Prayer from the homeless

1506035_831305850222913_5699829163969040362_nThis weekend we attended a memorial service in a public square in the center of town for a teenager who took his own life. He was the older brother of a friend of Chandler’s. All we knew about him prior to this was that he was a problem child — someone who didn’t fit, who bucked the system at every turn. If there was a drug, he took it; if there was a rule, he broke it. No one seemed to know what to do with him.

He was raised by an overwhelmed single dad and a caring school system that tried everything they could to help him including a year away to boarding school because he was so out of control. We were expecting a difficult service with little to say about someone who obviously fell through the cracks.

Well it was difficult, but for other reasons. One by one his friends, including a few adults in whom he had confided, stepped up to a microphone to say their good-byes, and as they did, another profile of this teenager slowly emerged. It was so profound that at times, you wondered if we were talking about the same kid. The teenager we heard about was a brilliant artist, an inventive mind, a sensitive friend, a generous heart, and a mischievous will. We heard about someone who cared deeply — who raged at God for the way the world was, and felt deeply the pain of the underside of life.

We heard about someone who cared about the homeless and spent a good deal of time talking with them, sharing cigarettes and buying them meals when he could.

You can understand at least why suicide seemed the only way out for a kid who was quite obviously, a victim of himself — a victim of a mind that was too busy, a heart that was too big, a spirit that was too sensitive, and a will that was too defiant. Someone said he died because he was so unhappy.

There we stood, a crowd of adults and teenagers huddled together against the cold in the late afternoon feeling entirely helpless in the face of a situation that was beyond us all. What could we do? What could we have done differently?

Something was starting to burn inside me, so at one point I went forward to ask one question: “Why do we have to wait until we lose someone to find out who they are? Why don’t we find out now?”

Never before, as a parent, have I sensed the need for that village Hillary Clinton wrote and talked about when she said, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Parents have to set boundaries for kids and then continually enforce them, setting up consequences, rewards and punishments to try and guide a child to becoming a responsible adult. It’s almost impossible to try and do that and then turn around, lend a sensitive ear to your child and expect him to want to confide in you.

There was one adult who stood up to speak who was in a position to be that ear for kids like this. He’s a sensitive type himself who runs a unique shop in town that sells vintage rock LPs and just about every old CD you can imagine. His store has become a hang-out for kids like this, and he vowed, at this service, that he was going to set up a place and time where the kids who don’t fit into the traditional structures in society can find a place to express themselves.

I’m thinking about all the family gatherings that will be going on this week as we celebrate Christmas. There will undoubtedly be people like this one present. Maybe you, as a carrier for the Gospel of Welcome, can lend an empathetic ear. Maybe you can step inside those shoes and just listen. I’m not suggesting you can prevent a suicide, but even if you change the reaction of judgment to one of empathy, that will be a big deal. Do the village a favor and keep an eye out for this kid (or the adult this kid has become).

I’m going to leave these thoughts today with a story the father of this boy told about how, in one small instance, his own view of his son was completely altered. He told about how he was driving through town one day when his son asked him to stop for a second at a street corner. As he did, the teenager took three cigarettes out of his pack, (here the dad felt it necessary to apologize for letting his kid smoke) got out of the car and gave them to a homeless man whom he obviously knew. That’s when his father found out he hung out with the homeless a lot, talking, listening and sharing what he could.

After his son’s death, when Dad was going through his things, he found a box of cigarettes. It gave him an idea. Following the example of his son, Dad went and found the same homeless man his son had befriended, and gave him the cigarettes. “He’d want you to have them,” he said. At that, the homeless man started singing the praises of the man’s son and how he must be so proud, and then he said, “This must be so hard on you; can I pray for you?” So it was that Dad sat down on the street corner next to a man he never would have known were it not for his son, and received prayer from the homeless.

I don’t ever want to forget that story.

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24 Responses to Prayer from the homeless

  1. Wow. What a story. I’m so sorry for your loss and your community’s loss. I have thought the same thing, at every funeral and when reading obituaries, why don’t we know these things about a person before they are gone? That’s been screaming at me over this past year, to the point where recently we were asked to put on a sticky note what we felt God might be calling us to do, right now. The closest thing mine fell under were the categories of outreach and relationships, it’s been weighing heavy that I need to really dig down and get to know people better and learn how to let them know me better… but I couldn’t identify a specific “thing” to be called about that fell into a ministry area at our church.

    On another note, Kay Warren just had a post in Christianity Today about dealing with grief at the holidays. Here is a link. Slightly different subject, but also on the subject of suicide:

    • jwfisch says:

      You mean like there isn’t a category for it? You’re right. Truth hardly fits into a category. Thanks for the reference.

  2. R Robards says:

    That teenager and now an adult is my ex-husband. I could not have said it any better. It has taken a tumultuous 7 year separation and lots of counseling for me to understand that. People around him do not understand him as he lives his life to the beat of his own drum. All the while trying to live out the gospel according to his own understanding. For the sake of my sanity and the well being of my children it became necessary to permanently end our marriage. Reading today’s The Catch puts into words so many of the thoughts and struggles that I had during our marriage. He is the same today as he was at 15 when we met. He has a hole in his heart that he has not allowed God to fill, and he struggles. He is restless. I cannot help him any longer except through prayer. I pray that one day God will fully capture his heart and his restlessness will be gone.

