Tuesday, December 24, 2013
It was dark in the city of Indianapolis. Not in the whole city, of course… But in the sanctuary of West Park Christian Church – All the lights were out. We were nearing the end of our annual candlelight service, and the forty of us who were in attendance were struggling to make a circle that went around the entire room—A room, that at one time, had held almost a thousand people.
But that was a hundred years ago. All the people who had built the church were asleep now – awaiting the final Great Awakening at the end of the age. In the meantime, they had left us this building.
It was a magnificent place, even now – despite the fact that parts of it were slowly crumbling into dust, and the ground underneath was making every effort to swallow it back into the earth.
The steeple still towered boldly over the tops of the houses—a beacon of light and hope that reflected nothing of the city around it. For the neighborhood where it was nestled had long since fallen into decay and ruin and this GREAT HALL which had once shined brightly for the people of the West Side was now being slowly digested and absorbed by the darkness around it. The darkness was relentless, persistent, it never slept, it only ever kept moving… it only ever kept growing… Only ever kept plotting the demise of the old church.
I suppose that was why we NEEDED these candlelight services each year. We needed to turn all the actual lights out—-for just a moment—-We needed to be immersed in tangible darkness. And we needed to watch the darkness slowly give way to the illumination of tiny flames popping up, one by one, until we could see who we were again… so we could remember who we are… We needed this visual reminder of the responsibility that we had to, “Let our light shine..,” – As Jesus once said. I mean… after all… This is what we were taught – even as small children:
“THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE… I’M GONNA LET IT SHINE…”
As we stood there in the candlelight of the sanctuary, someone said a prayer. Then we sang, “Silent Night, Holy Night, All is calm, all is bright…” Then we blew our candles out, gathered ourselves at the door, turned the lights off, and shuffled out into the silent night.
There were three teenage boys following me to the car – the oldest in my youth group –Resident hoodlums who had grown up across the street from the church. On their better days they were the Three Wise Men… But on most days – they were more like Huey, Dewey, and Louie.
The four of us piled into the Mitsubishi.
First Stop: The Valero Gas station just a block away. It was Christmas Eve after all, and I wanted to make sure the boys had the proper amount of snacks before the long night of video game playing that was ahead of them. I had been at the church for just over year, and in that time, I had learned that an abundance of SNACKS was the KEY to Youth Ministry.
As we pulled into the station, the boys ran into the store to gather provisions while I fed and watered the mule for my long ride back to Hendricks County.
I was still thinking about the Candlelight service we had just left. Or maybe I wasn’t so much thinking about it, as much as I was feeling the effects of it. It had hit me in the gut just enough to get my attention—To let me know that there was still a purpose… Still a reason to keep these old rituals… Still a reason to gather, to remember, to sing, to pray, and to celebrate.
I needed the reminder too–
I sort of felt like I had been on auto-pilot this entire Christmas Season. It felt like Christmas was just happening on TV, and I was barely tuning in. My mom had died several months earlier, and this was our first Christmas without her. I hadn’t realized how much of my experience of Christmas had been the direct result of my mother’s unquenchable enthusiasm for the Holiday.
But I knew it now.
I was still lost in my thoughts when the boys reappeared from their treasure hunt inside the convenience store – each of them already munching away on cans of Pringles and gulping down that insidious, poisonous, diabolical, and glorious elixir – Mountain Dew.
As I finished gassing up the ride, we all piled back in so I could take them back to their homes…
And that’s when it happened.
We heard it before we saw what it was. And it took us a few seconds to realize that the horrible sound emanating from the other side of the parking lot was the sound of a woman screaming. She was screaming loudly—the kind of screaming that didn’t just indicate distress—but pain.
Then we saw her. She was running directly at us, and having covered the distance of the parking lot before we were able to comprehend what we were hearing and seeing… There she was.
