Our Friend Andrew takes a leap of faith and spends 24 hrs as a homeless person in the city of San Francisco. He did it to understand the people he wants to minister to. He did it to feel the type of love these individuals need. He did it because God called him to do so.
As people walked by, I put my cupped hand out, quietly asking, “Can you spare any change? I’m trying to get home.” People kept walking past me – everyday people like you and me – mothers, fathers, couples, the young and old. Most people didn’t respond. Those that did muttered half-hearted “I’m sorry” or “No.” Most couldn’t look me in the eye. I couldn’t look them in the eye either. The burden of shame made my head feel heavy – I found it hard to lift it up. It was easier to keep down. Facing their gaze would mean facing the brokenness I was experiencing at that moment.
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Hi friends, my name is Andrew Chen and I’m a temporary Voice for WitnessSF. Why temporary you ask? Well, that’s because I’m working to help start WitnessNYC, which will be launching later this year…
I live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. That’s 2,912 miles from San Francisco, as Google Maps puts it, a far cry from NYC. So why am I writing for WitnessSF, you ask? Well see, I only moved here 2 months ago, after a long stint living in the desert, well, my personal desert - the San Francisco Bay Area.
Four years ago or so, I hastily left New York City, to pursue love. I threw away everything in my world (NYC) and my plans (School), did not seek counsel, did not confirm God’s calling, and left. And left I did. Two months after deciding I’d move, I was off, to the land of milk and honey. I moved to Palo Alto, CA - with my dreams in tow but without community and clearly, without wisdom. For a year, I neglected to make sense of what I was doing in the Bay, struggled to keep a hurting relationship together, and ultimately broke down after a painful breakup and surprising denial from my dream school. All my best laid plans, crumbled before me as I lay prostrate on the ground.
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My, it’s been a long while, hasn’t it? I guess a little over three years really. It seems like time flew by. You look really good, as you’ve always have. Different, yes, but just as beautiful. I wonder if you think I look different. Since I left, I’ve wondered a lot of things. I wondered if leaving was the right thing to do. I wondered how you would do, going on without me. I wondered if there would ever be room in your heart again for me.
You know, I never stopped loving you.
When I moved away, far out west, people would often ask me about you. I’d always tell them - you were the most beautiful, the most fun, the most alive. And after awhile, I’d find myself telling them, you were the only one I ever loved. Do you remember those days we had together? Some of the best in my life. Walks in the park, strolling down 5th Ave., running down the West Side Highway. I loved getting coffee with you at CeCi CeLa. The scones there were like none other. Strolling past the Guggenheim and the Met on an easy Sunday morning - wonderful.
And boy, did we have some wild nights together. Some I remember clearly, others, well, a bit too much partying and a lot of it a blur. On some of the days, we saw the sun come up together, remember that? Staying up so long, playing until the early morning hours. But really, what I loved was walking home late at night with you, when the streets were more quiet, the street lights and store signs would light our path and it was only just us. The stars would shine down and do the same if only you could see them through the luminescence of the buildings.
My favorite seasons with you were the spring and the fall, when the air was just cool enough - crisp and refreshing. The perfect climate made it easy to enjoy life. When the sun came out, the light would fall on you just right, no matter where we were. It was a joy to be outside with you during those breezy days. I laugh to myself, thinking about your mood in the summer and winters, though. During the summers you were really hard to deal with - it’d just get too hot for you to be pleasant at all. But you really loved all the free summer events in the park, like the Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera. That made you happy. You always were one for culture. But in the winter, it would get too cold for you to come out. But when you did, you dressed up oh so beautifully. Somehow, you were able to shine like the freshest snow and yet portray a warmth that could only come with the Christmas season. You looked really good in your Santa outfit.
But I have to admit, there were days that I got fed up with you. Sometimes you would just rush all over the place, with no consideration for any others around you. It made me feel like I was invisible to you, even though I was right next to you. It was your selfishness and your ego that made you both wanted and hated. You loved the attention and you’d do anything to get it from anyone. And in the end, you made me feel alone, left behind and forgotten.
And so in haste, I left you. I left you for what I thought I always wanted. I left you knowing that it would hurt - both you and me. I left because I wanted something new and different. I left trying to forget about you.
I’m sorry I left though. It was hard on both of us, I know. But, I made a choice and I was determined to live by it.
That was more than three years ago.
Now, I’m back and it’s good to see you again. I never got to say these things to you, so I’m saying them now. I want you to know. These past three years, I’ve been through a lot - a lot that has taught me about life, love, pain and hurt. I come back a little less young and a little more humbled. I learned what it meant to get hurt, with some of the deepest, heart piercing pains. It might be a little harder for me to smile but it may be a little easier for me to understand. There might be wrinkles near my eyes. I put down the toilet seat every time now.
