Some times the best New things come when two old ones meet on a converging path. The two can no longer go on as they did before, either one must cease to be, giving way to the other, or they must join and move towards a new destination. This is the story of the Cross, when the word of God faced death and did not shrink away, but instead joined with the suffering of the world and took its hand through the veil of darkness. On the other side something new was established, something beautiful, something glorious. We now live at this Cross roads of Crucifixion and glorification awaiting the new to move on with the path of life. The tension of "here and not yet" is common place in our daily lives. It is refining us for the day of glory when the cross is behind us and life is fully ahead. Until that day, though, the Cross lingers in our sight awaiting our ascension, and that's hard because we want to live into the promises of life right now, on this day, for the glory of God.
An opportunity to examine this tension in our lives came around just recently. An unexpected guest became a sixth roommate in our home for the last several days. His name is Jesse. The thing about Jesse is that he needs social security benefits to survive and, as these things usually go, last week he momentarily fell through the cracks by some heinous technicality and lost his support, effectively making him homeless and broke. He just kind of showed up at our house one night and then never left. He has some kind of mental disorder that causes him to talk a lot and act like a child, but he's very kind and loves to laugh. Jesse also likes to talk about his past and how his Dad beat him as a kid and taught him to use profanity. The stories about his Dad come up bluntly and with an air of normality just as frequent as his wise cracks and silly jokes. As consequence the environment created by his presence is simply unadulterated reality. One cannot escape laughing at his jokes any more than one can keep from tearing up about the stories of his childhood even when the moment was set up for a different stage. Jesse interupted our lives with a jolt of reality.
For those who don't know, we have communal prayer time every morning after breakfast and every evening at 9 o'clock. We use a set liturgy, just released by Shane Claybourne, called "Common Prayer: A liturgy for ordinary radicals." Its fairly uniform and requires a reading and response/ leader and congregation format. This became almost impossible to pull off with Jesse in the house, which isn't a bad thing in my opinion, but became a very huge opportunity to witness the character of our growing body. The first night we tried to do things as normal, but it felt very awkward, it was kind of synthetic, like trying to fit a square peg through a round hole. The book was the same, the words were the same, but the prayer time was no longer real in its old format. To be honest I love situations like this, I love it when we have to step back from our ridiculous expectations of spirituality and take our selves less seriously. Its a litmus test in my eyes, for the validity of our heart's intentions. What did we gather to do this night if Jesse's presence all of a sudden makes our most cherished rhythms feel synthetic? The practice is not wrong, and I I know our hearts do not reach perfection or the purity we strive for on this side of Jesus' return, no one is saying that, but was the practice more sincere about prayer than our hearts?
Its the already and not yet knocking again: do we keep the prayer time the same even though it no longer functions as reality with Jesse's interruptions, or do we go the way of the cross and allow for something new to happen? The next night I pulled Wes aside and asked him if we could alter prayer time to be more friendly towards Jesse and therefore less uncomfortable for others. We did, and it was a really good decision. It was powerful to hear him pray for the salvation of his father and to forgive him for what he had done. Our hearts were restored and our praise was a pleasing fragrance to the lord. Jesse led us some where new. I can see that God is doing a lot of that right now, and I want to take this opportunity to praise his name for it. Hallelujah!
Truly this is a season of new things in our community. I believe it with all my heart, and I want to share one new thing that I see coming on the horizon. New like resurrection from the dead, new like a church of Jews and gentiles. New like the mercies of God every morning.
I didn't know there was a church in the Stevenson neighborhood until I walked down Carver street for the first time. That was over a year and a half ago on a hot day in September. There was something old about meeting pastor Riley that day. I don't mean that the man is old, though he has been around the block a few times, I mean that he seemed an old friend right there, on the spot, the first time I met him. After his initial shock wore off, perhaps the shock of seeing a young white boy in the hood, we were fast to friendship. We had him over for dinner not a few days later, and before too long I was helping take Thursday lunches around the neighborhood to the elderly.
At the time Aaron and Ben were going to a church out in Clyde and Wes was attending the Mission in downtown Abilene. As for me it was the end of a long communal pilgrimage. I House Churched my way through college with folks who had been burned out on the institution and that wasn't far from my stance either. But now I had a chance for something new. My heart felt a mysterious tug towards Riley's congregation, my spirit showed me visions of rich future, but I was held back by doubt. I felt we would be called to this church as a sign of unity and reconciliation, but I didn't want to face burn out again, and in my heart I judged St. Johns and thought of it only in terms of what I could give. I just couldn't imagine the small forgotten church amounting to anything for our spiritual health. But I stand as a witness that the best new things come from something old. Redemption is so sweet to the soul, reconciliation so vital to the life of the spirit.
I couldn't ignore the spirit any longer, I felt called to be apart of something new, just like Peter at the house of Cornelius. As you know, we live in a neighborhood built in the fifties for segregation purposes. It stayed that way and became one of the biggest reasons for our relocation as a community, and a source of great calling. After being here for two years I can clearly see God’s hand in leading me to be apart of this small forgotten church. Just as a new people were brought together in the book of acts I felt the lord tugging on my heart to envision a new community of intergenerational post denominational multi-ethnic people. If there could be a sign of the gospel power here in this town this opportunity might be one of the greatest examples to display Christ’s message; a witness both powerful for the church and the city itself.
The first week was interesting. I was the only white person there which put me very out of place. The spirit of the civil rights movement still wanes in the hearts of the church members with a residual sermon note here or there to remind us of where African Americans come from. The reminders are received well with much vocal approval among the small crowd. But as the weeks have gone on other roommates have joined me and some of the older members have been returning after a long absence. Every Sunday the crowd seems more and more diverse. Wes even preached last week, which was awesome and powerful. And through it all I am amazed at how well God equipped this church for something new. I've never been to a church service that was so interruptible. Even people like Jesse have come to be a part of Sunday worship, people who bring us painfully present into the spirituality of reality. A slow messy business made of real people and uncomfortable situations along with laughter and crying mixed together in one incredible moment. I've never laughed so much at church, I've never been so moved, I've never lamented so authentically and I've never been so encouraged by one of the least of these. Not a single Sunday has gone the same since I started going to St. Johns, its been something new every time. I hope this continues, and I thank the lord for restoring my heart for Sunday services. May the lord be praised in the Stevenson neighborhood.