image credit: popcrush.com/2013-sxsw-survival-guide
Every year during Spring Break, the multimedia festival known as SXSW descends upon Austin, and in its wake come hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city. In 2015, the total number of registered participants in SXSW events was roughly 400,000, and while undoubtedly this number reflects some duplicates in terms of event attendance as well as a substantial number of resident participants, it also cannot account for the huge number of unofficial or unaffiliated sideshows that are put on for free all across the city. The cast of characters that floods our downtown during this week is as diverse as it is numerous, and included in this host is no small number of drifters, vagabonds, street performers, and otherwise just generally directionless individuals. They are asleep on sidewalks and in doorways; they are lined up around the block for some arbitrary musician dujour; they are posted up on a street corner with a guitar and an amp and two chords at their disposal; they are literally everywhere.
This situation seems to come to an unattractive head on St. Patrick’s Day. Along with the aforementioned crew, downtown gets littered also with people who feel the best way to celebrate the patron saint of Ireland (dubbed so because he brought the gospel to that country) is to find a place to get as inebriated as possible.
My walk from my downtown office to the train station a few days ago was infuriating. I had to step over self-proclaimed Rastafarians sitting cross-legged in the street, dodge a guy who fell over while holding a none-too-discreet sign asking for intercourse in exchange for a dollar (or vice-versa, it was hard to tell), and elbow my way through barriers of people who were milling around as if someone had just kicked the giant downtown ant mound. By the time I got to the train, I was actually livid, and this was exacerbated by the way people were trying to pack into the train going from whoknowswhat concert to whocareswhat irrelevant other show.
I suppose perhaps the most maddening thing about this experience is that, of course, none of these people seemed to care even the slightest that they were invading the space of people who wanted nothing to do with this whole fiasco, myself included. It is as if we, those who live and walk and eat in this space every day, were actually the outsiders, as if the space were actually theirs to begin with, and how dare we think of sullying their prized collective debauch with goings to and from work and home.
My wife has told me that I am prone to a certain condition, a certain tendency or proclivity for, oh, let’s call it grouchiness. Really, it is just being flat miserable. I call this condition C.O.M.S.: Crotchety Old-Man Syndrome. I may have even used the word “youthes” in my internal rant that day.
In the moment, I was truly enraged. But after a few days reflection, I began to feel very differently. There were a few important truths that I was overlooking that day, and as I thought more deeply about them, I began to develop a different perspective, and even feel convicted about my attitude towards this event and its participants.
First of all, even if it is true that the city doesn’t belong to these people, it doesn’t belong to me either. Thinking of it as my space was just as fallacious as them thinking of it as theirs. It was, in fact, an identical attitude. The perceived attitude of ownership and selfishness I encountered that was causing me so much resentment was actually the very same attitude in my heart. In reality, the city, as all things, belongs to all of us collectively, and more importantly, to the Lord. Everything I see as “mine” is only mine to steward, not to possess, and this includes my living space and my public transportation. It also includes my heart, and on this day I was stewarding none of them well, least of all the latter.
This leads me to my next point: this mindset of selfishness and of being “inconvenienced” by all the oblivious visitors to our city was causing me such great frustration that I was blinded to the immense and abundant opportunities around me to make a difference in the lives of those I encountered. Compounding my frustration was the fact that not only were so many people in my way, but they were in my way for something utterly stupid: songs. I mean, songs are great and all, but how in the world, I thought, could they be so great that anyone would be able to put up with this nonsense: with the crowds, the noise, the smells, the abject debauchery, etc.?
But this should not have been a cause for frustration for me; rather it should have been a cause for deep concern and sympathy. Why would they put up with all of this for what I deemed nonsense? Well, because that is where their hope lies. Those who come for the music do so because there is some sort of beautiful spirituality in songs, a sense of connection perhaps that touches something in them that nothing else can. Those there for the films? About the same, I imagine. Those there for just the “experience” of it? You see where I am going. Everyone there was looking for something. Something unforgettable. Something, in a sense, defining. A moment in their lives that would have significance for as long as those lives lasted. The participants wanted to discover something new about art, and consequently about themselves. The musicians on the street playing wanted to be discovered. Everyone there wanted something tangible, something genuinely, truly real.
