February 6, 2012
God is at work through the most unlikely people. A helpful reminder for us self-important types.
Some of the most important moments of faith do not come from the places we expect. They may not come from behind a pulpit or an altar, in corporate worship, or during a retreat. Those of us leading congregations are often tempted to think God works through us most. In our best moments, we are able to point to God’s work and simply step aside. But sometimes we forget that the Spirit of God is working even harder than we are. Sometimes this can catch us off guard. Like when I met Annie.
Annie was sitting outside the doors of our sanctuary. She had a battered, plastic blue shovel in one hand, her father’s hand in the other, and drool dripping on her shirt. Her father looked tired. No—beaten. Beaten by the unfulfilled dreams his daughter’s disease stole from him. Beaten by the guilt of wanting something more for his child. Frustrated at a God who would allow his daughter not to be “normal.”
I had just finished leading our children’s worship when I saw his daughter. To my naive surprise, Annie didn’t join the other children during their worship. And at the moment I thought about it, the reason was obvious. Kids with Down Syndrome aren’t like “normal” kids. They belong to the group of “special needs.” And since most churches don’t have the resources to accommodate this segment of our population, families who have to live with this struggle seldom feel fully welcomed.
Annie’s dad just wanted to sit in the service. He and his wife were trading off the responsibility of sitting with Annie. And she didn’t want to go inside, which meant they wouldn’t be able to fully connect during the service.
So with my own, broken sense of self-importance, I sat with them. Prayed with them. Sang with them. All outside the doors of the sanctuary. I had no idea that Annie was going to minister to me in the moments that followed.
I shared with her the Sunday school lesson of the day. And she shared that she understood the story. Then she plopped right next to me and we worshiped together. As I sang the lyrics of the song the congregation was singing, she repeated each line as if they were questions. I nodded along and we played this game of back and forth, where each question would break apart the melody and reveal the meaning. She, with her innocent curiosity, gave me an incredible gift. She helped me see faith through her eyes, and with new vision I was able to see the simple beauty of believing what we were singing. She exposed the awe present in a child’s faith in a way I had never seen before.
Or like when Bo taught me to love a terrorist.
During my first year of youth ministry, September 11 was still a very recent memory. I was very young, overly ambitious, and way too confident in my own abilities to teach the Bible to middle school students. I was trying to offer lessons in synoptic comparisons—the standard curriculum for middle school students!—when it happened.
We were comparing “the Sermon on the Mount” with “the Sermon on the Plain” when a seventh grade boy got a very serious look on his face. After Sunday school had finished and all the other students had left, he sat down next to me and asked what it meant to forgive our enemies. I asked (like all youth workers who aren’t exactly sure where the conversation is going) what he thought.
I assumed he was wondering about how to respond to bullies when he said something that took me completely off guard.
“Do you think Jesus would have forgiven Osama bin Laden?”
Shocked, I pressed the point again. “What do you think?”
His response still sits with me nearly a decade later:
“I think I want to pray for him.”
Or like when I heard the story of the Original Sanitation Worker.
There’s a guy who sleeps on a cardboard box near the front steps of our church. He’s been in the neighborhood for about 15 years, and people have been treating him like he was less than human for at least as long.
He never showers or changes his clothes. Once something he is wearing literally disintegrates, he throws on another layer like fresh paint over a battered wall. But that never contains the smell. He won’t accept food, water, or any type of help. He just digs through the trash, finds food that strangers have foolishly wasted, and stands on the corner of 80th and Broadway as a symbol of what happens when we dehumanize each other.
But the other day, I heard some of his neighbors talking about him. And they see a very different kind of person. They see the guy who digs through the trash for cans and bottles, not for himself, but for the other homeless women and men who share his stretch of the Upper West Side. When they ask if he wants the 30 cents he scrounged for them earlier that morning, he whimsically walks away and shouts over his shoulder, “Mail it to me.”
Why is it that grace continually surprises us? I don’t know. But with all the demands that come with pastoral work, it's easy to allow fatigue, stress, anxiety, a desire to please, the disease of ego, or the busyness that fills all of our lives to prevent us from identifying God’s grace. But that grace appears in unexpected ways and places. And part of our work is to be open to it. To look for it. To claim it as God’s work in God’s people. All so we can mean it when we say, “Amen.”