This season I am blogging through Advent in a series called “Resurrecting Christmas”. I hope to find something new and fresh in the midst of this season. I hope you join me.
One thing I mentioned in my first Advent post was that this season is about experiencing and entering darkness, and creating space there for God to enter in, to be incarnate.
So I suppose it’s fitting that I am awake writing this at 2AM.
When i was home most recently, I was going through all of my scattered belongings from the times I’ve moved. I found this old photograph from a church I interned at called Penn Avenue Church of the Nazarene. This was an inner-city urban mission church, concerned primarily with social justice, homelessness and recovery ministries. When I left this church, I recorded some of my reflections here.
The photograph is of a man named Albert, a very important friend of mine from that church. Thinking about this story is a dark place for me, because it brings up a lot of pain from my past, and my present. It makes me question my strength as a minister, my belief in God’s power and compassion, and my hope for the future.
And because of that I think it is an Advent story, and one I need to share and reflect on.
Albert came to the church at a time when I was given the purpose by the Pastor to find a particular person to bond with and take on in a mentor-type relationship. It’s easy to feed the homeless and put on services, but quite another to select a particular person and decide to pour your life into them. I chose Albert.
People like that are actually very easy to get to know. There’s something about reaching a point in life, a combination of age, experience, desperation and a “to hell with it” attitude that allows people like that to be vulnerable in ways the rest of us can’t even dream of. Only week into knowing him, he leaned over to me in the middle of a sermon and confessed to me that he had just relapsed on drugs. I’ve never been given a higher honor in life than he gave me in that moment to love him and forgive him and help him move forward.
Albert wrote poetry while he was in prison. I don’t know if it’s any good. I enjoy poetry, but don’t read enough of it to critique it. For what it was worth, I loved it, and told him it was beautiful. And I wasn’t lying. Even if he wrote it as chicken-scratch in the sand, the way it spoke to him and for him really was beautiful.
I told him that I wanted to help him publish his poems. I bought a book on publishing to start looking into it. I arranged meetings with local poets and picked their brains. I’ll never forget the day Albert got up in front of a gathering of local poets and quoted one of his poems for a reading. He was so happy in that moment, and I felt like I was really doing something important.
We would get coffee a lot too. Coffee and McDonalds. He did NOT like Taco Bell, which blew my mind. How could you like McDonalds and not Taco Bell? These were the type of conversations we had. Not the conversations a homeless man had with a college student. The kind of conversation that two friends have over a meal.
I even brought him back to school once. THAT was a moment! Here I was in the student center playing pool with an imposing black man in his fifties. I cherished every strange look I got, not in a self-aggrandizing way, but in a way that simply felt like I was really “getting” what it meant to be in ministry.
This went on for several months, until one day he disappeared. It happened while I was gone for a month for a school-year break. When I came back, he wasn’t there anymore. This wasn’t unusual. People move on from halfway houses all the time, some for good reasons and some for bad.
What I may never forgive myself for was how little it mattered to me at the time. It’s not that I didn’t care. It’s that I didn’t let myself believe that it was a big deal. Maybe it’s because I’m sheltered or because I was just a dumb college student, but I let myself let it go way too easily that he was just gone. My ability to “move on” and forget in life sometimes serves me well, but sometimes it’s just selfish and I wish I could turn it off.
About six months passed, and I had begun some other mentoring relationships. I thought about Albert sometimes, but never for long enough to really let myself think about what had happened to him or if there was more I could’ve done for him. But the story wasn’t over yet.
Over a weekend, one of our halfway houses was set on fire. Arson was actually strangely common to our church; it was sort of a go-to way of damaging our property when someone got mad. This one was worse though. Apparently someone had tried to set the house on fire with people still in it. Everyone was okay, but the police shortly caught the person responsible.
It was Albert.
No-one knew why. It was likely some level of intoxication and desperation that brought him back and then set him off. Either way, Albert was in jail. And he wasn’t going to get out for a long time.
It took me a month to work up the courage to go see him. I mulled over it for a long time. I thought about taking someone with me, and several friends offered their support, but I eventually declined. I sought the advice of several pastors and professors of mine. This particular jail was not difficult to get in for a visit. I didn’t even have that as an excuse.
