Where people come to die

I live in a place where people come to die…Florida.

One of my main modes of transportation around town has been my bicycle. Here in southern Florida, there are three main groups of people who ride bikes. The first are retirees out for some good exercise, in cute little shorts and protective helmets.

Next are undocumented aliens who don’t have driver’s licenses but need to get to work. Finally, there are homeless folks, some who may have lost their licenses because of a DUI conviction.

Which one am I? None of the above really. I’m the pastor of a struggling church plant trying to make ends meet. My teenage kids have jobs further away than mine, so I let them use my car. I ride a bike because…well…I’m the dad. And my father taught me sacrifice is what dads do.

It’s more than a little ironic to be riding a bike in the midst of all the wealth here. I didn’t plan on being in this position financially during my 50s, but we’ve sacrificed much of our income and retirement to start this little church.

Sometimes I feel a little down on myself when I compare my situation to the folks living around me. I wonder how many of them think I’m just another homeless guy as I peddle past them on their way to the golf course.

There are some middle-class people here too who’ve cashed everything in up north to retire here. By the way, the richer you are, the fewer months you live here. The wealthiest folks crowd our streets from October into November, and then again from January through Easter. The less wealthy don’t have a house to go back to up north because they had to sell it to buy here (housing is really expensive).

Me? I’m here all year, but I’m not retired. Basically, I’ve learned that I never really want to retire. Why? Because it appears to transform many people from normal human beings into selfish jerks.

I met my friend Kevin at the coffee shop on 5th Avenue yesterday. He’s a guy in his 50s who moved down here from New York state. He goes to my church and helps video tape my sermons. One reason we talk often is we share a rather dry sense of humor. Oh, and also he says he’s had a couple of brain traumas in the past…

This could explain our common outlook on life.

He’s been trying to get to know people over the four or so years he’s lived here. He’d hoped God could use those relationships as a Christian witness to others. So far, he’s meeting people but they’re still a bit stand-offish.

The other week he went back to his hometown up north. He told me about sitting in a diner with old friends, and then more folks arrived. Conversations ensued, people laughed: you know, fun but nothing earth-shattering. But with that brief encounter, he now feels like he’s missing something.

“I just don’t feel that here in Florida,” he said. “Everyone is so remote”.

Well, I know why he can’t find it here. It has to do with the reason many people come here to Florida in the first place. Please re-read the first sentence of this article and pause afterwards for dramatic effect….

Got it. Ok, moving on.

People move here often leaving most all their family and friends behind. Maybe they move here to get away from something – a job, problems, responsibilities, conflict. So they cut off all their connections and go to a place where few people know them, and spend most of their time trying to have fun and live “the good life”.

So Kevin shouldn’t be surprised when it’s harder to find real community here. You know, that whole “Andy Griffith/Mayberry” thing where we know our neighbors and love everyone in spite of their idiosyncrasies. Connectivity and community – those are commodities in much lesser supply here than golf balls and sunscreen.

Since people come here to be entertained, they tend to get highly frustrated when they don’t get what they want quickly. You want to see some real carnage? Go to Costco and watch the people who serve the free samples. Sometimes I hide behind the roasted peanuts to watch them from a distance. Even from afar I can see the terror in their eyes, as restless crowds wait to pounce on them.

Seriously, you’d think a shipment of rice had just pulled up in Bangladesh the way people grab and shove for a measly piece of chicken on a toothpick. They’re like the seagulls from our kid’s favorite movie squawking, “MINE! MINE! MINE!”

They do suffer from bloated belly, but it’s not exactly due to a lack of food. I often feel led to offer post-traumatic counseling to those poor sample-givers. They should probably be wearing protective head gear.

To be fair, it’s not all of us. But since moving to Florida years ago, I’ve noticed it here more than anywhere else. I wonder if it’s just an unavoidable byproduct of the “retirement mentality” we’re promoting.

I’ve noticed a lot of people here constantly looking for amusements and diversions. You know, take in a concert, get in a game of golf, try out a new restaurant. Nothing wrong with that…as long as that’s not all you’re living for.

True, as an American you have every right to spend your money and time however you wish. However, if you choose to call yourself a Christian, in Christ you have no such right.

Selfishness is the most addictive of all drugs. The first hit of a drug feels awesome, but that’s just to get you hooked. Then you keep coming back wanting the same feeling, but the thrill lessens every time. So you naturally think increased selfishness is the answer, and stuff yourself full of yourself like a pig who eats himself to death.

Yesterday, my wife was shopping in the local grocery store. It’s “season” now, so the aisles were crowded with people and their shopping carts. Suddenly, an older gentleman decided he needed to get down to the other end of the aisle, and he wasn’t going to wait. So he proceeded the push his way down the crowded aisle, literally ramming each cart on his way down.

My wife had our two toddlers in her cart. Boy, was she ever surprised as he slammed into her in his own version of “bumper cars”!

I eavesdropped on two older guys downtown one Friday, drinking coffee together. The first guy said, “You know, I buy a new car every two years. Even if nothing’s wrong with the old one, I just like the fun of a new vehicle.”

Then the guy across from him said, “Hey, I just bought a new sports car on Tuesday,”

“Really? What’s it like?”

“Well, it’s OK, I guess…” He looked blankly into the distance and stared for a few seconds. “To be honest, I drove it home and haven’t gotten it back out since…” So the car had now sat in his garage for 3 days, untouched.

As we live this way, an uneasy feeling grows within us because we know we’re missing something. But we keep mistaking what that “something” is. We think it’s some event or activity we’re missing out on. It’s that new sample they’re serving up at Costco, and it must be wonderful because everyone else is gathered around it.

So we line up with the rest, eat several helpings, and wonder why we still feel empty.

The Bible warns us against living these kinds of lives: a hollow existence where we do the same selfish, meaningless things all the other purposeless people are doing, but never find happiness. We waste what’s left of our lives, slipping coins into that brightly colored gumball machine that never puts out, thinking this time we’ll get lucky. And time keeps running out…

See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Ephesians 5:15-16

In the end, I guess it comes down to who you really trust. You can trust God when He tells you, “I take care of the lilies of the field, so I’ll certainly take care of you”. You can trust Him when He says, “Try to save your life and you’ll lose it, but give it away and you’ll find it”.

That’s why I’m willing to keep peddling my bike around town amongst all the sports cars and mansions. I see the junk they’re fighting for and happily settle for my empty bank account and houseful of foster kids. We’re happy, and never bored, that’s for sure!

But it’s hard not to be amazed at some people’s frantic, joyless lives around us. I try to give them Jesus, but mostly they’re not interested. Instead, I watch as they climb over each other for just one more sample at Costco, elbowing and jabbing the ones next to them to fight their way to the front of the line.

“So shall the last be first, and the first be last…” – Matthew 20:16

Maybe just because everyone else’s lined up there doesn’t mean it’s the right line. Maybe they’re just following the crowd too, never realizing that line where everyone’s pushing and shoving only leads into an abyss.

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