The last couple of weeks have been pretty rough on a personal level. Lent is one of those seasons that I really, really love. It’s typically quieter than the rest of the year, and I find that the midweek contemplative services we offer at church help fill out a sense of prayerful, meditative contemplation, and that kind of thing really feeds my soul.
This year we’ve been doing a round-robin preaching cycle within our Synod’s “cluster.” (For us, that means the ELCA congregations in and just outside of Tulsa.) While this is a great idea and I think we should keep doing it in the future, this is really exhausting to me. It’s not extra work, per se: Each preacher writes a single sermon, then delivers it every Wednesday in a different congregation. Pretty simple, really, but for me it’s very anxiety-inducing. I need to meet and make myself vulnerable to a brand new set of people every Wednesday evening, and this gets ratcheted up when I’m expected to come and make small talk at the simple suppers beforehand. I’m not complaining about this. Just being honest.
So, yeah, I support this and will keep on doing this kind of thing in the future. As much as I ask our congregation to stretch their comfort zones, I need to also be willing to stretch. And I think the whole thing has been very positively received in each of the congregations so far.
But it’s tiring. And it makes Lent less worshipful for me, somewhat ironically. Combine this with both of my kids entering different phases of independence at the same time (again, a good and healthy thing, but tiring for Mom and Dad), all of the bureaucratic junk that comes with pastoring a congregation, all the time spent meeting with folks inside and outside the congregation, a couple of online classes I’m taking, etc. etc., … Well, it gets to be a little much after a while. Don’t worry. I’m taking a vacation right after Easter, so I should have some time to refill my energy reserves (and take in a couple of movies I’ve been meaning to see).
All of this goes just to say that, in a busy season like this, one has to look for highlights and uplifts wherever they might be found. I found a gem of one on Sunday.
Let me back up a touch. Fridays are generally my sermon-writing days. I spend the first part of the week looking at the texts and letting them sink in, as well as entering “conversation” with some of my favorite study resources. All of this marinates together until Friday morning, when I put it in the oven and pull it out, hopefully less half-baked than the week before.
But this Friday I just wasn’t feeling it. I wrote down some thoughts, but couldn’t bring them together. Synapses weren’t firing well. So I thought to myself, “Well, tomorrow’s Saturday. I hate writing sermons on Saturday, but I just can’t get it done today. I’ll wait until Chris is outside playing with the neighbor kids and Emily is down for her nap.”
Well, Saturday came. Chris went across the street to invite the kids to play. They were getting ready for a trip to their grandparents’ place and wouldn’t be back until Tuesday. Crap. I put Emily down for her nap. 10 minutes later, she’s wide awake. I spent the next 40 mintues trying to put her back down, but she just won’t stay asleep. Double crap.
By the time Christy got home from the book fair she was working, it was time to eat, get the kids ready for bed, and I was wiped. the heck. out.
I went to bed early, but oddly unconcerned. I figured I had enough stuff stewing in my brain to pull together a sermon. Went into the office early, realizing I was under a deadline: I usually pick up a friend who can’t drive and bring her in to church at around 8.
A quick glance at my clock (OK, the clock on my phone, truth be told), I realized I only had about 15 minutes to finish. Just then I get a text. My friend couldn’t make it that day. I felt bad for her, but internally grateful that I had a few more minutes to write.
Cranked out the last little bit and hit “print.” As I got up to retrieve the freshly printed manuscript, the door buzzer sounded. “Great. Now what?” I thought. It was my friend L – a guy who lives on the streets. We’ve known eachother a couple of years now. He comes by to use the phone, the bathroom, and occasionally the shower, but also to hang out and tell me about what’s going on with his life. He’s a very nice guy, especially when he’s sober.
But on Sunday morning, he was schnookered. He could barely stand, but somehow he made it up the stairs to our door. I went out to meet him, and he was half frozen. So he came in and we had some coffee together. His hands weren’t working well, so I helped him wash them, and he asked for a foot washing. How can I turn that down?! Then he wanted to wash MY feet. Boy, did I ever feel like Peter! But he did it, and we prayed together a while.
I offered him one of the prayer blankets our congregation has begun making. It’s a cool ministry. Not only does prayer go into the making of these items, but also we bless them as a community, so they are just infused with prayer. It’s pretty awesome.
By the time I gave him the blanket, he was a little less drunk and almost coherent. I asked him if we wanted to stay for church. Our street friends almost never do that. I think they feel out of place in a worship space where they’re the only ones not dressed up, unshowered and unkempt. Plus, we’re a liturgical church, and while most of our friends from the street are people of faith, they tend to come from a less formal worship setting. Lots of baptists, lots of pentecostals and the like, most of whom feel judged by God and Man for their alcoholic and other moral transgressions. (This is a big reason I think our city – and every city! – needs a voice like the one our denomination has, at least on some level. We know there’s nothing you can do to EARN God’s favor, and there’s nothing you can do, no sin big enough to overpower God’s mercy.)
Anyway, L stayed to worship with us. I knew our Middle Class Lutheran congregation might need a little prep for what could happen with a drunken L among us, so I introduced him as a charismatic friend who is living on the streets. I asked people to go with the flow, and to set aside for a moment our Lutheran shyness and formality, and to come and lay hands on L as we prayed for him.
I was overwhelmed by the positive response. People really went with it! I think the only people who didn’t stand up were those with physical limitations that prevented them from doing so.
Then we worshipped together. The music was great. I preached a sermon on the so-called parable of the prodigal son (in relation to the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin). During the sermon I encouraged folks to notice that, unlike the lost sheep and coin stories, which have a happy ending, the lost son story has NO ending: it winds up with the father and the son standing in the field, with the father urging/pleading with the elder son to come into the party.
I asked people to imagine what will happen in the end. Will the older brother steadfastly refuse to join the banquet? Or will he give in to grace and rejoice with his family? What about when the father eventually dies? Will the older brother follow his father’s wishes and keep the younger son within the fold, or will he excommunicate him as he so richly “deserves?”
We finished the service, and I discovered that L’s brother from Oklahoma City had come to pick him up. We spent a few minutes chatting about L, his recovery issues, where he seems to do better and where his pitfalls are. L’s brother didn’t hold out much hope for recovery. He told me that the other siblings have given up on him entirely, then he said, “All I can do is take him home and sober him up. It might not last long. Sometimes he gets violent with me and I have to turn him out again.”
I said to him, “Well, thanks for taking him back today.”
He responded, “He’s my brother. What else can I do?”
Perfect ending to that parable, don’t you think?
In the midst of a very hectic season, both in the church and at home – a season where my Depression has returned in the past few weeks with a vengeance, and so much of life seems dark and foreboding, something like this happens, and it breathes new life.
I’m thankful for L, for his brother, and for our church community. I don’t know that we’ve done everything we could, and I don’t know what the results of our efforts will be, but I think we’ve all been faithful to St. Paul’s admonition that came in our second reading on Sunday, to become what we were called to be: Ambassadors of reconciliation.