I’m not the same person I was when I left.
And you’re not the same either. I see you’ve changed the way you look. While some parts of you are a bit younger, you mostly seem older. That doesn’t mean you’re not as hip, fashionable, trendy, or cool as you used to be. If anything, you’re more so. But maybe it’s just me, looking at you with changed eyes. I don’t know, just, something about you is different.
But you see, that’s just it. We’re both different now.
And I want to get to know you again. This time around, I’m committed. I’ll be here for a long while. I’m going to plant roots, invest in the community and stick around to see the kids grow up. And I want you to be a part of it.
I know it was me who left, so now, I’m asking you, can I please come back?
It will be better this time, I know it. No longer am I fickle, so easily jumping on a plane to get away. I want to be here, with you.
That’s the one thing that never changed about you, New York City. I have always loved you.
Returning to New York City
"I’ll be back," I told Pastor Joseph, when I told him I was moving to California, almost 3.5 years ago. I told him that I loved this city and that I would one day return. I was probably only 54% certain of what I was saying, but enough so that I could convey some sense of confidence with such a life altering decision, possibly not so much for him but more for myself. I left the city and moved to the Bay Area without looking back, taking all of my furniture with me.
Now, I’m back in New York City and it’s a beautiful sunny March day. Although today, I’m sneezing a lot. I thought coming back here would cure me of my allergies since it’s always spring in California, but it seems that it’s also spring in New York City, at least right now. But if you think that’s the real reason I moved back, it’s not.
At the Top of My Game
When I moved to the Bay Area, I pursued fame and fortune. Well not so much fame and fortune but rather love and glory. Fame and fortune would have brought me to Hollywood. My acting is good but not that good, my 7th grade drama teacher would tell you that.
I was at the top of my game. I had a prestigious, high paying job, a strong prospect for love, and the chance to go to one of the preeminent business schools in the world. Those are just details though. The reason I knew I was at the top of my game was because I was living alone in a one bedroom apartment in Palo Alto and I had graduated from buying furniture from IKEA - I had just made my first purchase from an upscale store called West Elm. It was then and there I knew I was somebody.
But over the last three years, my meteoric rise was followed by a meteoric fall. I was promptly humbled, kicked in the groin and knocked down on my knees. I did not go to school. I fell out of love and fell into depression. I did not build a billion dollar startup. I discovered the meaning of real heart break. And I sold my West Elm furniture.
That’s when I knew I was nobody.
Love and Glory - Turing the Page to a New Chapter
But what I lost in love and glory, I gained in Love and Glory. In 2010, I found real, God given Love in Ghana (to be explain in a future post). And as I learned to shed my own glory, I discovered how to truly give Glory to God and thus, be a reflection of His Glory. My time in California was a literal and figurative time in the desert. And now I’ve returned to the city I thrived in, rising out of the desert, into a wonderful, lush city that I took for granted. But only, it’s different this time (I’ll tell you more about that in another post as well).
It’s 2011. I just turned 30. It’s time for the next 10 years. New decades all around. And so, I approach it with a new mindset, it’s a new chapter. It’s time to thrive, but now by building, rather than exploring. It feels good to turn the page, hopeful yet uncertain of how things will turn out. But this time I’m building the right foundations, making decisions in prayerful wisdom and trying really hard to do what’s right.
God help me.
Sleeping On the Floor
Right now, I’m living in a basement of a 2 story apartment with 4 guys. I’m sleeping on a mat bed on the floor in a room that receives no natural light. I’ve got nothing in my room that I would call furniture, not even IKEA stuff this time. But what I’ve lost in furniture, I’ve gained back in knowing more of who God has made me to be and with that I can better navigate the future ahead, much better than I could 3 years ago. I believe self-awareness is a gift, kind of like a pet cactus plant. It can prick you sometimes but it’s really pretty if you are careful with it and know how to take care of it, especially when the flowers blossom.
So, I don’t mind sleeping on the floor and I’ve managed to live pretty well without my West Elm couch now. Maybe I’m not defined by my furniture. Maybe there’s something else, something bigger, like God, who defines me.
Maybe. Who knows.
I suddenly had to write…
While I write these words, my family is gathered around the dining table, supping on simple soup and bread, finishing up lunch on this Christmas Eve day. “Do you hear what I hear” plays in the background, as rendered by Future of Forestry. I think of my love, Hanna, running in the park with her brother, Andrew, together as one family. I think about my friends in Baltimore, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Accra, Nairobi, Taiwan…gathered with each other in pairs, groups and families.
