When I was in high school, a couple different times a teacher might give an assignment (or a test) that the majority of the class botched. When this happened, the teacher presumed it was a sign that he/she failed to instruct the class properly on the assignment/test, and this would explain why so many in the class did not get a passing grade. One of the ways this was handled was to grade the class on a curve, which had the effect of giving everyone (or most of us, anyway) a passing grade.
In this series, I still want us to think biblically, but I have introduced the metaphorical notion of grading the churches depicted in Yankoski’s book, Under The Overpass, and thus reflect on the churches we attend likewise. We started this series noting that Yankoski sensed the call on his life to pursue this adventure while in the worship assembly – at church. Then we looked at a handful of churches that, if we hold a Matthew-25 plumb-line next to them, totally fail. After that, I offered a couple of posts (or a split post) depicting some humble individuals who take on the Matthew-25 style ministry from the heart and thus I metaphorically suggest they are like after school tutorials.
In this post, I want to cover the middle ground. I will not reproduce the story Yankoski tells about standing in line all day at an outreach church hoping to get a bed for the night and discovering they ran out at the end of many long hours waiting. This was the result of an obvious dilemma; the church ran out of resources before they ran out of needy people. It just happens, sometimes. I am not excusing it, but I can plainly see that it can happen alright. This was particularly difficult for Yankoski and his friend because they realized after it was too late, that if they had not gambled on the church’s charity, they would have been able to find a better spot to spend the night. But because they wasted the whole day in line, they were stuck with the sorriest deal: no place to lay their heads. (It might be good to reproduce that story, actually, because most casual readers have no idea about these dilemmas. And with no insight into them, then tales of a homeless person turning down an offer of charity might seem crass – like as if they really want to live this way. But if you know that the homeless often are forced to gamble like this by “the system”, then you can see why they view life as a giant crap shoot and then don’t invest too carefully in their own future.)
The story I reproduce in this post has some similarities with the one I reference in the previous paragraph. I think that will be clear. But it is a different story. I want to point it out because we really must acknowledge that the church in this story is providing a real service to the poor. But it manages to be somewhat of a drudgery. I think the poor are getting the crumbs from the master’s table rather than joining the feast at the King’s Table. This is sad. I think the church, of all people, can do better than this. I don’t want to kick this ministry in the teeth, but there is definitely room for improvement here. Thus, when grading on the curve, this church gets a passing grade, but perhaps the teacher is really “being nice”. I will be happy to discuss ways to improve on it in the comments upon request.
Let us join Yankoski again, this time in the chapter entitled Washington D.C, under the heading “Most Important Meal Of The Day” starting on page 67:
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, especially when you didn’t eat the night before.
In D.C., the only place we found to get breakfast on Sundays was at an Episcopal church in the heart of the city. The old church’s oak pews were at least softer than concrete and seemed almost welcoming after a night on the sidewalk.
Each morning, a female priest spoke briefly on the passage of the day while more than a hundred homeless men and women sat scattered through the sanctuary, enduring the mandatory service. Some rocked slowly back and forth. Others talked to themselves or coughed incessantly. Some slept quietly, others snored loudly. Some escaped to the sounds of heavy metal in their headphones. Some actually listened, and you’d hear an occasional “amen” ringing out through the expansive sanctuary, usually well after the priest had begun her next sentence.
One Sunday, the priest offered communion, and about forty of us ragged souls walked up and kneeled down around the pulpit.
I knelt next to a huge man who had been seated in front of me. His broad shoulders and large, rough hands told of a lifetime of hard labor. The wrinkles in his weathered face were thrown into dark relief by the dirt that had collected in them. His long graying hair and beard were stained and thick with debris.
As I knelt beside him, he started coughing violently, a thick gurgle rising from his lungs between convulsions. He braced himself against the floor with both hands until he could regain his composure, then he wiped his eyes, shifted back to a kneeling position, and waited.
The priest moved quietly around the circle, leaning down to each person. “This is the body of Christ, which was broken for you,” she said, looking each in the eye. Then she came around again with the cup. “This is the blood of Christ, which was shed for you.” The white of her cloak shone brilliantly against our filth.
