Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Reflections on Lent, Ministry, Self, and the Hood

I can tell you unequivocally that I have a lot of joy and contentment in my ministry.  The peace, purpose, and calm that comes when who you are collides with who you have been made to be; there is nothing like it.  I have a lot of fun at Grace UMC and in South Louisville.  Even after nearly three years there, I still wake up excited to go to “work”.  I have the most amazing ministry team I would’ve ever dared to have imagined existed.  Hard working, selfless people who love God that I get to count as family.

I felt it important to mention these things because of what I’m about to say.  I had a moment last week where I was absolutely gut punched; which is nothing new.  Happens a lot.  What wasn’t so new was that I sat in my own ashes for a bit.  I’ve become so good at sitting in the ashes of others that I suppose I had forgotten what it was to sit in my own.  I suppose there is a fear in doing so.  What if I despair?  What if I lose heart?  What if someone sees the momentary chink in my armor?

“You’re the pastor, you cannot do any of those things.” Lol…whatever.

One of our regulars since I’ve been in the ‘hood reappeared after months and it wasn’t good.  The last time we had seen him he was on a walker.  He had attempted to take someone’s drugs without paying for them.  He got off light.  They chased him down and busted up his leg with a ball bat. 

Prior to that?  He had seemingly gotten his life together.  He had gotten a job at one of the neighborhood grocery stores.  He was so proud to show us his uniform.  He was even prouder yet when soon after he was named “Employee of the Month”.  There’s something about a grown man chasing you down in the street to celebrate a life accomplishment like a child bringing home an extraordinary report card.  I totally would have put his accomplishment on the fridge if I could have.

Prior to that?  The first time we met this gentleman, we caught him stealing food from us during church only to come back later for the cookout.  He would come to Heathen Church so stoned he couldn’t sit up during church.  Despite that, he would suddenly sit up with an appropriately timed, “Amen!” Before collapsing back down in the pew.  Welcome to my church; it is in fact glorious.

But now?  The man we found last weekend?  Suicidal, strung out, and homeless; a shell of the man we had come to know and love.  And let’s face it, he wasn’t working with a whole lot to begin with.  There was an emptiness to him that rattled me.  My heart broke.

I came to my wife, plopped down in a chair at the dining room table, “Why do so many of our stories end up in rehab, jail, or a homeless shelter?”  I was covered in my own ash.

*****

Everyone and their dog knows that I love Christmas.  And so you would imagine that my Advent services are second to none.  Frankly speaking, they’re not.  I almost always walk away from them feeling like I didn’t quite nail them the way that I had wanted; which is kind of infuriating.  Maybe it’s the pressure I put on myself?  Maybe there is no way that I can convey the enormity of the love I have for that season?  And maybe I’m just being a little too hard on myself.  Who knows, not important.

Whatever the case may be, where I feel that I really shine is in the season of Lent.  I make things clear beginning on Ash Wednesday that we are marching towards the cross in the distance; drawing ever closer and it won’t be empty when we get there. There will be no rushing to the empty tomb on Easter morning.  We are going to understand and we are going to explore ourselves, our discipleship, and our Savior.  I want us to be able to stand at the foot of the cross on “Good” Friday to understand not only the price paid for us, but also the enormity of it.  Most of all?  I want you to understand that on that night, all hope was gone as a lifeless figure was pulled down from that cross.  There was and can never be a darker day than the day that we killed God.

My “Good” Friday sermon is a sledgehammer and yet there are no cruel intentions to it.  I seek not to harm, but rather to connect.  To connect followers with a story that we don’t like to sit with for too long, a story that we don’t like to dwell on; the price paid for each one of us.  Sure, we’ll acknowledge that Jesus died for our sins, which is certainly true enough.  But we treat it as if it were some far away event, as if it were some impersonal event that we have somehow become entitled to.  Not me.  I want to be reminded and I want my people to know what love on the cross truly meant.  I want us to stand there with our Lord and Savior, not scattering, not denying, and not averting our eyes.  I want us to understand and I want it to be personal.

At the end of sermon, I invite the congregation to journey with the lifeless body of Jesus into the tomb.  I want them to witness the boulder being placed across the opening.  I want them to experience the deepest darkness of despair.  Jesus is dead.  It’s a very rough and brutal place to take good people.  And my tendency is to let them sit there for a few seconds, which I’m sure seems an insufferable amount of time.  The faces that make up the congregation are without fail tear stained and broken.

Just when I sense that they cannot take it anymore, which is really, probably the point that I can’t take it any longer, I quietly and gently remind them, paraphrasing the famous words of Tony Campolo (who I’m not a huge fan of BTW), “Take heart dear brothers and sisters, it’s only Friday; Sunday’s coming.”  To really appreciate and celebrate Sunday morning, we have to endure Friday.  After all, to be resurrected, you do in fact first have to die.

*****

Needless to say, being a little over a week away from that “Good” Friday sermon when the churches of two of my closest brothers will join together with mine, this sermon has been on my mind and heart a lot.  This one takes a lot of mental, emotional, and spiritual preparation.  In all of that, I have found an odd peace in the sealed tomb of Friday.

The stories of our context; the despair, the pain, the loss, and of course many of the children and youth we minister to, we exist in a Friday world.  Our context is really good at finding new and devious ways of breaking your heart and attempting to break your spirit.  But I realized something today in my preparations, something profound.

Sunday is coming.  All too often in the “South End” we operate in a Friday world.  A world oftentimes of death, a world of no hope, a world of darkness.  The seeming impossibility of drug addiction, of homelessness, of violence.  The absolute tragedy of under/poorly educated children; children with no hope at school or at home.  It’s a vicious cycle; a self feeding, self sustaining monster with very real teeth.  A monster not content to just feed on the afflicted or the sinner. 

And yet, we are to be a light, a voice of hope, a voice of mercy, and a voice of love in the face of that monster.  We do this not because it’s simply what “we are supposed to do”.  We do not do this because we are trying to make a name for ourselves.  And we certainly don’t do it because we are some sort of spiritual masochists. 

We do it because we understand Friday and we know that Sunday is coming.