God’s love raises the lowly and humbles the lofty. How are we as the church called to respond?
By Jonathan Brooks
I Need You to Survive
Willie stumbled into Sunday morning worship, barely able to stand and clearly out of sorts. When he came in the door, Deacon Mark, who happened to be standing in the back, grabbed him by his waist, put his arm over his shoulder and walked him to a couple of seats that were set up in the back of the sanctuary. They both took a seat and Mark seemed to be trying to get Willie to look him in the eye. From my place in front of the congregation, I saw Willie lower his head into his hands and begin to weep. I was clearly disturbed by the scene, but Mark motioned to me to stay put. He looked at me as if to say everything was fine and that I should continue with worship. Throughout the worship service I watched Mark continue to console and comfort Willie. Mark never left his side and made sure he felt loved and cared for despite his impairment.
To close out worship, our congregation began to sing the gospel song “I Need You to Survive,” by Pastor Hezekiah Walker. This is a song we sing quite often as a reminder of our belief in community as a kingdom value since it reminds us of our need for one another.
We then began to sing the words of the second verse, when we boldly declare that we will pray for one another and that we love each other. And something amazing, almost magical, happened. Willie reached out his hand to Deacon Mark, who grabbed it quickly. Mark helped to pull him up out of his chair and Willie lifted his hands in the air. Although he was unable to stay on his feet very long, for a few glorious seconds I saw the ultimate picture of the kingdom of God: Mark physically holding Willie up as he attempted to worship God while still dealing with the effects of drugs and alcohol.
In that moment I realized something that has stuck with me. Remembering the poor and marginalized does not mean helping people out once they have met our standards of righteousness. It means including them in the redemptive work of worship, repentance and reconciliation even in the midst of their struggles.
Not only was that moment transformative for Willie but for Mark as well, as they both sang out the final verse:
“You are important to me
And I need you to survive.”
It would be nearly impossible to sing those words while literally holding up your brother who is unable to stand on his own and not be changed.
If we are truly going to be a new kind of church, a church that remembers the marginalized and outcast in our community, we have to become more concerned with loving people than lording policies. We must spend our time focusing on those things that unite rather than those things that divide. Willie, although clearly impaired, was freely included in our worship on that Sunday and is still included in our congregation to this day. Since then he has brought his wife, Geraldine, who also struggles with drug addiction and other health-related issues. We have welcomed her to be a part of the Canaan family as well.
While we know that there is spiritual wickedness happening all around, we at Canaan know that addiction is a health issue and not just a sin issue. Therefore, although we know that they still struggle with their addictions, they are completely included in our church family. We look for them when we have not seen them in a while. We constantly remind them that we are here for them and want them to seek professional help for their issues. However, we do not ostracize or alienate them for choosing to do otherwise. While we do not condone the damage that they are doing to themselves and their loved ones, we recognize that the work of inner transformation is beyond our control. God is the only one who can change a heart, and we believe that God is very good at this job. We must focus on our responsibility. If God changes the heart, what are we called to do as their church family?
The Great Equalizer
There is a church in our neighborhood called Chicago City Life Center, located at 5501 South LaSalle. The pastor is Charles Moodie, a young African American who moved to Chicago from New York City. Whenever you ask Pastor Moodie about his congregation, he will tell you that he pastors the unusual suspects—people churches typically push away because they are dealing with drugs, alcohol, homelessness, prostitution and other issues. He will often say that any Sunday you enter their gymnasium, which doubles as their sanctuary, it will reek of alcohol. However, what Charles understands is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the great equalizer. It is a message of hope and healing for those who traditionally have been on the outskirts of society.
Canaan is partnering with City Life Center and other Englewood churches during our One Englewood, One Church unity campaign. Whenever our churches have evangelism events or prayer walks or get together to fellowship, it is the amazing members of City Life Center that are most present and eager. These “unusual suspects” are ready to work the hardest and are the most dedicated because they know from where God has brought them. Jesus chose the unusual suspects as his leaders as well. They were a ragtag bunch of leaders who were not considered the elite of their day. These kinds of leaders have nothing to lose because they have already experienced rejection and marginalization. They are totally reliant on God, day in and day out. In Luke 3, John the Baptist is introduced as the forerunner of Jesus who is proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The words used to describe his message echo a prophecy from the book of Isaiah. This prophecy is one of the most powerful proclamations of what happens when the people repent of their selfish ways and desires. It explains that John’s purpose was to proclaim the coming of Jesus the Messiah whose ultimate purpose was to reveal God and reconcile all people to him.
“Thunder in the desert!
‘Prepare for God’s arrival!
Make the road straight and smooth, Fill in the valleys,
level off the hills,
Smooth out the ruts,
clear out the rocks.
Then God’s bright glory will shine
and everyone will see it.
Yes. Just as God has said.’”
In the original prophetic passage we get a glimpse of the prophet proclaiming the entrance of the presence of God. The proclamation signals a clear path for God to go before the people and details the lengths they are to go to ensure a smooth arrival. We see the ground being leveled off, any debris on the path being cleared and the roads being made straight and smooth. The hills and mountains are excavated and all the soil and rocks are dumped into the valleys in order to make sure the ground is level. The prophet then goes on to say that once the road is properly prepared, the bright glory of God will shine and everyone will see it. It is not until the high places are brought down and the low places are brought up so that the road is even that the glory of God is able to shine.
When we translate this equalizing language back into the context of the book of Luke, we see John speaking to the religious crowds of his day. He warns them not to think of themselves more highly than they ought by lifting themselves up as Abraham’s ancestors or followers of the law. He encourages them to realize that repentance, a change of desire and behavior, is necessary to receive forgiveness of sins. By echoing the proclamation of the prophet, John makes sure that all who hear him recognize that they are on the same footing when it comes to their need for this Messiah. It did not matter what their ancestors had done or how long they had been following God. They had forgotten what their position in Egypt felt like and were enjoying being lifted up like mountains. John reminds them that all who have been lifted high will be made low, and all who have been low will be lifted up.
This message of bringing the high down and the low up is echoed throughout Christ’s ministry. It is one of the main ways Jesus emphasizes God’s love for all. John is proclaiming the most important sentiment of the good news that whether our life circumstances have lifted us too high or made us feel low, we all need Jesus. That is basic truth of the message: We all need Jesus. When there is anything else we feel we need more than him, we are missing the truth and are unable to see or follow him. John says when all the other issues are removed, then and only then will our crooked ways be made straight and our rough places made smooth so that God has a clear path to our lives. There is absolutely no person that God has forsaken. At the end of the day all of us have the same need for a Savior who loves us more than we understand.
Excerpted from Church Forsaken by Jonathan Brooks. Copyright (c) 2018 by Jonathan Brooks. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. IVPress.com