By the time she brought the cup to the big guy next to me, he was back on his hands again, struggling for breath. She stopped directly in front of him and waited for him to rise. When he could look up at her, she held the shining silver cup as he put it to his lips. I heard him swallow, and as he handed the cup back to the priest, two drops of wine ran down his mustache and disappeared into his beard.
The priest wiped the cup where he had received and stepped in front of me. “This is the blood of Christ…”
I’d never taken communion on an empty stomach before. The cup burns when you’re hungry. It goes deeper, quicker, when there’s nothing to stop it.
The priest moved on, and with a deep sigh, the big man next to me crossed his chest and pushed himself to his feet. I rose, too, and before we walked back to our seats, we caught each other’s gaze and nodded.
– – –
My call number that morning was 124, which meant I’d be the 124th person to be served breakfast that day. A long wait, but we were hungry. Sam was number 125.
He dropped into the pew behind me and we both began journaling amidst the homeless buzz of the sanctuary.
Ten minutes passed.
An hour later, number 123 was called. My big communion partner rose to walk forward. Then Sam and I got called and we walked forward, too, to give our names and social security numbers to the church worker at the door.
At the next number, 126, we heard a yelp and laughter from the back of the church. Looking back, we saw a tall man, deeply bent with age, limping hastily down the center aisle. He only wore one shoe, which seemed to be on his good foot.
It was Josh, a guy we’d met just before the service. When Josh reached the man collecting names and numbers, he paused.
“Name and social security number?” the monitor asked.
Josh replied, or seemed to, but what he actually delivered was an incomprehensible torrent of words in no particular order. The monitor simply shrugged and drew a line through the box next to Josh’s number.
Then Josh spotted Sam and me. “Hey!” he called out excitedly.
“Hey, Josh!” Sam and I both said, turning to greet him. Josh was clearly delighted that we remembered him. Sam asked how he was doing.
“Well…,” Josh said thinking for a moment, then he launched into a five-minute volley of more garble. Whatever he was saying took so much effort that a lot of spit came flying out at the same time. Along with the awful stench of his breath.
We kept what distance we could, while doing our best to listen. When Josh finally stopped, I gave him a huge smile and said with as much enthusiasm as possible, “That’s amazing!”
By now the line had snaked closer to the kitchen and we could smell breakfast. But then we heard disheartening news. “Gentlemen,” a deep voice announced, “we’re out of orange juice and biscuits this morning.”
Of course, eating for free at a mission or a church means you aren’t really in a position to complain. But, man, it was a bummer to walk into the dining room and see others with two glasses of orange juice and three biscuits! The leftovers for us were green scrambled eggs, grits, and lukewarm water. Still, I was so hungry that even the grits looked superb.
Or at least they did until the four of us–Josh, the big guy, Sam and I–sat down at the same table, and Josh let loose with another muddled diatribe aimed at the big guy. With Josh to my right, and the big guy across the small table one seat to the left, the directions of Josh’s torrent of words and spittle was directly over my breakfast.
I laid down my fork in disgust. First no biscuits or orange juice. Now, the fine mist of Josh’s spit piled up on my arms, my tray, and my grits.
Sam looked on amused while I tried to shield my food from further damage. When Josh finally ran out of gas, I wiped off both arms with a sigh, looked at Josh, and said, “Is that so?” I was no longer in a mood for manufactured enthusiasm.
Nothing left to do, I figured, but grab my fork and dig in. And I did.
As Sam and I were leaving, one of the kitchen crew was scrubbing tables with a steaming rag that smelled strongly of bleach. I noticed another server about to empty a plate with two biscuits on it into the trash.
“Hold it!” I yelled, pointing to the biscuits. “I’ll take those!”
“You sure?” she said as I walked over. “They’re half-eaten.”
“Yep. Couldn’t be happier,” I said with a smile, grabbing both of them and shoving one into my mouth. On the way out the door, I gave her a muffled thanks over my shoulder.
A hungry man can be a fast learner. When you come to a table with nothing but need, you are grateful for things you might have pushed aside before. And when you kneel, hungry and broken at His table, you receive a grace from Him you might, at some other time, have completely missed.
You’ll know this grace when you take it. It goes deeper, quicker, and it burns all the way down.