Stories that are Hard to Tell
It’s not hard to write stories about the infectious grace of God. Sometimes, they just roll off the tongue (or the keyboard) as quickly as the words can be formed. It’s not hard to share stories with you about grand moments of redemption and epiphany—when all the circumstances of our ministry seem to click together for an instant and the Kingdom appears in an unexpected place. Those moments begin becoming stories to tell and retell even while the last sounds of laughter and joy echo off the walls. It’s not hard to update you on the ministry of folks like Bruce and Ben (who officially comes on staff at Third Chance Ministries today!) or Tracy and Laura. As I write those stories, it feels like I get to introduce you to some of my dearest friends and tell you why they are spectacular and I am so incredibly blessed to be among them and serving alongside them.
It takes a far greater storyteller than me to tell the hard stories in a way that still speaks powerfully of God’s great mercy and providence in our lives. Over nearly four years of being an intentional Christian community of mission and hospitality, Grace and Main Fellowship has been cut to the quick time and again by the hard edges of the circumstance in which we have invested ourselves. Living where Grace and Main has chosen to live means actively participating in sad stories that do not always resolve to anybody’s satisfaction—for every story of the grace triumphant, we can tell several stories of redemption delayed or aborted. Building relationships like we do means returning again to the shaky hesitation of vulnerability, self-disclosure, and the practice of hospitality, always knowing that the price of these essential elements may very well be pain and suffering. When a brother chooses a life of homelessness and addiction over hospitality and sobriety, it is no easier to watch him suffer simply because he chose it—not when you’ve shared your table and your life with him.
Simply put, not all of the stories are “good” stories, but all the stories need to be told. The good and the bad? The easy and the challenging? The hopeful and the despairing? They’re all wrapped up together in doing ministry in hard places. Neither living in community nor the Kingdom of God is solely about the good times and the inspiring moments. No, sometimes it’s about those moments sharp as a razor and hard as a stone that teach you to depend even more on those to whom you have committed and to the God whom you stumble after in the dark.
But, here’s the Gospel that hides in those dark places:
It shall not always be this way.
Love has won the battle at the cross and death is on the run.
Addiction cannot hold God’s beloved children forever
and even sin itself will one day be forced to release its captives.
Fear will be brought to an end
and suffering will be unwritten.
Our God is Love and is working a wonder over this broken world.
There are stories that are hard to tell,
but there remains a single shard of hope in even the darkest of stories–
God’s not done telling them.
Roland had been homeless for more than a decade when we first met him. He was living outside, next to an abandoned hotel building with the remnants of some cheap mattress to lay his body down upon at the end of every exhausting day. At the end of each long, hard day he would ball up his one change of clothes and stuff it into a plastic grocery bag to serve as a pitiful pillow less for the sake of comfort than to keep his head off of the filth that inevitably accumulated in the mostly open concrete stairwell that pretended to be his shelter each night. For short periods of time, Roland had the slender mercy of a blanket to wrap around himself at night. But more often than not, he used whatever rubbish most closely resembled a blanket to shield himself from the elements as he struggled to get a few consecutive hours of sleep in a city where sidewalks may roll up at night, but which offers little comfort and privacy to those with no place of their own to lay their head.
Roland was well known around town as he wandered up and down Main St. and put in time at his favorite locations. Quite regularly, people gifted food and clothing to Roland which made it possible for him to survive many of the harder days. Yet, often in short supply were friends and relationships—people who sought him out simply to share an afternoon lazily talking about both things that matter immensely and things that don’t matter in the slightest. That’s how we met him and became fast friends—one of us sat down beside him on one of the very first “roving feasts,” and introduced ourselves, saying “I’m going to eat lunch and was wondering if you’d like to join me.” Soon, Roland was joining us at meals, prayers, and study with regularity. Months later, eager for a position of leadership and responsibility in the fledgling Grace and Main Fellowship, he accepted the position of minister of prayer. Lifting him up as one of our own and one of our leaders, we commissioned Roland to lift us up in his prayers and to carry the prayers of our community on his heart and in his thoughts—a responsibility he continues to take seriously.
During this time, we went with Roland to negotiate shelter with a landlord, insisting upon a written lease and reasonable terms. We found a bed and furniture for his new apartment and we continued to eat and visit with him regularly—in other words, we joined our lives to his and he joined himself to our community—making sure he kept up on medicine, food, and rent. The second night he was in his new home, he was already welcoming brothers into his home because he had been blessed with a couch but there was nobody sleeping on it. Not content simply to be the recipient of grace, this man who sets out to walk to church every Sunday morning in North Carolina—praying that one of his friends will pick him up on their way to Milton—opened his own home in hospitality to those most in need in his midst. He reasoned, “Folks need a place to stay.” Love goes a long way when it comes from a foundation of amazing grace.
Tonight, Roland will take another first step when he invites us into his new home—the one he found on his own—for Bible Study and fellowship. We’ll gather in his living room and give thanks for grace received and mercy shared in view of forgiveness granted to sinners like you and me. We’ll share a couple of Roland’s favorite pies (egg custard) and talk about the places where God is moving in our midst while giving silent but jubilant thanks for warm shelter and warmer relationships forged over meals and continued and continuing commitments. You see, Roland is changing the world around him, and we’re glad to be along for the ride with him.