Many of them, it was easy to see, has been searching for this a long time, and had perhaps given up hope on ever finding it. I don’t know if I have ever seen more dejected, desperate, lonely faces in one place in my life. Faces whose names I didn’t bother to know, didn’t want to know. Faces that I just wanted to forget as quickly as I saw them.
Of course, I know that what they need is not in fact music. It is not art. It is not a chance to “make it” as a musician or a filmmaker. It is not to have their technology go viral. Because none of these things, even if they shout loud promises that they will, can fulfill us. But again, neither can avoiding them. Just as their peace cannot be found in making or experiencing all these wonderful crafts, mine cannot be found in an unmolested walk to the train, or in a quick escape from the city.
In John 10, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Shepherd, highlighting the differences between his relationship to his sheep and everyone else’s. One passage in particular stands out as pertinent here: “He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” (vv. 12-13)
As a steward of my life and my body and the place where I have been given to live, I am the hired hand. And all of the people I pass every day, and all of the people crowding the streets during these festivals, are Jesus’s sheep. They belong to him, and yet they are in my path. They are given, in a sense, into my charge, even if just for a few seconds. And yet, on this day, all I could think about was fleeing to safety. I was surrounded by people who needed, most of them desperately, to hear the gospel, to find at last the real thing they had been seeking, the saving truth that far supasses all success and relevance and creation; and yet, somehow, though the harvest was so ripe, I had no desire to work the field. Though it pains me to say, I must confess, I care nothing for his sheep.
Contrast this with how Jesus in the same passage speaks of himself in verses 2-4: “But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” And in 9-11: “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture…I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” And yet again, in verses 14-18: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”
Consider the language he uses here: he calls his sheep, he goes before them, he leads them. He comes to them. He will bring them to good pasture. He wants to give us life, and abundantly. And how does he do so? He lays down his life of his own accord. Language of such rich and profound care, such grace, such sympathy, such utter and absolute love.
All of this is in such stark contrast to what I do, what I did in fact, and how I felt on St. Patrick’s Day. Jesus would not scoff at these people. He would not avoid them. He would not shoulder his way through them to get where he was going. In fact, they would be where he was going. They wouldn’t be in his way, nor even on his way. They would be his destination. He wouldn’t retreat as quickly as possible to the safety of the suburbs. In fact, I believe he would do the exact opposite. He would retreat from the suburbs as quickly as possible and rush to care for his sheep.
My offhand thoughts about the way people celebrate St. Patrick’s Day now seem fairly hypocritical. Perhaps intentional intoxication is a foolish way to honor the great evangelist, but it is no more or less foolish than ignoring or being downright hostile to people in dire need of a message of hope.
This must be what it means to have a heart of stone. I can honestly say I felt nothing for these people on that day. My only thoughts were of myself. My only feelings were discomfort and inconvenience and anger. There was no love in anything I said or did on that 15 minute walk. My heart was a cold, dead, rock. And I know of nothing, no physical force, no substance, no book, no activity, that can change a rock into flesh. Only a supernatural miracle, only a heart transplant, can accomplish that. I don’t just need my heart softened; I need a new one entirely. This one is ruined.
So I pray, and I ask that you will pray with me, and for me, that God will perform this surgery in me again. I pray that I will become like the Good Shepherd: someone who runs toward the mess, and looks for ways to serve those in it and lead them out of it. I cannot continue to be someone who simply serves my own needs and stony desires. Jesus wouldn’t run from the mess. He would walk right into it and try to love it as much as possible. Even if I didn’t know this from the Scriptures or from the book of John, I know this from my own life. Because that is what he did for me. He entered into all of my unholy, disgusting mess and loved me intensely, genuinely, undeniably. I want to love like that. Because if I “have not love, I am nothing.”