This past Monday at our Gathering service at Embrace Church I felt like the weight of the world, or at least our neighborhood, was on my shoulders. I am a fairly big guy, but my shoulders can’t bear that sort of mass. Heck, I can barely deal with my own problems many days.
On Mondays we open the doors a couple hours before our community meal, but on this particular Monday we opened even earlier so folks could join together in a service project. We made 130 pounds of laundry detergent to bless the low-income and unhoused folks in our community. Anyway, as we were were grating soap, measuring out borax, and shooting the bull the floodgates of folks’ grief broke open and poured right on me.
First, one of our regular guests brought a man to me who was plastered drunk and bawling. This man “Gary” shared with me some news that at once made me deeply outraged and profoundly sad. Gary told me that his best friend had recently frozen to death while sleeping behind a local church. I just wonder how it is that someone would feel so ostracized, or abused, or unworthy, or even self-reliant that they would choose to sleep in sub-freezing temperatures rather than go to a shelter. Are we that inhospitable?
I prayed with Gary. I put my arm around him. I tried to comfort him. Those efforts seemed largely futile. Not long after this conversation Gary started harassing other guests, as drunk people tend to do, so one of my volunteers had to have a conversation with him after which Gary chose to leave. Are we as guilty now as the folks who had pushed his friend so far to the margins that freezing to death was a better option than risking it with inside a church or a shelter? I sure hope not. Lord have mercy!
Soon after, one of our most beloved community members shared with me about the recent months in her life, particularly about why she had not been around much and what she was doing about it. I have shared about this lady before and I believe I called her “Ms. B” so I will use that alias again. Ms. B is a recovering drug addict who has experienced the love and power of God in some profound ways. At one point she was a spiritual leader in our small church community, always encouraging and praying with others. However, for economic and perhaps other personal reasons Ms. B had let her boyfriend, a crack smoker, move in with her. He, intentionally or not, pulled her away from our community. Then, praise the Lord, she was able to convince him to come to church with her one Sunday recently, and soon after she decided to kick him out of the house because she felt convicted about how this relationship was destroying her other relationships, most importantly her relationship with God.
Now, it seems reasonable to think that this is not a story of grief, but one of triumph. There is truth in that, but the story is still in process. Ms. B is still lonely. She still has financial problems. And, both of those things could easily be taken care of if she just let this man move back in with her. I am deeply concerned about my friend as she will struggle in the coming months to pay the bills, and to fight off loneliness as she lays down in bed alone at night because I know that in this neighborhood, in her world, there are many evil and destructive people and activities that might prove to be overwhelming temptations for her as she tries to keep her rent paid and stave off the residual effects of a lifetime of pain. Lord have mercy!
Not long after the conversation with Ms. B ended, one of our lead kitchen staff volunteers brought another distressed man to me. This particular guy, “Jim”, is someone for whom I have a special fondness. I helped he and his wife move, and they returned the favor. They have shared their gift for singing during our worship services, spoken words of encouragement to me and others in our community, and though they are decades older than me we have begun building a great friendship. Last week though Jim’s world was shattered. His wife was arrested, and she will likely spend up to the next year locked up. As this grown man, well-worn by tragedy, sat there with me and cried because the woman he loves is now in a cage, the many years of misfortune, hardships, and downright devastation all began coming out nearly as raw as when he had first lived them. He told me about how his young son was beaten to death, and how helpless he felt to stop it. He told me about drug abuse and years spent at the bottom of a bottle, including recent nights because alcohol was the only thing that helped him sleep. He told me about loves lost. He told me about being taken advantage of by landlords and friends. He told me about his life. What will my friend do now? Where will he go now that he can’t live in his current abode? Will he make good decisions, or will a 40 or worse be his release? Lord have mercy!
Then, of course, there were the usual conversations about surgeries that people can’t afford, how there are bedbugs at one of the shelters, people desperately searching for any sort of work they can find, and still more conversations about intra and interpersonal conflict, including addictions and abusive relationships. Lord have mercy!
“Lord have mercy” is my continual prayer, and it is a prayer that I watched God answer on this very same Monday night and in the days since. After our community meal we all headed upstairs for worship service. It started off pretty normal though the feeling seemed to be a bit more solemn than usual. I made a few announcements, said a prayer then turned it over to our worship leader. As I went to my seat I realized I needed to run home and get something, and since my house is only a couple minutes from the church, I was back before the scheduled time for the sermon to start. I walked past my friend, Pastor Josh, patted him on the shoulder, and told him to keep is short tonight. Then I returned to my seat.
About the time I sat down I saw Jim head to the prayer rail and drop to his knees. Pastor Roz motioned for me to join Jim, so I quickly got up to the front and embraced this brother as tears poured out on to the altar. Soon others were headed that way as well. It became evident quite quickly that this was not going to be a sermon kind of night. Our worship leader, Luke, continued to strum his guitar and Roz invited others to come forward if they needed prayer (and it truly was an invitation, not a manipulative plea). Next thing I knew the front of the church was flooded. We had all the pastors and a couple interns and other prayer leaders praying for folks and there was still a line. Roz got a free moment then gave one more gentle invitation and still more people came asking for prayer. The atmosphere changed. I saw the promise that Yawheh gave to Jeremiah regarding Israel, fulfilled in a small but significant way in our community. “I will turn their mourning into gladness. I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow” (Jer 31:13b).
Yesterday I saw both Jim and Ms. B. They both looked happier and more at peace than they had been in quite a while. Jim even told me that he has slept more peacefully the last few nights than he has in a long time. All their problems aren’t solved, and even though we are now helping them shoulder their burdens, and thankfully doing it as a community, we have all certainly seen that they, that we, have been shown mercy. Praise the Lord!
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