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It was a Monday afternoon, in Marengo, and a young woman walked into the church and asked to use the telephone.

Not a problem, I said.

And while she sat in the office dialing numbers and getting no response, I sat at my desk trying to pick out hymns for worship the next Sunday. Are you stranded? I asked.

I learned that Maria had just been released from the county jail, was far from home, and no one was coming to get her.

She finally got a hold of a friend or a neighbor… someone she thought might help and was chewed out over the phone.

She hung up in frustration. Maria had no options.

She was seven months pregnant, in Marengo with no vehicle or ride, and needed to get home to the Quad Cities to her kids.

In Isaiah chapter 40, the prophet is moved to share God’s compassion for the people of Israel in exile. He gave them words of comfort in the midst of their trial and tribulation. And then Isaiah hears a voice:

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

He was to tell the people that EVERY obstacle that came between them and their salvation and their home was being removed.

In this time of worship, let us listen once again for the cry of the prophets.

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I think about that woman often.

I thought about her as a group of us gathered in Ankeny about a month ago for the “Right Next Door” Conference and as we were surrounded by all of these people.

They represented those we knew, and people we have yet to come to know, who are impacted by addiction, domestic violence, incarceration, human trafficking…

We were invited to open our eyes and our minds and our hearts to see them… and us… in a new way.

Because, let’s be honest: we, too, have been impacted by these things.

We are not immune to the realities of alcohol or drugs, abuse, crime, or sex.

But we often leave those parts of our lives outside of the church.

Friends, those realities are deeply part of who we are and ignoring them or pretending they don’t exist can keep us from relationship with God.

Those people in exile saw an immense gulf separating them from their home and their God. Valleys of sin and mountains of guilt lie between them and the Lord.

We face those obstacles, but I’m increasingly aware that some of the mountains and valleys that keep people from the Lord include artificial barriers we put up to “protect” the church.

It is not just their past that keeps people like Michael or Maria from walking in the doors of the church.

So my question for us to ponder is this: What are the barriers we put up as a church? What keeps people who are struggling from having a relationship with God in this place?

 

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A voice is crying out in the wilderness:

Prepare the way of the Lord!

Make it easier for people to come to God!

Help clear out a path!

Make a smooth and straight road for the Lord to come.

 

Maria found the courage to walk across the street to the church and ask to use the phone.

And I’m going to be honest, there are all sorts of mountains and valleys that might have kept me from helping her.

  • I was there in the building alone and I had been fighting the suggestions that I keep the doors locked when it was just me there.
  • I was in the middle of trying to get some work done and I was really busy.
  • She had just been released from prison.
  • I didn’t know if she was feeding me a line or if she was telling the truth.
  • I didn’t know if she was safe to be around.

Prepare the way of the Lord!

The door was open and I invited her in. I sat with her as she made her phone call.

 

Make it easier for people to come to God!

I passed the box of Kleenex when she felt betrayed and abandoned by her friend on the phone. And, knowing she was at the end of her rope, I asked if she needed a ride.

 

Make smooth and straight the road for the Lord to come!

We gathered up her bag and I set aside my work, and on the way out the door, she asked if she could have one of the bibles on the shelf. We got in my car and drove 90 some miles to get her home.

 

Some of you might be thinking that I am incredibly naïve and too trusting.

But I think that we, as people of faith, aren’t foolish enough.

We are called to prepare the way of the Lord – and that means knocking down barriers and building up gaps in this world.

We are called to take up our cross and follow Jesus wherever he leads us.

We are called to take risks in order to care for the least and the last and the lost of this world.

We are called to walk through the valley of the shadow of death and to eat in the presence of our enemies.

We are called to be vulnerable with one another and admit our faults and our weakness.

Over and over again, we hear God tell us: Do NOT be afraid, for I am with you.

 

And perhaps what is more naïve is to imagine that sin and danger exists only outside the walls of this church.

There are people in this room who are in recovery or who love someone who is… just as there are people in this room who are in denial about needing help.

Some people in this church have experienced abuse as a child or a spouse… and there are people in this room are abusers.

Our congregation has members who have been in prison or who love people who are in prison.

In this room, there are those who have visited pornography sites and probably even men who have frequented prostitutes.

We just don’t talk about it.

 

We are entering the season of Advent and the first character we discover is a prophet named John the Baptist.

He wasn’t afraid of what others thought.

He wasn’t afraid of what might happen to his own life.

He wasn’t afraid to tell the truth.

And He prepared the way for countless people to let go of their old lives and embrace God’s love.

 

He prepared the way of the Lord by calling people out to the river… to a space carved out for people to be honest about who they are… a space where they could name and repent of their sins… a space where they could receive forgiveness and new life.

 

He carved out a clear path for all people… no matter who they were… to come and be in God’s presence.

 

Isn’t that what church is supposed to be all about?

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