Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Finding Beauty in the Ashes

This was my Greenville College chapel address on Feb. 8, 2012. Greg and I were invited as the Christian Life Week special speakers.

Read: Isaiah 61: 1-3

When I was a little girl, I stayed up too late one night and saw parts of the horror flick “Poltergeist.” Do you remember that movie? It was edited for TV, but it was still way more than my young mind could handle. For years I couldn’t sleep if my closet doors were open, even just a crack.

As an adult, closet doors don't bother me anymore, but there are still images that haunt me and keep me awake at night. Unfortunately, these images weren’t manufactured in a movie studio somewhere. They're not computer-generated. No amount of photo-shopping can mask their ugliness. These are images that come from real-life experience, living and ministering in my neighborhood on the near Eastside of Indianapolis.

So when I can't sleep, I'm thinking about the time I caught an autistic 4-year-old devouring raw hamburger meat out of a package from the church food pantry. I think about how her exhausted mother just turned her back and looked the other way.

I think about the diaper-wearing 2-year-old who cussed out the church nursery workers; how the child's grandmother responded by cussing her out and slapping her face, and how sadly incongruent it was that all this took place at the front of the sanctuary after Sunday morning worship.

I'm haunted by images of children using the hose in the community garden to take a bath, since their homes don't have running water. Of babies with so much lice in their hair, their little scalps have been scratched raw. Of so many teenagers I know who still bear the scars of fetal alcohol syndrome.

What keeps me awake at night is this question: where IS God in the inner city?

My husband Greg shared with you on Monday about our first impressions of our new home and church, when we arrived four years ago. We'd spent years studying and preparing our hearts for this new adventure. We were inspired. We wanted to live lives of generosity and hospitality, and be others- and God-centered. We wanted to raise our daughters in a place where everyone didn't look and act and think just like them; we wanted them to grow up knowing that that was okay.

It took only a few weeks for the reality to set in: that this was going to be really hard. We'd read Isaiah, and we had planned on being “anointed” by the Lord “to preach good news to the poor.” We hadn't planned on the poor being so difficult to love and hard to preach to. We'd planned on “proclaiming freedom for captives” and “releasing prisoners from darkness.” We hadn't planned on the prisoner's chains running so far and so deep that you can't even tell where they stem from.

We had raced into the inner city, and the one thing I was sure we could count on was that God was coming with us. In all of my efforts, at least he would be behind me, riding on my shirttails. Couldn't I at least be sure of that?

Last spring, Pastor Greg Groves from the Greenville Free Methodist Church, who also teaches youth ministry here at the college, spent a weekend with our congregation on a retreat. Our focus for the weekend was prayer. At one point, he placed a series of random photographs on a table. He instructed the children and teens in our group to carefully and prayerfully choose a picture that stuck out to them, for whatever reason.

According to Pastor Greg, the results were startling. Kids, you see, are supposed to be kids. They are supposed to choose pictures of playgrounds and school lunches and pretty sunsets -- not because kids are shallow or immature – but because they're innocent. But the pictures chosen by these youth from my neighborhood seemed to reveal more pain and darkness, than innocence and light. For example, most of the boys in the group chose a picture with a gun in it somewhere. One boy explained his choice, saying, “I wanna have one like this someday.” One girl chose a picture that showed a few scantily-clad girls standing around a tough-looking boy. To me, it looked like any other perfume ad from a teen magazine, but this young girl explained, “You see this guy here? He's a pimp, and this girl... she's trying to decide if she wants to be with him.” But the comment that twisted my heart was from a 10-year-old, who chose a picture of a coffin. She explained, “I chose this picture because it looks like the one my Mommy was buried in.”

Again, I ask, where IS God in the inner city?

When boys dream of holding guns, when girls wonder how much their bodies are worth, is God there? Is he listening? Does he see all of this? And most importantly I wonder, lying in bed at night, is He going to DO anything about it?

Thankfully, there's a twist in this story. One I didn't see coming, and I still don't see it if I'm not careful. I've learned that it's so very easy to get caught up in the images right in front of your eyes, that you forget to see the bigger picture that's unfolding. It's easy to keep snapshots in your mind of all the bad things you've seen happen, that your focus on everything else gets blurry. And it's equally easy to get excited about all the good things you're doing, all the great programs you've designed to solve everyone's problems, that you forget your own role in the story. Namely, you forget that, try as you might, you can't be God.

And that realization, for me, is the hinge it all hangs on. I raced into the inner city with all the right intentions, planning for God to be riding on MY shirttails. But as it turns out, God, in all of his glory, was already there.

