“She’s not gonna make it. She’s gonna bolt.”
I heard these words last Tuesday about a guest who recently came to the Rescue Mission. Jenny* came through our doors two weeks ago. A week before that she had just arrived in Milwaukee from a different state entirely, and with only the clothes on her back. I’m not sure how she spent that week in-between. Where did she sleep? What did she eat? How did she survive? For most of the people who come to our homeless shelter, the answers to those questions are usually pretty bleak.
I’ve heard some incredible stories in my first three months of working at the Milwaukee Rescue Mission. We are a homeless shelter offering basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing, yes; but we also offer rehabilitation, vocational counseling, and education programs that many eventually attend, even if begrudgingly at first. In any case, no matter what initially brings people through our doors, we know it is up to them to welcome change and hope into their lives.
“She’s not gonna make it.” It wasn’t that my colleague doubted Jenny’s ability to turn her life around. It was that, after years of seeing the same behaviors over and over, he recognized the signs of a desperate and fleeting heart, one that felt so damaged and hopeless and ashamed that it self-diagnosed as beyond help and redemption. For someone like Jenny, I’m sure it often feels easier to keep running than to accept a helping hand and put down some roots.
Jenny is just one example of the many, many precious souls who walk through our doors every day. Some people come to us because they are escaping a dangerous situation and have reached the end of their rope. Some come to us because they finally realize they need help after overdosing and flipping their car three times in a single year. And still others come because they simply need a quick meal and a place to sleep before they continue on their way – and, more often than not, their way is aimless, filled with hunger, loneliness, and destruction.
“She’s gonna bolt.” My colleague’s words still baffle me – not because of how quickly he deemed himself capable of predicting Jenny’s future. They baffle me because he had a reason to believe that she would refuse help in the first place.
Jenny has found a consistent source of safe shelter, food, and people who are eager to share the love of God with her. So why, why, why would she ever refuse that? When the one thing that could save her life is right in front of her with arms wide open – why would she turn away?
You see where I’m going with this.
When God’s mercies are new every morning, when you make another big mistake but Jesus still died for you, when the Father daily unfolds and makes alive his Word to us through his Holy Spirit – why do we turn away?
In this world, we are born sinful. We are desperate and proud, always looking for the easy way out. When God’s way is taking too long, we try to forge our own path because we want quick results. Too often we let ourselves believe that our time on earth is more precious than time with God; and yet, when something goes wrong, we nonchalantly turn to God and ask him for help according to our timeline.
We just want that quick fix.
If you happened to be at the recent FLOCK retreat, you’ll remember a phrase I mentioned a few times in my session: “Be an oak tree, not a mushroom.”
I first heard this phrase several years ago while listening to a sermon over an evening run. I remember it stopping me dead in my tracks. Yes, I thought, that’s exactly it! We want to be an oak tree in the Lord, trusting in the time it takes to grow deep roots in his Word to become healthy and strong and firm in faith – not a mushroom, which sprouts overnight and can be torn from the earth so easily. It’s so simple!
It’s so simple – and yet we miss the mark every day. Even the Bible is filled with people who, at one point or another, chose shallow roots and quick fixes over God’s word.
Judas shared in Jesus’ ministry, yet served as a guide for those who arrested Jesus in order to make some quick money. Sarai trusted in God but took a shortcut to give Abram an heir through her maidservant, Hagar, instead of waiting for the Father to deliver on his promise. Adam and Eve had a literally perfect life in the Garden of Eden – and still they sinned against God by believing in the serpent’s theory of quick wisdom through forbidden fruit instead of abiding by God’s law.
And we are no better. Too frequently we opt to be mushrooms instead of oak trees. These days my Bible is unfortunately more of a quick reference book than a treasured source of wisdom and comfort. And, as my attention span has grown shorter over the years, so too has the length of my not-so-daily devotions. It’s like trying to squeeze that last bit of toothpaste out of the tube; you might get a little out of your efforts, but it’s not going to last, and it’s not going to work as well. You’re not doing any favors to your spiritual – or dental! – health by shortchanging yourself.
Now, I can’t speak to Jenny’s struggles. I don’t know her whole story, but I’m sure she hasn’t had it easy. The kind of life she has had probably makes it hard to believe in people again. That kind of life makes it easier to be a mushroom instead of an oak tree, for sure.
Perhaps Jenny tried putting roots down before, only to be burned by someone she loved and trusted. I’m no tree surgeon, but I imagine it’s hard to regrow roots when they’ve been burned over and over again. At a certain point, it probably just feels easier to hold onto the desperation, hopelessness, and humiliation that you have come to know so well.
No, I can’t speak to Jenny’s hardships. But I can speak to God’s grace. And if any of us brush off life-saving resources and Gospel for the low hanging fruit of quick meals and “quick salvation,” then friends, we’ve got another thing coming: spiritual decay.
So what can we do?
Well, there are the usual steps – go to church, spend time in the Bible, read your devotions, talk to God (ask him for help!), engage in Bible Study, give thanks always and pray continually…
The list goes on and on. Yes, there are many, many habits we can put into practice to preserve and deepen our spiritual roots.
Another thing we can do is consider. Consider how far those quick fixes will really take us (hint: not far). Consider just how much earthly shortcuts pale in comparison to God’s riches. And here’s the wildcard pitch: consider and assign a different value to the desperation, hopelessness, and humiliation that threaten people like Jenny, you, and me every day of our lives.
Wait, what? Let me explain.
I read a long-lost article once where the author broke faith down into three basic components. (Please note: I do not present the following components as some definite, ironclad philosophy of faith. I just think it’s a useful exercise.)
If you think about it, our faith is filled with certain measures of desperation, hopelessness, and humiliation:
We should be desperate in our faith, because we know that nothing else in this world can save us from damnation but Christ Jesus. With desperation we ought to be clinging to the Lord, because we know He is our only salvation.
We should approach our faith knowing that, without it and without our Savior, we are quite literally hopeless. Because of his great love for us, God made us alive in Christ even when we were dead in sin (Ephesians 2:4). Because of Jesus, we have hope for eternal life in Heaven.
Just as Adam and Eve became fearful of God and humiliated by their post-sin nakedness in the Garden of Eden, we too should feel humiliation from our daily shortcomings and sins. Humiliated by our imperfections, but humbled by God’s love in spite of them.
In a way, then, there’s a little desperation, hopelessness, and humiliation in all of us, no matter what our life situation is. You know what else is in all of us? The Holy Spirit. The same Holy Spirit that raised our Savior from the dead, and the same Holy Spirit through which we are able to plant deep roots into the foundation of God’s word.
I’m not sure what will happen to Jenny. There are case workers and Christian sisters alike who regularly spend time with her, doing what they can to counsel and gently remind her of God’s unwavering love. But like I said, her willingness to commit to change and pursue a relationship with Christ is entirely up to her. With a case like hers, it often feels like all we can do is pray. But prayer can be a powerful thing.
Dear friends, will you help me pray for Jenny – and will you help me pray for those who are trying to help her?
Pray that she may find a reason to stay and invest in her spiritual wellbeing. Pray that she might take a chance on faith and put some roots down in our Savior. Pray that she might not see the Mission as a homeless shelter but as a safe haven, protecting and guiding and growing her in God’s name until the day He calls and upgrades her to that perfect mansion in the sky.
After all, his house has many rooms; if it were not so, would he have told us that he was going there to prepare a place for us?
*Details in this post have been both changed and omitted to respect those mentioned.