Sometimes you get run over by something beautiful as well.
We once held an Easter sunrise service in GAR Park, near the center of the city.
The park was a leftover from Urban Renewal: an open field, a couple memorials, and a sad looking concrete hatchshell for all the public concerts that never ended up happening. It was home to the dregs of the city: the prostitutes, the addicts, the chronically homeless, and anyone else considered too disreputable for the better kept parts of town.
For all those reasons, we decided that it was the right place to celebrate Easter.
Before worship, we invited several people who were sitting around the park to come and worship with us, if they were interested and to eat our donuts afterward, if they were not.
There was one man who I invited very tentatively.
His name was Rob. He was in his sixties, with a large white beard that looked like it was eating part of his face, and a pair of crutches that he belligerently stumped around town on.
He was also known as one of the more violent people in the homeless population.
Someone had told me that he had been kicked out and banned from all the homeless shelters because he frequently got into fights.
I did not particularly want to invite him to our gathering. I did so anyway, not because of the love of Jesus beating in my heart, but because I felt like I had to.
Rob declined my invitation and walked by to sit underneath the overhang of the local citizen’s center, where people frequently found shelter from the elements and took advantage of the unprotected outdoor electrical socket to plug in their radios and listen to music.
As the service progressed, I noticed that Rob was circling us. He seemed to me like a great white bearded vulture, occasionally swooping in to see if our service was dead yet and if there was any food he could get from it once it was freshly deceased.
This did not bother me. It was not the first time that someone on the edge had hovered around the edges of our gathering.
We came to our closing community prayer.
I closed my eyes. Suddenly I heard a big voice booming, “Lord, we thank you for your resurrection!”
I opened my eyes. I had never heard that voice before.
There was Rob, eyes closed, praying with authority, passion, and confidence, as he thanked God for the gift of Jesus and prayed for the suffering world..
My wife opened her eyes too.
We looked at each other.
We gave a collective shrug and let him keep going.
He was praying better than we ever could have.
After worship, Rob cheerfully chattered to our group while he munched on a donut and drank a cup of coffee.
He noticed my guitar, which I had brought for the service.
“Hey! I used to play the guitar. Can I play it?”
My stomach clenched.
This was the guitar that I bought, when, at age nineteen, I had entered a guitar-makers shop with more disposable income than good sense.
It was a beautiful classical instrument in great condition, far more guitar than I was ever going to be able to play well, and one of the most expensive possessions I owned.
Jesus said if you had two coats give one.
He hadn’t said anything about guitars.
But there, standing around me were a bunch of wide eyed new Christians from that R-Rated Bible study, with whom I had inconveniently studied that very teaching not a few weeks before.
I wish I had picked a passage that was at least slightly more theoretical.
I winced and handed him my guitar.
He picked it up and began to play and sing.
It was beautiful.
A smile transfigured his face.
He probably played better than I did, even if all he seemed to know was one song, which he performed over and over for the next twenty minutes.
When I finally got my guitar back, (very quickly putting it in my case and returning it to my car: I didn’t want Jesus to get a second chance at that one,) I reflected that that was probably the best hour that Rob had spent with anyone in a very long time.
The fall after, we heard that Rob had planned to beat someone up, so that he could be thrown in prison and therefore have a place to spend the winter.
I didn’t see him that winter, so I assume that he succeeded.
That was the work: a lot of messy moments.
I was not comfortable with messes.
I wanted everything to be respectable, well ordered, and well planned.
I expect I’m not the only one who feels that way.
But sometimes, in our efforts to systematize and organize, we organize out the very things that God values the most.
I did not understand this when God threw me out of my well-ordered church bubble into the wilds of Haverhill.
But it was on the edges, in those wilderness spaces, where no respectable church person dared travel, that I encountered God in beautiful, wild ways that I had never seen before.
Sometimes beautiful moments are just that: moments. They’re there for a flash, they’re gone in a heartbeat, and before you know it, you’re not sure whether it was real or you just imagined it.
I like to think, for all those people we interacted with, sometimes for precious few hours or precious few months, that when the moment was gone, and their brokenness again took hold: whether that be in sex, drugs, drinking, co-dependence, or just general screwed-upedness, that they carried something different with them, even if it was just a memory of one brief better moment.
It was a mess.
But – it was a beautiful mess.
Even if it was only for a short season before it came and was gone, that didn’t make it any less beautiful.
What Do You Think?
1) Church is not the only place beautiful messes happen. Where have you experienced a beautiful mess? With family? At work? While serving others?
2) What gifts do messy situations offer us?
Coming Saturday! Church Is As Simple As…
Coming Tuesday! Part Five: And the Glorious People of the Vine (1/2)