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My Years in Purgatory
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La Pieta by Michelangelo in St. Peter's in Rome

February 14, 2008                                     


                 MY YEARS IN PURGATORY


In the wake of the initial exhilaration of going on a mission trip a mere nine months after beginning my walk with the Lord a long season of sacrifice and want began.


I yearned to serve the Lord with all my being.  I wanted Him to use me to save souls.  In response, He designed for me a life in the “wilderness”—something akin to the early experiences of Moses, Elijah and John the Baptist in the bible.


Capitol Hill’s Union Station became my desert, my purgatory, for a season.


I do not believe that there are places in heaven actually called “limbo” or “purgatory,” as Catholic doctrine holds.  However, I am positive that the concepts exist in some fashion.  It’s probably not so much punishment as education.  My purgatory became my education.


I feel the Holy Spirit in incredible ways on a constant basis.  Often when the Lord leads me in a certain direction I see or hear something, or talk to someone that confirms for me the fact that He sent me.  The course is almost never a straight shot, but full of fits and starts and apparent dead ends. 


Even when I get impatient and disobediently resist the feelings and thoughts guiding me I often find that as I go in completely the opposite direction from where I believe the Lord wants me to go that a divinely  appointed moment occurs.  As if Jesus Christ knew what I would do, what I would think and where I would go in advance and actually drove me there the same as when I am obedient.


As I longed for a “meaningful” and “substantive” assignment in the body of Christ, or even the chance of attending a seminary or divinity school, I found the Lord had other plans for me.  Often, I would find myself with the homeless at Union Station or Capitol Hill parks nearby.


After all, Jesus our King was a man of “no reputation” (Philippians 2:7), who was uneducated, and not one knowing “letters” (John 7:15).  He has, for our sakes, made Himself “poor” (2 Corinthians 8:9).  For me to become like Jesus, a new creature, it turns out I had to become…like Jesus.


Only a complete break with what I had previously known and believed would ensure a complete transformation.  That was His will, and also what I desired.


So what is it that I have seen in Union Station these last several years that I had missed for a decade before I accepted Jesus even though I lived nearby and had spent a lot of time there?


The homeless.


I had not been completely without compassion, and I had given away small amounts of money here and there.  What the business man or woman hurrying downtown on the subway or catching a train for further points unknown misses can only be seen by sitting and watching--over time.  And, by taking the time to talk to and treat the homeless as people.


What you don’t see, unless you look, is the abject misery and complete desperation that seems to last for an eternity.  Even if these feelings enter in we normally shut them out.  To make it real these emotions must be embraced.


Union Station is essentially their home.  In the morning, the endless line of the destitute straggles in to wash up, brush their teeth, change clothes or go to the bathroom.  I once witnessed a man near Union Station threaten to shoot a homeless person because he urinated on his garage in an alley.  How incongruous that people walk their dogs and actually pick up their waste but a man or woman can be arrested or threatened for doing just what comes naturally.


Imaging not having anyplace to just relieve yourself.  Imagine walking around in endless circles near the train station or the bus station, sometimes in the freezing cold with snot pouring from your nostrils because you have no place where they will accept you and comfort you.


Imagine carrying everything you own on your back, like Jesus sent out the Apostles.  Never deciding where, when or what to eat.  The soup kitchens serve old food that often gives you diarrhea.  You have no phone number or home, but are of “no fixed address.” 


Imagine never eating at a really good restaurant, never ever having been on a vacation or even out of town recently.  Imagine not going to the movies, to the mall or just hanging out with friends in a halfway decent café; much less a play or a concert.  All your clothes are hand me down.  You never see your family because you are so ashamed.  Completely cut off from humanity.  You’ve learned not to trust anyone, have nothing of value to call your own and you’re uneducated.


You sleep on park benches, under overpasses or in U-Haul trailers.  In the shelters, others steal what little you do have or you are constantly threatened with physical violence and you can’t take it anymore.  You can’t sleep because of the noise and they don’t turn off all the lights, and it’s dirty and smells.  Indeed, it’s like jail.  Or, you are trying to get off drugs and the staff at the shelter is supplying drugs!


For women it’s even worse.  Although the men complain that there are more programs to help women than men.  They are under constant threat of being assaulted and raped, by men and women.  You don’t see women with children on the street.  You assume it’s because there must be programs to take care of them. 


But, the real deal is that every mother knows that if they are caught with their children being homeless on the street social services may take them on a whim in an instant.  Once you lose them it’s hard to get them back; so they will beg, borrow, steal, do whatever to stay almost anywhere.


Understand, many of the homeless have faith in Jesus Christ and attend church regularly.  Some have bibles among their meager possessions and a few know it well.  What should we do, ignore their plight; abandon them as hopeless cases, give up?


Tell me, who wouldn’t lose hope under these circumstances?  Is it so hard to understand that with this kind of pressure many turn to alcohol, drugs and promiscuous sex just to kill time or feel good even if it’s for just a few minutes.  True, some would be motivated to work to get out from under.  But let’s be honest, faced with such a bleak outlook most of us would turn into substance abusers and would look for every opportunity to get a few dollars. 


This means pan handling, becoming a petty thief or prostituting oneself.


There they are; same place, every day, year after year.  Constantly seeing others with things that they can never have, eating food they will never taste, many living a life they will never enjoy.


Some have clear infirmities.  Why didn’t I know any of them before?  This is their monotonous “world without end.”  Jesus wants us to feel their pain.  Remember, His family was poor (see Luke 2:22-24 and Leviticus 12:8).  The wretched of the earth are in many ways much closer to Jesus and the way He lived than any of us will ever be. 


Even though the New Testament is filled with stories about Him and His disciples being entertained by the rich there must have been times when they didn’t have any place to stay and nothing to eat.  Indeed, He says at one point to someone seeking to be a disciple, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Luke 9:58).


The Lord has led me to sacrifice many of the material things that people in modern America have come to rely on.  Without actually becoming homeless I created an experience that emulates some of its many facets.  Everything in my life was twice as hard and took twice as long to accomplish; at least.  This asceticism was designed by the Lord to force me to see the world’s poor and homeless and feel compassion for them.  Sometimes this can only result by feeling their pain, vulnerability and loneliness yourself.


He is telling me; if you want the privilege of preaching the gospel with power you must show that you love all people, even America’s “untouchables.”  That I will battle in the trenches as well as the boardrooms.  He is saying that I must learn to weather the constant failures and disappointments of preaching to the lost; and be happy that I comforted a few and shined some light in the darkness, given them at least a glimpse of the kingdom.


He said, if you show more faith, I “will make you ruler over many things” (Mathew 25:21).


Join the sacrifice.  Begin to do with less.  Begin the fast.  I started by changing the way I eat, getting rid of two-thirds of everything I owned off the top and continuing down from there, washing dishes by hand, carrying my clothes to the laundromat instead of using the washer and dryer in the house, rinsing things in the tub, limiting myself to one room, walking instead of driving, not wearing expensive things, getting rid of most of my furniture, getting rid of my mirrors, stopping listening to music and watching TV, no computer, no cell phone, spending little money, having little money, not making plans etc.; spending most of my time alone with the Lord, waiting for that “still small voice” (1Kings 19:12), waiting to feel the Spirit…

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