  3. John, you expressed a ton of empathy when you wrote:
    “There we stood, a crowd of adults and teenagers huddled together against the cold in the late afternoon feeling entirely helpless in the face of a situation that was beyond us all.”
    That certainly must have been what that boy was feeling prior to taking his life.
    Sadly, many people – more than we can even comprehend – are in that boys shoes right this moment trying to decide if life is worth living for another day; or if there is anyone out there who really cares who might welcome them and listen to them without judgment or condemnation, somebody who might speak kind, loving words of peace and comfort – or even someone who will just simply share a cigarette or coffee or a sandwich or something, anything.
    While it may not cure all the worlds ills or even answer the why’s of tragedies such as these, I can only offer these words from a devotional I read recently:
    “How many times have people asked us how we are doing, but they don’t really want to hear the answer? How many times have we noticed a friend, a co-worker, or even a family member who looks a little down, but we don’t have the time to ask and hear what’s really bothering them? We rush through our lives, always thinking about the seemingly more important things we have to be doing. However, the story of Joseph teaches us never to underestimate the importance of a greeting and a smile…
    Today, set aside some time to talk to someone in need. Share a smile and lend an ear – it doesn’t cost anything. This, too, is kindness; this, too, is time well spent. And who knows? This may be our greatest moment of all.”

    (excerpted from:

    • Bob~ I asked that question many times as to why people ask: How are you? And also people’s most response, “Fine! And you?” I agree it is a big lie, because no one really cares. I have seen instances where a person tried to sincerely answer the question of how they were, only for the listener to look at their watch and exclaim, I really must be going! It’s a known fact that a person’s most interest is themselves, so I agree many people are very self absorbed! It is sorrowful, that no one made use of their time to reach out to this young man. Merry Christmas

      • Thank you for your remarks, Colleen.
        I admit, like most people (even possibly those reading these comments), that I am guilty as charged of engaging in that “big lie’ as you call it.
        However, while I somewhat agree “that a person’s most interest is themselves”, I have to take exception with your absolute summation that “no one really cares.”
        There are a good many people out there who really DO care and – selflessly – want to make a positive impact in the lives of others solely for the benefit of the other person(s) and, oftentimes, for the glory of God.
        I’m thinking of both the boy who took his life – by his hanging out with the homeless – and the music store owner mentioned in John’s message, as well as the many other unsung humble servants of God who devote themselves strictly to the purpose of serving others – which we, as presumed followers of Christ, ought to be the vanguard.
        Given my personal upbringing and current station in life, it is way too easy for me to be cynical and dismissive of people in general – and the church in particular – when it comes to how we should be behaving toward one another; I entertain all-too-often arrogant thoughts like, “I’m the only one who really cares,” or, “My measly contribution won’t make any difference,” or “Why should I care? The world’s going to Hell in a hand-basket anyway!,” etc.
        It is at those times when the Spirit gently rebukes and reminds me of the myriad of others over the course of History who felt the same way as I and, with God’s help, saw His bigger picture – then decided to be a part of God’s plan rather than a detractor to it.
        While I cannot claim to have an absolutely clear view of God’s bigger picture, one of the Scriptures that often comes to mind in these instances is: 1 Kings 19:13-18.
        In the end, I believe it’s our personal responsibility to resist looking at our watches, to ignore our smart-phones, not worry about what others may do or think, and make the accountable decision to do what we know is right: be a neighbor to anyone and everyone around us – especially those who are hurting inwardly and outwardly (Luke 10:29-37).
        God gave us the time and ability – let’s make the best use of it!

        Shalom, and a very merry Christmas to you, my sister – God Bless Us Every One! 🙂

    • jwfisch says:

      Thanks for sharing this.

  4. Barb G says:

    Thank you for reminding me how God has formed my heart. It has been years since my church brought the homeless and poor in for group dinners. How I truly felt joy when socializing to those who came Unfortunately, .the uneasiness of other church members was evident, as the guests were never greeted warmly, just served warm food. Was that enough? The new pastor became fearful of those smelling of liquor and/or possibly “looking” the lest bit intoxicated. A security team was formed to ask those to leave. I remember a homeless man who came to service, told not return till he cleaned up because he had fain body odor and his clothes were dirty-I looked at his heart.. The church no longer has these dinners that I dearly miss. The cliche comes to mind…”What Would Jesus Do?”

