.

Jamie Coots, Doctors Are Not God’s Enemies

snakes, pastors, snake handlers, terry coots

Photo by Carly & Art (Creative Commons)

Jamie Coots, a famous snake-handling preacher in Kentucky, died this past week due to a snakebite. Something about this story unsettles me.

This is not because I have a history with snake handling pastors, and I don’t have any long-standing issues with reptiles either. Actually, it’s not even his death which troubles me, but rather the way he described his approach to handling snakes.

Coots stated, “I made a vow to God when I first started taking up serpents that if ever I was bitten I wouldn’t go to [the] hospital. I believe that when it’s my time to go there ain’t a doctor in this world that can keep me here.” He insinuates that his faith has a certain purity to it because he is trusting God instead of physicians.

Coots puts modern medicine and faith at odds with each other

Coots felt he demonstrated his faith in God by refusing medical assistance for the snakebite. This choice has left his church in pain and sorrow. As a congregation, they have to push through this tragedy and reconcile his death with our good God.

Don’t mishear me though. I would never say God is not in the business of healing. I firmly believe God can and does miraculously heal people in an instant. I have seen it happen more than once.

I have felt God move intestinal kinks under my fingers to prevent emergency surgery. I have prayed for back pain and seen immediate results. My wife and I have prayed for a terminally ill coworker and watched her leave the hospital healthy 48 hours later. I wholeheartedly believe in the kingdom of God, expressed in miraculous healings.

I also believe in medicine and physicians. And there is no conflict in these beliefs. My daughter is on two anti-epileptic medications, among other pills. We have seen her without her seizure meds, and it’s horrible. She has twenty or more seizures every day.

These drugs are a gift from God for her health. Our choice to medicate our daughter does not lessen our faith in God.

The faithful and mature Christian is never sick

This is a related teaching about illness that is equally painful. I spent many years in churches that taught this, and I have seen so many people hurt by this theology.

Wise and seasoned leaders would sincerely ask me if I had any sin to confess when I asked for healing prayer related to my seizures.

One of my friends was told her husband would have overcome his cancer if only she had believed more. I met her four years and one husband later, and she was still scarred from that encounter.

When my shoulder pain flared up, I was informed that it would dissipate if I would only raise my hands and worship freely.  Guilt was heaped onto my soul when I couldn’t do it without pain.

James 1:17 tells us “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”

Pain and sickness are not good. They do not come from God. He does not judge us by inflicting us with terrible things.

Our God is gentle and compassionate. Full of love, He looks to bless us, not curse us. Our God is good. And He loves snake-handlers physicians. Just like He loves all of us.