He'd been there all along, before I even stepped foot on the pavement. The same God who made a meal for five thousand people out of the scraps from a child's lunchbox, is still making banquets for hundreds of people each week out of our tiny church's food pantry. The same God who healed the lame, touched the dirty, and gave losers a place in society, is still helping broken people create communities where dignity and differences are valued.

The same God who lifted the face of a whore to his own, and told her she was worth something, is still whispering words of hope to prostitutes on the corner. I know this because they come to church and tell me so.

And you know, the God that is rescuing all of them, is the same God I need to rescue me. I may spend a lot of time with dirty, dangerous people, but the ugliest thing I've encountered so far is the state of my own heart. If I can be honest, there have been times that I've prayed, "Lord, would you please not send me another smelly person to hug." God forgive me for believing that any burden I bear even compares to the burden he bore for my own dirty soul.

God is certainly in the inner city, and I can't take credit for any of his doings. I can only stand back and stare in amazement. Urban ministry, it turns out, is very much God's production. And me? I'm merely an audience participant.

But salvation in my community doesn't look the same as it does in other places. In fact, it's easy to miss. If I hang on to a lot of my own expectations, I might not take much notice of the extraordinary ways that Jesus changes people.

Salvation in the inner city looks like Carrie, a middle-aged woman who lived a good chunk of her life under a bridge where she prostituted herself for drugs. But today, Carrie's simple faith in the Jesus who saved her makes my faith – supported by all those years in Sunday school – look flimsy and frail. She's still poor, she's still mostly unemployed, but Carrie is the one I call on when I need prayer. I came to her neighborhood to help people like her, yet she's the one helping ME.

Salvation in the inner city looks like the two moms I know who are so deeply in love with their church, they went out and blew their Food Stamps on shrimp cocktail for everyone. That was my favorite church potluck, by the way. Not only was the food good, but there was something beautifully incongruent about eating Food Stamp shrimp cocktail.

Salvation looks like drug addicts who stand up and confess that they've been clean for one whole week – and you know, one week for a lifelong drug addict is a big deal.

It looks like some of the kids I work with on Wednesday nights, who may never learn to read well enough to have “proper” devotions, but when they sing and clap and dance they touch the face of God... And isn't that all that really matters?

When I've been on the lookout for it, I've seen God do in my community what God does best: make something beautiful out of ashes. Create life and hope where there once was death and despair.

And this really shouldn't surprise me. It's a pattern we see throughout Scripture: people make a mess of things, but God comes in and creates life out of the ruins. After an apocalyptic flood, he puts a rainbow in the sky. After Nehemiah's hometown is leveled, God forms a city-wide re-development committee. After a sinless man is brutally slain and hung on a cross for all to see, God breathes life back into those lungs, resurrecting the Messiah we so desperately needed. Our culture may tell us that the order of the world starts with life and ends with death, but God loves to do things backwards. More times than not, He shows us that His way, His trajectory, starts with death and moves towards life.

One of the most beautiful illustrations I've seen of the way God works is found in the art made by children in my community. The View Finder Project is a mentoring program that aims to help kids see life differently and make better choices – all set in the framework of a photography class.

And the results... are startling. These kids COULD take pictures of playgrounds and school lunches and pretty sunsets, but they don't. Perhaps it's that same loss of innocence that gives them an edge in the art of photography. Instead of taking simple pictures, these children manage to capture the reflection of a broken-down townhouse in the serene water of a birdbath. They don't miss the irony when there are weeds growing through white picket fences. They find trash on the street, and with the right focus, they create something worthy of hanging in your living room.

To close, I want to show you some of these pictures, all of them taken by inner city youth. But before I do, I want to share with you the words of one of our teens.

Alex, who attended most of her photography classes with an infant daughter on her lap, shares, “Growing up was a hard thing for me. Looking back now, all I can remember are the bad and painful things about my childhood. But photos are a way to remind us of the good things in life." She says, “We don't wake up choosing to notice trash on our streets, the shapes around us, or the colors of flowers. We see only what we want to see.”

May Alex's words be a challenge to us all. May our choices on where to live, how to spend our time, and whom to love, reflect a choice we all get to make: to look away, or to stare in amazement at God making things beautiful.

Prayer: God of beauty, god of life. We are surrounded by ugliness and pain. We have wandered into dark places, and some of us have no hope. But you are here, you've never left us. So help us to see you. Help us to see the ways you are already at work, making something beautiful out of ashes. And if there's any way you'd like us to participate, anoint us and call us to do so. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment