Every Thursday morning I interveiw 4 homeless people to see if they are good candidates for our 2-year Transitional Housing Program at Hillcrest. We are a clean and sober house for 58 people and we are doing a very imperfect job of helping people sort out their lives and find some stability and hope for the future. I can relate to the parable of the sower, because we throw a lot of seeds and not all find good soil. Our residents have had their seeds fall on the path and eaten by the birds of prey on our city streets, their seeds have grown in a lifetime of rocky soil and hardknocks, those choked by the thorns of addiction and yes, they are also potentially good soil that will reap a hundredfold harvest. Discerning good soil from bad isn’t always easy. Some people present very well at a screening and turn out to be a drug dealer who causes havoc in the house, while others who seem to lack self-awareness blossom.
Its Thursday, and Candidate One comes in and tells us of her long history of being a prostitute. She was found beaten up in an alley and high on heroin and taken to the hospital. After a couple weeks in the psychiatric unit, she goes to rehab and gets clean for the first time in her adult life. She is diagnosed with depression and gets anti-depressants. The determination in her voice is clear, yet we are skeptical. She has been out there a long time and heroin is tough to beat. We accept her, hold our breath and, to our amazement, she blossoms. She gets along with everyone, writes poetry and takes on every suggestion with enthusiasm. Good Soil!
Candidate Two comes in and tells us he has been sober for 3 years and quotes the AA “Big Book” alot. He is very articulate and sincere, but I have a funny feeling in my gut so I ask him for a drug test. He tests positive for cocaine and looks at me like an NBA star who can’t believe the referee called a foul. Soil still choked by the thorns.
Candidate Three is a middle aged man who looks like an accountant. He just served time in the County Jail for Driving While Intoxicated. He’s been through 4 rehabs in 10 years and stays clean for 6 months and then gets sloppy or bored and returns to cocaine. He knows what it takes, but is like the rocky soil that grows well at first, but doesn’t develop the deep roots. We will take him and wait and see.
Candidate Four has spent the last month in the Psychiatric Unit after a suicide attempt. She is lost and we feel very sorry for her, but she is so unstable. She would be a target in our program and really needs a lot of help. We will suggest a halfway house and hope and pray she gets a good one. We have to know our limits.
It is impossible to peer into the soul of another person in a short 30 minute interview and determine if they have good soil ready for seeds to fall and sprout into a new life. Figuring out why one person makes it and another doesn’t is a constant philosophical debate among our staff. Our inner workings are quite mysterious from the outside and each person who makes it is a miracle. While there is no formula for helping homeless people recover from their addictions and afflictions, I see one thing that makes for good soil with potential for growth. People with an open mind and willing spirit do the best. I’m not saying anything new. William James said this in “The Varieties of Religious Experience” more than a century ago. After looking into the lives of people ranging from St. John of the Cross to Tolstoy, he believed that people who could surrender themselves to the divine mystery were the ones who experienced the divine presence. Bill Wilson, the founder of AA, read William James and the 12 steps are a guide to self-surrender. Gerald May, in his book Will and Spirit, says that a genuinely spiritual life needs a spirit of willingness rather than an attitude of willfulness. Willingness is an attitude of openess, a receptiveness to wonder, to recieve the great mystery at the heart of life. Our need to control things and master our destiny actually seperates us from God.
Perhaps working with homeless people makes this more clear to me. Their failures and successes are more obvious because they have fallen so far. For someone fighting an addiction or rebuilding their life, being willing, receptive and surrendering to the Divine Mystery is the last desperate chance. It is life and death. They can’t hide from their problems as easily as an affluent person. I have always found a comfortable congregation the most difficult to preach with. Who needs God when everything you need is at the mall? It is easy to hide from God in success and affluence. We seem so capable, masters of our own destinies. We consume, but do we know how to recieve?
The Gospel Lesson of the parable of the sower puts all this psychology into a clear and moving visual image. God comes and sows seeds. Soil is receptive, it has all the necessary qualities for life to flourish, but cannot create the lush growth out of nothing. Soil cannot will a watermelon or a zuchinni. It can only do its marvelous work when it recieves the seed. The work of spirituality is to nurture the seeds God plants within. Perhaps that is why the root word for human is “hummus.” We come from soil, “from dust we have come and to dust we shall return.” If we are willing to bear the seeds of God, we shall also bear the hundredfold harvest.