    • Barb~ that reminds me of this: A man walked into an upscale church, his hair was disheveled, tattered blue jeans, work boots, and shirt. The congregation was aghast by his appearance and cried out to the pastor! The pastor calmed them and said he would take care of it. After the service the pastor greeted the man and suggested the next time he comes to service to dress properly. The man nodded and left the next Sunday the man again walked in the church in his usual attire, tattered blue jeans, work boots, and shirt. The congregation again appalled by the man reached out to the pastor! The pastor assured him that he will nip the situation in the bud. After the service he greeted the man again, but this time the pastor said, Listen we are both praying men, why don’t you pray and ask the Lord what you should wear when you come. The man nodded and left. On the third Sunday the man returned to the church wearing his usual attire and again the congregation reached out to the pastor, and again the pastor reassured them that everything was under control. After the service again the pastor greeted the man and asked, Well did you pray like I asked? The man nodded and the pastor smiled, So what did the Lord tell you? The man answered, “He said He didn’t know, because He’s never been here!”

      So something to think about when attending a church where putting the emphasis on the wrong things is more important than saving/helping a soul outside their comfort stone. My humble opinion they need to put a rock in their shoe and get uncomfortable. Merry Christmas~ Colleen

  5. TimC says:

    People write and people talk but no one freaking cares.

    Now people say, “Maybe things will get better”,
    And people say, “Maybe it won’t be long”,
    And people say, “Maybe you’ll wake up tomorrow and it’ll all be gone.”
    = Rich Mullins

  6. Cynthia Vera says:

    I do not want to forget either…

  7. My heartfelt sympathy for this young man’s family! It is nice to know that his father learned from his son and is using it. I believe no matter the person that we all have value and can learn something from each other. People need to look for the good instead of always being suspicious of others. I also believe that cell phones is a way the keeps people disconnected, because they only speak to their ‘inner circle’ and exclude all others. Ask a store employee for help, nope, speed dial home and ask, What aisle is that in? Do you see it? I certainly do

    • jwfisch says:

      Yes. We have an entirely different form of social interaction now via technology. We can’t stop it. We must work with it. That’s what we are doing here at the Catch.

  8. Sally says:

    As always, John, I appreciated this post. We experienced the death of a relative several years ago due to suicide. The young man was a great musician, and sensitive. Throughout his struggles he was asked to church, to meals and was included in family gatherings. Unfortunately, there was a resistance to outside professional help. We were left with a great deal of pain upon his death. In the years following since then there were adult males that followed this path. Men, with families, who also did not see any other way out of their pain. I have to admit that when one of the deaths occurred, I did not understand how he could leave his young family that way. Thankfully, I understand better now. Every life is precious and I agree that we should be trying to help others by getting to know them and help them on their journey, too. As we saw with the death of Robin Williams, sometimes the pain is more than they can bear and we are left only to feel compassion and love for them and their families.

  9. Tim says:

    One of your best, very moving. This is facebook worthy. 🙂 It really sums up the gospel of welcome.
    Thank you.

  10. Grace says:

    Tears streaming down my cheeks right now! We just never know where another persons heart is! I want to go get some cigarets for some homeless folks right now ;))

  11. johnhaak says:

    The clincher for me was when I did a double take and realized I had read your title wrong as “for” not “from”; my brain thought it knew what was there without really seeing it. Wow, was I judging who needs who there! I interact with needy and homeless and I got to remember this story too.

  12. Peter Leenheer says:

    It was common for me to react instantly to the Catch and comment. Lately, my thoughts seem to need time to gel into something that is lasting in me and in what can be shared and put into practice. This “Prayer from the Homeless” has impacted me deeply. First of all the homeless are people, who are just like you and I. This young man who committed suicide understood that and he felt their pain, and felt the pain of this broken world in a way that most of us don’t come close to. It seems to me he felt God’s pain.
    When I read in Genesis 6:6 about God’s broken heart because the humans he made choose to forsake him, then I can understand how anyone who feels that pain will do what this young man did unless someone points him or her to the fact that God has let him feel their pain. The key I think is that this young man felt God’s pain but seemed to think it as his own. Only Jesus could and did take on the burden of God’s pain.
    It seems to me that a lot of the mentally ill have taken on God’s pain as their own, and it has destroyed their lives because it is not theirs to bear but only to acknowledge and give sympathy and empathy to God. Whenever I feel God’s pain, and I am not mentally ill, I tell him I love Him and pray that His Kingdom will come, His will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Judgment day often can’t come soon enough for me. For me the story will end favorably, I pray the same for all of you.
    I have printed this Catch on paper, filed it, and I do not want to forget that story. It will be used to benefit the youth in my church. Fortunately we have a group of young people in our church who go out every weekend among the homelesss to have conversations, prayer and just hang out with them for the sake of companionship. These young people don’t advertize what they do, they just began doing this a number of years ago and it has begun to gather momentum. The gospel of welcome is growing, and whatever I can do to nurture it, I will do! I pray that it begins a huge movement in this city.

  13. peter leenheer says:

    While teaching children about sin, I call it hurting God’s feelings because so often it is our feelings that are hurt and we forget He feels like we do. God’s feelings were hurt so he sent Jesus! Talk about love. It seems to me I can’t walk in God’s shoes, but I can begin to understand how He feels. It is then that the work of Jesus takes on an incomparable magnitude. It humbles me to what extent God went to save us.

    John you urge us to walk in other people’s shoes, God’s broken heart makes me sad for him. As best as I can, in my sinful nature, I feel like I need to console Him. Is this crazy or what?…….Tell me what you think?

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