Driving Through San Francisco: I Am Better Than You

I recently spent a weekend in San Francisco. I was asked to come speak for a couple of days to a group of lay leaders about the Bible. I like going to different cities, seeing new places–or at least different places–a chance to get out of my south eastern Pennsylvania rut.

I took a taxi. Driving though the city to my hotel, I was struck, as I often am at such moments, by the fact that there are many people in the world, if this one city is an indication–people I will never meet, whom I will never know. The world is a big place, with many people in it, most all of whom will be wholly anonymous to everyone else. Forgive the Captain Obvious insight, but I think about these sorts of things a lot.

Then I think about the long history of humanity, reaching back many tens of thousands of years. People with unique stories, who have thought and believed so differently from each other, and continue to do so. And I wonder if God even exists, or, if he does, what possible connection he could have to all of this–and why I bother going to San Francisco to talk about God.

The taxi took me through some down and out sections of San Francisco. We drove past some bars with people staggering around at noon on a Thursday–which I am guessing is no different for them than 11 am on a Wednesday or 3 pm on a Sunday.

These people needed a bath, a haircut, and some clean clothes. They needed to put shoelaces in their sneakers and stop stumbling around the street.

They were gross. They needed to stop being like that, they need to stop making me uncomfortable.

The thought passed through my mind, in a mere instance, a mili-second of self-talk. “I’m glad I’m not like them. I’m glad I am important enough to ride in taxis and get invited to churches to speak. I’m glad I have a PhD, that I write books, and am not living in a gutter like these people. Lord, thank you that I am not like them.”

For a moment I felt superior to these smelly, gross, people: I am better. I am more important. I have more value.

These are moments that remind me how much I suck at life, or to put it more gently, how very few feet I have crawled along the journey and how much longer I have to go.

These are the moments that remind me that if I am taking this following Jesus business seriously, the “better than” thought needs to be infinitely far from me. Any thought to superiority over others, any thought that human worth is tiered and I am toward the top, well, that is just plain wrong and it needs to stop.

I don’t need to go any further than my mind to see what people are capable of doing to each other if they harbor their thoughts long enough. And so I’m not really sure what business I have jetting out to San Francisco to talk about God when it takes such little provocation to look down on other people.

And yet, that very realization, in some odd and convoluted way, is a window onto God’s existence, though I am not quite sure how. Maybe it will come to me.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

    I had that same experience while in line at the Circus Circus hotel in Las Vegas. We stayed there to save money on a trip with a friend. The place was like the DMV of Las Vegas. I looked around at all of these people–seriously weird-looking people holding cigarettes and babies–judging them, until I realized I was in the same line. I am these people. I might dress different, experience life with a little more irony and sophistication, but essentially, I am these people. Lord have mercy.

  • http://lisesletters.wordpress.com Lise

    In the beautiful documentary, “Half the Sky,” a Cambodian woman who rescues young girls from brothels was featured. The woman had been a child prostitute and her life mission is to now help others in a similar plight. In the interview, she kept saying, “I am them, they are me. We are no different. We are the same.” And I thought, “This woman is Jesus.” No. I didn’t literarily think that, but you know what I mean. “I am them, they are me. We are no different. We are the same.” The reality is – there are huge differences between people, yet at the end of the day, we are all the same. And if we are to be Christ like, we have to acknowledge the shadow of our own superiority (and we all have it – you’re just beautifully transparent about it).

    Everyone has a story. Every homeless person, every person suffering from substance misuse, every person with a chronic mental illness that is untreated. And every person wants someone to look him or her in the eyes and acknowledge a shared humanity. We are all in the same boat together.

    “Where the sirens sing and the Church bells ring
    And the junk man pounds his fender
    Where the veterans dream of the fight
    Fast asleep at the traffic light
    And the children solemnly wait
    For the ice cream vendor…” Jackson Browne – the Pretender

  • mike h

    Thang Q Peter. I live in white suburbia. My wife works at a public hospital in a nearby city. My daughter teaches at a charter school in the same city. Both come home with stories about the ‘other’ people they encounter every day. It’s hard to stay soft and pliable when every ounce of yourself wants to become hard against that foreign culture that we can never truly understand. Hopefully, with God’s help, we can remember our kindred-ness with these other people whom God truly loves.

  • http://www.nearemmaus.com Brian LePort

    Thank you for the honesty Pete. I lived in San Francisco for a few years and it was a time when I think I felt most “alive.” Things felt very real then. The church where I was a member is on the outskirts of the Tenderloin and not too far from City Hall. Living and moving about that part of town allowed you to see everyone from suit-and-tie politicians to down-and-out addicts. I felt like you felt often wondering where is God while at the same time acknowledging that if there isn’t some God to give us some hope this is a sad joke. I am glad we have hope and that we can trust that if God is good he will make sense of this life and all its disparities some day.

  • Jason

    I just love your transparency Peter!!!!!!!

  • http://craigvick.wordpress.com Craig Vick

    I wrestle with this as well. It seems, at least for me, to even go beyond the self righteousness of the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable. I find an anger, for example, against panhandlers that’s way out of proportion to any harm they do. I don’t know where that comes from. Some might say it’s because “they” challenge the myths of our culture. If so, these myths run so deep for me that I don’t even see them.

  • Derek

    Great post – honestly is always good. I can see God in this easily: When we are functioning in all our human glory it becomes painfully obvious that we are also radically depraved sinners. God’s holiness and our sinfulness are utterly irreconcilable, which is why the gospel is so great and Christ’s righteousness is imperative for the day of judgment when this Holy God executes His wrath and justice against sin.

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  • Sabine

    Funny how driving along unknown roads through unknown cities does that. It’s always car rides for me too. It becomes wholy ridiculous that there could be a God, and equally ridiculous that there would be non.

  • James

    You remind me of Romans 5:20–”But where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” Seems God delights to walk down messy streets or into prideful hearts and make them over new. This is no excuse for sinning but may be a window into God’s raison d’etre.

  • http://leemeadows.blogspot.com/ Lee Meadows

    I appreciate your vulnerability. I think your willingness to see your own sin makes you most qualified to teach on the Bible. I’ve been impacted deeply recently about how God stoops to us. We are all addicts and drunks, although for most of us our addictions are much more socially acceptable that what you saw. God sees our deep stubborn brokenness, and still comes to be near us.

  • LorenH

    Perhaps with the outcome of the World Series in mind, you should reconsider?