My prayer and hope is that everyone is with someone today. And even if someone might be alone, that they know they aren’t really alone, because we’re celebrating the birth of the One who brought Love to this world, Jesus Christ. He lived, led, died and now reigns for us. Jesus loves us and is with us.
All of this, all of what we have - not in material wealth, but in real, living, love wealth - is possible because of Jesus. He showed us how to love with depth, live in joy, thrive in peace.
Merry Christmas everyone - I love you, and even that much more because Jesus loves you.
When we were kids, our lives existed in simplicity of thought and action. Nothing was ever too complicated. All that we needed was a bowl of mac ‘n cheese, a good imagination and a yard just big enough to provide for it. We built our empire of sand castles, explored the back woods and claimed ownership over our discoveries, and drew pictures with crayons and knew that they were masterpieces. Our hearts were in everything we did. We believed in our worlds. Our laughter was pure and untainted. And our chicken nuggets always tasted better if they were shaped like stars.
Grown Ups are Stupid
I remember growing up thinking that grown ups were rather stupid - why were they always fighting wars with each other and getting into scandals and why did politics seem so… not polite? I thought, if I ran things, things would be just fine because to me, the line between right and wrong was rather clear. And you’d always choose right.
But now I’ve become one of those very grown ups who are rather stupid and I think, if the kid version of me saw the now version of me, he’d think the same thing. Life and it’s complications and complexities, grown up responsibilities and a history of mistakes and pains have frightened away the inner kid in me. It’s sad. Life becomes pretty serious. I’m sad because I’ve got chicken nuggets but they are not shaped like stars.
But there’s no rule that that’s the way things have to be. There isn’t a reason why we can’t choose a youthful joy day in and day out, one that leads to a consistent peace. I think that when Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these,” (Matthew 18:14) he also provided a reference for our lives as adults, that if we’re able to live with a childlike heart, we might be able to experience the kingdom of heaven right here on earth. The world tells us to “grow up!” but I think that’s just silly talk.
Joy and Compassion
The heart of a child is simple in both joy and compassion. My 8 1/2 month old nephew Sebastian is a really a bundle of drooling joy (apparently something that runs on my side of the family, I mean the drooling part). As just an infant, he has a laughter that can only be the purest, unaltered by knowledge of the world. So just being held by those who love him, being swung up and down, listening to our funny noises that incite giggles upon giggles, is the most simple example of a childlike joy.
Compassion is something that children easily understand as well, even in the youngest of ages, because it’s something they seek themselves. One of the stories that my family loves to tell about me is one when I was just a young kid, maybe 4 or 5 years old. Growing up in Oklahoma, our daily drives often bring us past farm pastures with grazing cows. Once, while driving past one of these pastures, a cow seemed to have gotten out of it’s fencing and was wandering the road. Upon seeing this, a look of concern covered my face and I worriedly asked my parents if the cow was lost and if it would find it’s way home. I began to cry because I was desperately worried for the cow’s well being. My heart was broken.
We lose such joy and compassion because our hearts have been hardened by our pain, our opinions and our biases. People have hurt us so we no longer give them as much sympathy. We’re told who is an enemy and who is a friend and we choose to take sides. We choose not to forgive. We never forget. We have bills to pay and a career to manage. Our mortgage keeps us down. Our produce has to be organic, free-range, gluten-free, and local. Our chicken nuggets can’t be stars because they aren’t on sale - we have to save money.
Taking Care of Our Kids
But maybe if we decided to only be serious when necessary and choose to be childlike the rest of the time, maybe our lives and our world might be a bit more bearable. I’m not saying we should be immature - that’s to have the mind of a child. Wisdom and experience are good. But to be childlike is to have the heart of a child. We are more moving, more passionate, more joyful, and more full if we can live with the wisdom we’ve been given but to have the heart of a child. Don’t we as adults often struggle in our hearts with the desires like greed, power, and lust? It was a bit nicer when our hearts were led with thoughts of spaceships, unicorns and skittles.
Let’s take care of the kid that lives in us. I never believe that child has ever left any of our hearts but we’ve just chosen to hide him or her. Legally, child neglect and abandonment is a crime that brings along with it stiff punishments. A neglected child is “one who does not receive sufficient care due to the errors and habits of the parents, guardians, or custodians.” We should be taking care of the kids in our hearts, nurturing them and keeping them fully active and alive lest we want to break the law.
