Logging back through the past week or so: a friend of mine came into my office yesterday celebrating a one-year anniversary free from crack-cocaine. Needless to say, hugs and laughs all around. On Sunday at the church picnic, I leapt into a sack race and allowed my competitive streak to push me beyond common sense and I did a face-plant at the finish line, hopelessly behind the winner. My right shoulder is still protesting. Sunday morning, I got to stand in front of 300 people all singing praise to God at top of their lungs, knowing in my bones it had nothing to do with me. My son opens a show in Lincoln, Nebraska today, a performance my wife gets to see, which I’m thankful for. Last night, I sat on my kitchen table in the dark, just me and the guitar, singing really terrible impromptu songs about the multitude of moods and emotions rolling through my world just now. Life, marriage, children, God, extended family, work, ministry, friends, passions, temptations. Good thing no one was around to hear my howling. Singing would be too generous a word.
A church may be an institution, but then again, it’s not. Institutional religion is necessary, I think, at one level, as people organize and try to forge their creative energies into a force greater than the sum of the parts. Linkages of agendas, monies, and hopes all lead to gathering organization, and before you know, institutions arise. Governance, in the loosest sense of the term, becomes essential. Steering is rarely a luxury in a boat constantly being threatened with being swamped by tides and storms. Still, the church is not primarily an institution. From where I sit, which is at the intersection of lives in a community of people gathered around their faith in the Messiah, the church is made of faces telling stories, spirits connecting over those stories. The stories themselves almost always revolve around suffering of some kind. Some suffering is mild–small physical ailments, feelings hurt over cruel words, dreams of material success or possessions dashed momentarily–and some suffering is catastrophic–the surgeries and chemotherapies, the divorces, the betrayals, the crashes and deaths, the losses of faith, the abandonment of hope. We gather around and tell the stories, tell the sufferings, and stand dumbly wondering what to do.
A friend of mine who escaped from Cuba years ago and was severely burned somewhere along the way has struggled with various substance abuses, and on Sunday, we talked of his recent struggles with crippling depression, relapses that cost him his living situation and his meds, his fear of having to go back downtown and living in shelters. His has been a journey the church has been involved in for several years now, a story of ups and downs, victories and nagging defeats, and though he is on a down cycle at the moment, I have great hope for this man, that God will honor his struggle. As his church family, we have committed to being with him and for him in all the ways we know how. This story could be repeated fifty times over with various subplots and additional characters in the life of our church. In the end, the church is people being with and for people in the name and character of Jesus.
But honestly, as I stood with my friend in that peek-a-boo sunshine, his cloudy eyes locked with mine, I had no idea how to help him. We’ve thrown various resources his way for years, and we love him dearly, but at that moment, I had no answers. So often as the days roll on, I hear a story, and all I know to do is reach out, hold, stand with them in the moment, pray, tell them a crazy story of my own, and perhaps share a laugh or a smile or a word of encouragement that will somehow land in a non-trite, non-canned way.
Sunday morning, I said we should not forget that God is strange and mysterious, perhaps even terrible in the way storms can be terrible. No blasphemy there, because scripture is plain about that if about nothing else. But behind the strangeness is the stranger notion of love that trumps all things. Strange, terrible, stormy life, and still worship is the only real response, because what is, is, and He is the “I am.”
Please pray for these friends of mine…