Sunday, July 10, 2011

Kensington Sabbath

July 2010

  1.  Fifteen feet by ten
  Two-thirds cement, still roses
  Bloom, and sparrows sing.

  2.  I will be rich and
  I will live – someplace – very
  Very far from here.

  3.  Teeth lost, back sagging
  Eyes slide away to distant
  Sadness – seventeen.

  4.  God breathes, a breeze stirs
  Cool air from the river, sweet
  Whispers of blessing.

  5.  Justice is the ache
  This lingering limp, this . . .
  Silence echoing.
For the past eleven summers I led a program called Urban Serve, a week-long children’s outreach in Kensington, a diverse neighborhood in Philadelphia with a high concentration of children living below the poverty level. The team I led was composed of teens and adults from my own suburban church and the partner church in Kensington. Each summer about two dozen of us gathered in the parish house of the Free Church of St. John, sleeping on the floor, and showering in the narrow yard behind the parish house, preparing a program to share the good news of Christ with neighborhood children, toddlers to teens as well as older siblings and parents.

The first year I was part of this program, we followed the model of our suburban church vacation Bible school. It was one of the most difficult weeks of my life. We worked hard, but few children came. I slept about ten hours the entire week, and somehow encountered the only poison ivy in Kensington in one of our small service projects. I promised myself I would never do the program again unless God showed us another way to do it.

July 2004
He did. The next summer we used outreach materials from Scripture Union, moved the program outside, and ran it in the early evening, when the streets around the church were full of wandering children. We registered more than a hundred children, gave away dozens of Bibles, and caught a clearer vision of how God intended to use the one week of outreach to energize ministry to children throughout the year.

It feels odd to be at home this morning, knowing the team is waking up from their first night on the floor, preparing to attend the morning service at St. Johns, getting ready to practice songs and dramas for the start of the children’s program this evening.

Looking back on my weeks in Kensington, I find that God used that time as an intensive annual graduate course in ministry. Trust, patience, obedience, endurance, wisdom, grace, courage, hope, compassion were all on the syllabus, along with intensive exposure to poverty, community, addiction, mental illness, injustice, systemic failure, amazing resilience.
July 2006

Every summer I approached our mission week with a sense of unease. I never felt ready, never felt like I had quite enough of whatever the week seemed to require. Our team was always weak in one way or another: not enough experienced leaders, not enough kids from the community, not enough musicians, not enough something. Yet, as I wrote last week, God’s supply is always enough: "And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” 2 Corinthians 9:8.

Last summer I found myself mentally, spiritually, physically exhausted. It had been a very hard year of ministry, for a long list of reasons. There had been less support than usual, and far more challenges, and I felt in need of a month or two of sabbatical rather than a week of little sleep and hands-on leadership from dawn to well-past dark.

At the time, I was reading Sabbath, by Dan Allender, thinking and praying about how much I needed more Sabbath in my life. Just days before our mission, I was recording some highlights of the book in my journal when I had a strange thought: could the week in Kensington be a Sabbath?

“The Sabbath is the day in which we receive and extend the Father’s invitation to be reconciled.” (106). In a community divided racially, in a place where resentments simmer into physical violence, reconciliation is a message met with disbelieve and amusement. Even our team struggled with reconciliation. It’s never easy working and living side-by-side with people of different ages, different personalities, different cultural expectations about cleanliness, noise, time, personal space.  

Allender goes on to explain that part of Sabbath “is allowing the ‘not yet’ to be more real than the ‘is.’ . . . The Sabbath asks, how would you live if there were no wars, enmity,  battle lines, or need to defend, explain, interpret, or influence another to see anything differently? The Sabbath glories in the goodness, the amazing, solicitous, heart-thrilling glory of each person to whom we are privileged to speak .. .The Sabbath is the day we set aside to look at one another from the vantage point of eternity and then to operate in time, in an actual hour or minute, as if it is true.” (111)
July 2010

I wrote in my journal “Lord, I would like to approach Urban Serve as a Sabbath, a holy time set apart, a time of wonder, of play, of delight, of reconciliation.”

I had no idea what that would look like, but found, as the week unfolded that I saw our team differently, with much greater appreciation, much deeper awareness of what a gift each one was. The inevitable challenges took less mental energy. Iin fact, most became opportunities for creativity, good conversation, new levels of engagement. It wasn’t a perfect week, but in many ways, it was a much easier week. I was more fully aware of God’s presence, more conscious that we were working together as citizens of an eternal kingdom, at odds with, yet joyfully invading, the broken kingdom around us.

Sleep is often an issue for me, especially when I’m sleeping on the hard floor surrounded by two dozen people I’m responsible for. I hear every street noise, kids talking in their sleep, team members snoring. I wake at every footstep, every voice down the alley. We normally scheduled an hour of rest and reflection after lunch; for me that time was essential for mentally debriefing the hours before, planning needed changes to the hours ahead, then trying to regroup from the lack of sleep and constant noise.

July 2010
In Sabbath mode last summer, an odd thing happened. I slept more soundly, plans were resolved more quickly, my energy level was higher, and I found myself spending my rest and reflection time sitting in various corners, praying and writing poetry. I hadn’t written poetry in over two decades, but for some reason, sitting in the “not yet” of the coming kingdom, things looked different, and poetry seemed a good way to respond.

We also found more time to sing - worship in the church yard before the program, worship with the team late into the evenings, some gospel bluegrass for fun at odd moments of the day, with "The Rootin' Tootin' Emeralds" performing at our annual talent show our last night together. 

I’m still processing lessons learned, still practicing Sabbath, not just on Sundays, but in new ways, new contexts. And I’m still praying for our summer mission, for our friends in Kensington, for the team gathered there this week. I know they have already begun to experience the “enough” of God’s provision, and I pray that they learn all He has to teach them, that they meet Him in His grace at each point of difficulty, and that they come home on Friday refreshed, comforted, nourished by His goodness.

I will pray
     I will
For hope beyond this corner bar
For joy that lifts
     beyond the salsa beat
     and rains
     like kindness
     down on flat tar roofs
For peace, a peace beyond mere calm
     a peace that sings
     that blooms
     that shimmers off the streets
     and shines
     like sun
     on sun-starved skin.
I’ll pray
But if I pray,
     Good God,
And if I stay
     alive enough
          to care
          to hope
          to wait
Then meet me here
     right here
         beneath the broken streetlight
Meet me
     on this narrow strip
          of rubbled pavement
     and teach 
                         to dance.

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