She slammed her hands onto the hood of my car, begging and screaming for help. My immediate reaction was FEAR. I thought to myself – No way, lady – no way – I’m outta here—Whatever her deal was, I didn’t want to get involved. I wanted to pretend this wasn’t happening. I wanted to leave.
But I couldn’t do that
My entire job as a youth minister would be completely pointless if I did that. There were three teenage boys—Boys who saw me as a mentor—who looked to me as an example—waiting to see what I would do.
So I froze.
I was looking at the woman who was standing in front of my car, trying to decide what to do. She wasn’t that much older than me. But whatever she had been through – the world hadn’t been kind to her. It was obvious from her appearance that whatever trauma was happening to her that night had started years ago – and this was just one more stop along the train tracks of despair.
It was a very cold night, but she had no coat on, no gloves, no hat—But the worse thing was all the blood. Her entire mouth and chin were covered in it, and there was so much that it had run down her neck and soaked the front of her shirt. It was all over her hands, her arms, and the side of her face where she had been wiping away tears. She was obviously hurt, and she was desperate for help.
I was terrified.
But I put the window down and asked her what I could do? She was sobbing, and she wasn’t speaking clearly, but I was able to understand that she wanted me to drive her to her dad’s house a few miles away. I almost said no. I almost told her that I would call someone for her, or call an ambulance. But she was crying uncontrollably, and all she could say was that she wanted to go home to her dad.
So I told the boy riding shotgun to move to the back…. And I told the woman to get in.
As she climbed into the passenger seat, I offered to take her to the hospital. But she said it wasn’t that bad—that it looked worse than it felt—that she had been hit harder than this before.
So I followed her directions…pulled up to the house she had pointed out, and waited a few moments until someone answered the door and she disappeared inside.
The boys in the back were silent for a few minutes after we drove away. And then one of them asked: “Why did you do that?”
I gave him the proper “YOUTH MINISTER” answer at the time… Something along the lines of, “that’s what Jesus would have done.” But the truth is, at the time, I didn’t really have a good answer. If those boys hadn’t been with me, I probably would not have helped that woman. I probably would have left her there. Who wants some strange person bleeding all over their nice clean car?
So I dropped the boys off at their homes, and then I began driving back out of the city—driving back to the safety and comfort of a home that was far away from this madness. But I couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened that night.
And I’m still thinking about it five years later.
What was it that night, those five years ago?
What was it that filled me with so many fears?
-from a poor woman who had nothing but helplessness and tears.
These were the people that Jesus had helped.
These were the ones he pulled from the dust.
These were the ones who gave Him their trust.
That woman had scared me because her life and brokenness were all out in the open.
And the helplessness she showed on the outside
reflected something in me…
…something I didn’t want others to see.
That I was helpless too–
That my own heart was broken–
That even though my pain was much better hid–
I still needed a Savior just as much as she did.
But I had a place.
A place to run away.
A place with a wall to keep the darkness at bay.
Something to hide behind.
Something to protect.
Something that allowed me the freedom to deflect
the pain of lost people, out in the cold…
…the cries of a woman whose body had been sold.
It’s easy, so easy… to turn a blind eye,
or to judge these people with an indignant sigh.
Believe me, I know, I’ve done it many times.
I’ve acted like no one has paid for my crimes.
But someone has…
And we sing to Him here…
We sing without hunger, or coldness, or fear.
We sing for the Day when all things will be NEW.
When this darkness will pass and His light remain true.
The Light of the World
That’s the Savior we know.
The one we remember as we stand in the glow
of the candles we light, and the hope we profess,
in front of a world that knows only distress.
His name is Jesus,
and He is the same–
Yesterday, today, and forever He reigns.
And if we fail to follow His path,
To love and to serve the hurting people we find
Then it’s only because we too have grown blind.
* “For the world is sleeping in the dark…
which the Church cannot fight, if it’s asleep in the light.” *
It was dark in the city that night. Not in the whole city, of course…
In the sanctuary of the Christian Church – All the lights were on.
*I stole this line from the late great saint–Keith Green.