We Might / We Are
There might be in each one of us a knight, a princess, a ninja or cowboy/girl that is just waiting for some attention. And with the eyes of a child leading our perspective in the world, we just might see things in a completely different light. We might laugh more, cry more, explore more and dream more. We might dance because we feel like it and we might sing because songs are fun to sing. We might forgive more because we’re supposed to say “I’m sorry.” We might have more because we’re told we should share more. We might love more because as kids, love is simple.
And then maybe, our chicken nuggets may once again be shaped like stars.
(This post, dedicated to and inspired by my favorite teeny-bopper, h.y.k.)
Thanksgiving is over. Michael Buble and Kenny Logins are singing soulful Christmas over the airways. Spray-on snow and shiny ornaments decorate store windows. Holiday sales are in full gear. And I’m totally bought in.
Filtering through the Madness
I went shopping the other day and found some fantastic deals. I reveled in running around and getting into the season. I’m starting to plan and scheme for the perfect presents for those near and dear to my heart. Wham!’s “Last Christmas” is blasting through my headphones as I type this.
There’s a romance to what we’ve been taught about Christmas. The ideal of jazzy Christmas music playing while strolling down a snowy Manhattan sidewalk. The warmth felt as we’re gathered around a beautifully decorated tree, full of presents. Family and friends huddled around a warm Christmas dinner, piled three-birds wide. The thought of the season just brings about warmth and love. All of which is wonderful. I love it.
But it misses the point.
Revolution: Turning this World Upside Down
Consumerism, sleigh rides and a jolly man in a red suit, among other things, have created a lot of noise, making us forget what Christmas is really about. Christmas is about revolution, a revolution that was started with the birth of Jesus. Jesus brought fullness and meaning to the words redemption, grace, salvation, and love. All of which was necessary for the greatest revolution that ever took place - defeating sin, brokenness, pain and finally, death. We were given a different path, one that is full of life and purpose. Our very existence was changed with the birth of Jesus. Yet, all of that gets lost in the glitter and shine of the season.
Jesus left his throne, on the right side of God, gave up everything to be with us and died for us (Philippians 2:5-11). That was how He changed everything. I think, the culture of the season gets to a little bit of that, with buying gifts for each other. But, not really.
Heaven on Earth
A true celebration for Christ’s birthday might follow exactly what He did. Give. Sacrifice. Love. For those who are hurting, who are broken, who have less than you or me. We give because Jesus gave us the gift of life. We sacrifice because Jesus sacrificed the benefits and glory of His deity. We love because Jesus loved us first, the basis for everything He did. All of this for a vision of a redeemed, reconciled people, and a Kingdom, heaven on earth.
There is a deep, redemptive, human connection that is created when we sacrifice for each other. And one even more so when we sacrifice for those we don’t even know. To identify in each other’s pain and to love because it’s the right thing to do creates newfound bridges that are at the core of what it might look like for heaven to be on earth…. surpassing all obstacles, differences, and boundaries to create something that is better than anything we might have on our own. A world where real Love reigns supreme. Jesus showed us how, beginning with His birth.
What It Might Look Like
There are some good examples that shine through all the shopping madness. Near most large shopping centers, there are volunteers ringing bells, asking for donations to the Salvation Army or other various organizations that give to those in need. It’s a reminder, a slight hint as to what Christmas is about, but only the tip of the iceburg. I believe we’re called to so much more when we’re remembering Jesus’s birthday.
Once, while out in SOMA, San Francisco, on a cold winter night, some friends and I met a homeless man named Chuck. We sat down with him near his space on the street and asked if he would like to share a meal with us. He did and I asked what he would like to eat and he chose Thai food. So getting some Thai food to go, we sat on the street and ate together. People all ready to go out clubbing were passing by as we ate on the sidewalk, something I noticed, because I was usually one of those people passing by. As we sat and ate, Chuck asked us what we believed heaven was going to be like. I gave some ideal about being with people or something similarly prescribed. But when I asked him, he said “I think heaven is going to be something like this,” in reference to all of us at that moment in time - sitting together, sharing, communing, encouraging despite differences in our race, socio-economic situation, experiences and lives. And I believe he was right. In reflection, Jesus’s birth set the tone for what was happening between all of us that night.
I think that’s something like what Jesus would want for His birthday. Not to reduce any of the family and friends’ warmth, togetherness and celebration. I do love it. But let’s really make it about Jesus, others in need and not so much about ourselves. And if what happens is that we experience heaven on earth, what better gift is there?
Then we have real reason to be merry.
(thank you h.y.k. for the creative inspiration and editorial help.)