“My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholely lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ the solid rock I stand all other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.”
Friday morning, 9am. I arrive with my guitar and a handful of papers clutched next to my leather bound bible and prayerbook. Around the thirty foot long table are already seated five men. Good mornings are wished all around. I pass around the song sheets. For the next twenty minutes, through the opening prayer and first few songs, men still trickle through the door. I marvel aloud that every morning I close my eyes to pray and when I open them a changed room sits before me.
In morning prayer we ask for many of the same things every morning. We offer gratitude for all of our blessings. For the opportunity this day affords to be used of God to serve. One of the constant themes of our morning bible studies is surrender and spiritual renewal. Every morning we come to God anew admitting our sinfulness and His faithfulness. Every morning we admit that we don’t have what it takes to serve in ministry and we ask God to cleanse us and fill us and lead us by His Spirit.
Who are these men I serve with? Our group is mostly African American men aged 40 and up. There are a few of us white guys in the room. So when we worship in song we do a mix of spirituals, hymns, and a few new songs. The faces in the room change a lot. There are a handful who’ve committed to two years of service, but the majority are working designated hours everyday and then working outside jobs in pursuit of their own apartment. Our bible studies are mandatory but I dare say most of the guys seem genuinely happy to be there. We worship, we read scripture aloud together, and we pray for each other’s needs. We sometimes air grievances when they come up about living together or the rules.
I admit that sometimes I get frustrated when I learn that one of these men who’ve I’ve seen every day for months admits that instead of saving his money for an apartment he’s been spending it. I get frustrated when someone else who hears the gospel message every morning about sin and grace and redemption steals and sells items from our building. I get frustrated and sometimes discouraged but it doesn’t really bother me any more than my own sins. Living as I have in Christian community all my life I’ve been around long enough to witness brazen sinful acts among stalwart prayer warriors, Christian mothers, and baby Christians alike. Truthfully the backbiting and bitterness, the cold shoulder and the favoritism found among old Christians is more painful to me than having things stolen and pawned. The fact that shunning and rumoring are common and acceptable sins shows how deep our sin goes. In time disciples can learn to adopt a good appearance, play by all the rules, and come to isolate and just sit there.
Those new believers who don’t want to be like what they witnessed among adults in church when they were children are right. To fill pews and become bitter old busybodies is not what Jesus wants. I am ever refreshed by the Lord and the fellowship of these men in the mornings. They want the word of God. They want prayer. They’re not afraid to pray out loud. When they don’t know something they’re not afraid to admit it. They know they won’t be laughed at for an idea or a question. We want to foster a caring environment. We pray for those who mess up and get kicked out. We remember those in the hospital. We remember many family members in trouble whom we never meet.
To me the gospel’s power is best seen in our weakness. And this is why the Lord is close to the poor and brokenhearted. We are only one of countless Christian ministries across the nation who take in homeless people and help them get stabilized through free service. We get to see miracles everyday so often that perhaps the greatest miracle is that we still get to appreciate miracles. Personally I have a hard time receiving gratitude from strangers. I know that Jesus comes to us as a stranger needing welcome and because I see so many strangers everyday I wonder how often I relativize Jesus among the poor. Every day God gives me the miracle of sight for my blind heart. I grew up in a family that was called to serve alongside the poor and homeless. In many ways I was raised by strangers who journeyed with us for a time. And so because I think I’m in a familiar landscape I don’t know how to react when someone says they know my family or wants to share a memory with me.
After the death of my mother to cancer in 2007 I came to realize that nothing continues forever. Somehow because God gives us grace everyday we come to think the days will just keep coming along with health and provision. But I’m learning that’s just not true. In light of the overwhelming need, in light of the endless pain humans are willing to inflict on themselves and others, this life is very short. Here in St. Louis Missouri I’m starting to hear among homeless service providers that the need is only going to become greater. The state has already made cuts in services to the mentally ill homeless and will surely continue to do so. Surrounding cities, counties, and states continue to send people to the city year round. In light of all this it would be easy to despair.
Haven’t we always had reason enough to despair? Haven’t we Christians always had reason to lose sight of our goal? This is why John the Revelator wrote that Christians before the throne “overcame by the blood of the Lamb, the word of their testimony, and they loved not their lives unto death.” In our social situation we Christians have two options: Grow spiritually blind and lose the use of our God-given limbs, or stay active serving on the battlefield for the Lord. We must never give up for the sake of Christ who has never given up on us.