When I saw him, he was incredibly surprised. I barely recognized him, as he had lost an incredible amount of weight since I had seen him almost a year before. He really was just skin and bones. His mind was no longer 100% either. In the same way that drugs and hunger can cause a person to look as if they are just a shell of the person they once were, I think that a person’s mind and awareness corrode in a similar way.
It was… anticlimactic, if I’m being honest. I expected a serious conversation about what had happened, or maybe a reminiscing of old times, or maybe just a light hearted conversation about the pro’s and con’s of fast food joints. Instead, he was confused a lot, and asked me to deposit money for him mostly.
It killed me to see him like that. I was afraid to see him because I hadn’t yet believed that it was true that he was in jail. But what I got was worse. The truth was, the man that I once knew hardly existed anymore; and what was left of him, if anything, was losing hope in a jail cell.
I wish I could say that I kept visiting him, but it’s not true. I wish I could say that it’s because I moved or because he got shipped somewhere else. But the truth is I kept living in Oklahoma City for two years. I drove past the jail a thousand times, and every time remembered that he was there. And every time I hid from it. He might still be there, but I’m still hiding so much from it that I can’t bring myself to do a search or make the phone call to find out.
It’s not because I blame myself, even though I sometimes do. It’s not because criminals scare me or because I’m afraid of jails or even angry about what he did.
It’s because this story wreaks of futility. I had poured so much of my life into Albert. He was the one I chose to focus on, the one I spent time on, and the one through whom I had found some purpose in ministry. With Albert it felt like what I had been called to do in ministry was actually working, that it meant something, and that it was something I could keep doing forever.
But Albert is in jail now. Which confronts me with the possibility that what I do may never be enough. That maybe I’m not cut out for ministry. That maybe, if things don’t turn out right, that maybe love doesn’t win in the end. Maybe God doesn’t get the last word in every story. And if that’s true, then it makes me doubt whether ministry is something I can really do with the rest of my life.
These aren’t thoughts I have normally. 99 times out of 100 I have faith and affirmation in the story I find myself in.
But Albert’s story is the other 1%. It’s the part of me that doesn’t believe it anymore, the part that wants to give up. The part that wants to just cry and yell in God’s face and say, “If this is what you want me to do, go find someone else!”
This story is my darkness.
Sorry if this puts a damper on your Christmas spirit. It comes from a dark place, but it’s the place in which I’m most honest. Funny how that works.
The worst thing I could do here is take this story and put a bow on it. I could say something like “But God always works things out in the end” or “I’m trusting fully” or “Let go and let God”. If we’re honest, those phrases are pretty empty, mostly just things we say to cope with our darkness rather than confronting it. Even Christ on the cross yelled, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!”
A sermon that I listened to this week really helped frame the Christmas message for me. You can find the audio and text here, and I encourage you to take the time to hear it. (It’s only ten minutes long.) The sermon is about the conversation between the angel and Zechariah, when the angel says that Elizabeth, despite being too old to conceive, will have a child. The pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, suggests that Zechariah’s mistake, and often our own, is believing that we know how our own story will end.
When Zechariah is struck mute, it isn’t as much a punishment as it is a gift; the gift of shutting up, so he could hear how God is going to transform his story.
The small glimmer of hope I have is similar. If a woman who was too old to conceive can be blessed with a child, if a story that should have ended has been given a startling, beautiful new chapter, than perhaps Albert’s story isn’t over yet either. And neither is mine.
Entering my darkness with a slight glimmer of hope puts me in the Advent experience. I didn’t realize it when I first wrote those words a couple weeks ago what it would actually mean to “enter my darkness”. And this might not actually be all the darkness I need to enter. But the questions I have for myself and for God echo the cries of the Israelites just before Jesus: “Are you really there? Do you actually hear us? When are you coming to make it all right? Does anything really matter? Is there still, in spite of it all, a reason to hope?”
The answer of Christmas is “yes”. But in Advent, we wrestle despairingly with the potential that the answer could be “no”. In the end, the “yes” of Christmas is empty if it isn’t an answer to the darkness of Advent. I don’t know how to recommend or coach anyone through what I’ve done, I just hope that I’m not the only one that has these types of doubts to explore and work through. I’m not here to bum anyone out.
I simply hope that by exploring my doubts and my fears and bearing witness to them will make the good news of Christmas that much sweeter. And I wish the same for you. Thanks, as always, for reading.