Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Kingdom is at Hand

"The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel." Mark 1:15

“So give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light, ‘cause oh that gave me such a fright.

But I will hold as long as you like, just promise me we'll be alright.” “Ghosts that We Knew”; Mumford and Sons

*****

Things are changing.  Scratch that.  Things have been changing; things have changed.  We were blind because we slept; we were blind because we did not care.  In seminary I was warned, I was taught that we had entered the post-Christian age.  I scoffed, “Not yet, no way.”

*****
“There are no atheists in foxholes.”

*****

In the trenches of urban ministry/missions, one would think the same wisdom would apply.  We deal with death, destruction, and things with teeth on a daily basis.  The greater the pain, the greater the fear the more we recognize that we need God.  When things are good?  Not so much.  We do ministry in a place, in a context that one would assume would be a bastion of, at the very least, a folksy, prosperity driven Christianity that typically dominates such contexts...except that it doesn’t.

We have children that do not know the very basic tenets of the Christian faith (this is also proving to be an issue in the pews as well); we have an increasing number of kids that do not know who Jesus is.  That I suppose shouldn’t be an entirely surprising statement.  Given the trajectories of the Church and culture, we knew this was coming.  However, what has caught us unaware is that anecdotally speaking, we have lost not only the current generation, but also it seems, a significant portion of the generation that preceded that one.

That really shouldn’t be all that surprising.  If we lose a generation as fully and completely as we have this one, then it stands to reason that we also lost increasing percentages of the preceding generations.  These things don’t happen overnight.  As I am fond of saying, “We have made our bed and now we must sleep in it.”  For too long we have tolerated Biblical illiteracy in the pews, a lack of accountability, and a lack of discipleship.  We do not value holiness and righteousness.  I wonder if we even believe anymore.  We have created a self-help program heavy on personal and spiritual comfort, while being light on things like repentance and transformation.  There was a reason that throughout the book of Joshua that we see the Hebrew people constantly warned to remember what God had done for not only them, but also their forefathers.

*****

For the three plus years I’ve been in South Louisville, my office phone rings several times a week with requests for assistance.  People need/want help with food, clothes, and or utilities.  I have always operated on the philosophy that if I have it, it is yours.  I don’t really care why you need it, who you are, or where you live.  It’s an opportunity to live out our faith and it is an opportunity for conversation.

What has struck me over and over and over is that the people calling me have no idea why they are calling a church.  They have no idea as to why calling a church might result in them receiving help.  It does not cross their minds that we are an entity living out our existence in obedience to a God of mercy, grace, and love, with a special fondness for the poor.  A God who loves them and wants to spend eternity with them so much so, that He was willing to pay the ultimate price for them.  To them, we are a social service; nothing more, nothing less.  God is very rarely part of the equation for the people that call me.  It’s jarring, shocking, and heartbreaking.  We have made our bed and now we must sleep in it.

*****

When Jesus first came, the “inbreaking of the Kingdom of God” came through child birth.  In all of its mess, pain, and struggle.  But this wasn’t a birth in a sterile hospital, surrounded by a team of experts to give that baby and the mother the best chance of survival.  There was no pain medication, no nursery, no balloons, and no flowers.  There were animals, straw, and likely animal shit and piss.  This was how God made his entry into the world, to live as one of us, alongside us.

*****

I received a phone call two days ago in my office.  Remember earlier when I discussed my philosophy of giving?  We unfortunately don’t have it right now, so those phone calls have been easy.  I can’t give you what I don’t have.  It was a woman who was allegedly disabled with a twelve-year-old daughter and no food in the house.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have anything we can do right now.”  And usually it would be at this point that I would end the conversation, except I didn’t.  I knew as soon as the words left my mouth that I had erred.  “Have you tried x, y, and z?”

“Yes, they either can’t help us or can’t help us soon enough.  We have nothing to eat.”

I remembered what it was like to be disabled, with a child, and having nothing.

“I can’t make any promises, but I will come up with something.  I’ll run it by in the morning.  Can I have your address?”
*****

The following morning came and I got a late start.  I’ve been doing the 60-70 hours a week thing in the church again.  I made the mistake of stretching out on the couch for a minute after my wife left for work.  An hour later, I woke with a start.

I got to my office by 9 and was already behind and knew I wouldn’t be making it to the woman’s house in the morning.  I found myself hopeful that she had forgotten me or that someone else had stepped up to help them.  I struggled for the first hour in my office as to what I was going to do.  Ultimately, I had to keep my word, but if I’m being honest, I really didn’t want to. 

I called her and reminded her of who I was.  Most times they don’t remember.  They just go down the church listings as quickly as they can until someone bites.  They don’t remember who, they just know someone did.  I asked if she had found anyone else to help; she hadn’t.  She assured me she had tried, but no one would help.  I asked if there was any way she could wait until tomorrow; it couldn’t wait, they had nothing.  I told her I wouldn’t be able to be there until later in the evening, probably close to 9, but that I’d be there.

When I got off the phone I decided to pull up her address on the computer; it was nearly a half an hour away in another bad part of the city.  Super.  As luck would have it though, an opportunity opened early in the afternoon and a good friend and I went grocery shopping.

*****

When we pulled up at the house, the first thing that I noticed was that there was a handicapped parking space out front; at least she hadn’t lied about that.  Across the street at 1:30 in the afternoon were four gentlemen, three sheets to the wind and very obviously quite angry about it.  I looked at my friend and nodded towards the men across the street.

“If this goes bad, don’t hesitate to drop the groceries and start swinging.”  I said this as if this were the most normal, pastoral thing to say.  He received it with little more than a shrug; we’ve been on lots of adventures.  We live and operate in a different world.  I figure in those situations; we can always pray with them afterwards.

The woman was waiting at the door for us.  She showed us in and it was as bad as it gets.  The house was drenched in the stench of either cat urine or meth; I’m told it’s hard to distinguish between the two.  There was no furniture, no tv, no pictures, nothing.  To my left was a bedroom, where on the floor was some ratty looking blankets and a pillow.

“Where do you want this?”

“Just leave it there,” she replied pointing at the floor.

“Do you have a fridge?”

“Yes.”

I told her we had more to bring in.  Two large men had to make two trips to get all of the groceries.  When we came back in, she simply pointed at the floor where the other groceries were.  It was obvious at that point that she wanted us to leave the house.  She had gotten what she needed and it was time for us to leave.  There were no thanks, no words, no nothing.  My friend had already started the exit the house, but I wasn’t ready.  I don’t really care if you thank me or not, I don’t need it and most times don’t want it, but I had some questions.

“Ma’am, I have some questions I would like to ask you, because I think you might be able to help me.  This isn’t to make you feel bad, because we are happy that we were able to help you.”  I smiled at her before continuing.  “How did you get my number?”

“I was just going down the phone book.”

“Well, my church starts with ‘G’, so you had to go a long way, huh?  That’s a lot of people saying no.”

“It was.”

“Do you know why we helped you?”

“Well yes, because you guys love helping people and it makes you feel good.”

“No,” I shook my head, smiled with tears in my eyes, and pointed at the groceries on the floor, “We did that simply because of Jesus, because He loves you.”

“Oh yeah!  The magic word!”

Point proven and heart broken.

*****

This one hit me hard.  I don’t entirely know why.  I usually try to make sense of stuff like this from the perspective of the person we’re helping. 

There was a reason God kept me on the phone long after I would’ve normally hung up.  There was a reason God hit me with a full court press as soon as I woke up startled on my couch.  There’s a reason He made an opportunity to take that food several hours sooner than I had intended.  God is surely working on her or maybe her daughter.  Surely the reasons, the answers were in that.

Maybe.  Probably even likely.  I don’t know what God is doing in other people’s lives, so I don’t try to romanticize it or to give meaning where I have no business creating such things.  On the surface, it seemed like there was no heavenly purpose to this run...until I quit looking for meaning in others.

*****

This place, this ministry...scripture, the many platitudes my ilk and I like to espouse, they become real here in ways hard to explain, but easy to experience.  Scripture, our beliefs; all too often they are theoretical.  We don’t put ourselves in places and ways where we can truly experience it.  We like our ivory towers, our sanitary, safe places.  We take the word “sanctuary” a little too literally.

And I think about that inbreaking on Christmas morning...the Kingdom came through blood, pain, piss, and shit.  There was no doctor, no nurses, no nursery.  There were no balloons or flowers.  No one to intervene if things went bad.  No medications to take the pain away.  No guarantee of survival.

We look for beautiful moments, mountaintop moments, with glowing, warm lights and heavenly choirs.   We look for lives and hells instantaneously transformed.  We expect teary eyed testimonies of lives saved through the actions of caring strangers.  We expect it to be easy, we expect it to be clean, and we expect it to be consistent.

What I learned yesterday, what I needed to hear, and what I needed to see?  The Kingdom is still inbreaking just as it did on Christmas morning.  It comes in the dark places, the strongholds when we dare to punch holes in the darkness.  It comes in blood, pain, piss, and shit.  It is childbirth in the wilderness with no promises, no guarantees.  My friend and I yesterday?  We punched a hole in darkness and left a baby in a manger.