I can think of many movies that i love, but my all-time favorite has to be Forrest Gump. Call me a conformist (because that’s everybody’s favorite movie) but really, what’s not to love? A hero you can root for; a tragic heroine; the backdrop of Americana; an epic journey; a satisfying, full-circle kind of ending; and a fabulous soundtrack to accent the whole of it.
One of my favorite parts of that movie is where Forrest and Leiutenant Dan are on the shrimping boat, and the nets are, shall we say, coming up empty. Lt. Dan says, “where the hell is this God of yours??” And if you have seen this movie once or twice (or about 84 times), I don’t have to tell you what Forrest says next. (But I will because it is one of the best cinematic one-liners of all time).
“It’s funny Lieutenant Dan said that. Because right then, God showed UP.”
Can i get an amen? Fabulous scene. Classic Forrest.
That frame comes to mind alot when i am about the business of ministry. Especially lately, when God seems to be showing UP in record numbers, and in unexpected ways. But time and again, I am reminded that, for the most part, God does not show up in the record numbers, or the nets full of fish (or shrimp, as it were) or even in the big storms. God shows up in those ‘between’ times, the silent and suffering moments, the waiting places, and the situations where most of the world backs out saying, “but I wouldn’t know what to say.”
I think I first learned about the ministry of presence in the Bismarck airport. Because it is a bleak and desolate place of waiting and hopelessness? Not exactly… here’s the tale.
I was working at a mission site on the Standing Rock reservation, a camp where high school youth groups would come and stay for a week, go out into the community and do service projects for people in need, and then come back and worship together at night. I spent a whole summer travelling with a team; we’d set up a camp, lead the week-long experience, pack up, and go do it somewhere else again.
It happened that, while standing on a prairie in North Dakota, I had a spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime, let God knock you on your ass sort of spiritual experience. And then, a few days later, i had another one. But those are other stories. Suffice it to say that, for all the desolation of the place, the prairie was good to me, and i heard the beginnings of a call to ministry there.
And then, I got sent on the run to the Bismarck airport.
You see, there was a problem at the camp. A camper needed to be sent home. And well, you try getting a minor from a reservation in North Dakota to the Indiana suburb from whence she came. No dice. Her mother was coming to get her. And guess who got to go pick up mom from the airport?
Here’s the thing–we did 4 of these camps in a summer, with about 200 kids per camp. So really, sending home 1 kid was not a big deal. Kind of miraculous even. But we weren’t sending her home for smuggling a beer, or sneaking out at night, or for some prank that destroyed the property where we were staying. No, this girl wrote something disturbing and vaguely suicidal in her journal. And left it lying out open, on her pillow, for her friends, her adult sponsors, and her pastor to see.
Harmless cry for help, you say? So did we. However…harmless cries for help must be answered. And her pastor agreed that she should be sent home. Whether to get the help she needed, or to deal with the consequences of being a drama queen–well, that part was not up to us. That part was up to her mother.
Whom I had to go pick up. At the Bismarck airport.
Have you ever driven from Standing Rock to Bismarck? Let’s just say the landscape does not invite small talk. Especially not with a woman who is one-part embarrassed that her kid is drama, one-part worried there is a real problem, and five parts pissed at the staff for invoking such serious consequences for what she deemed harmless, dumb kid behavior.
Anyway…let’s just say it was a long car ride. And i should point out, i was a recent college grad at this point, and in no way a minister. At least, not that I knew of. Yet.
But, that was the (very long) car ride during which I learned that there is not always a right thing to say, or a ready solution, or a good and proper response. Sometimes, all you can do is show up. As a non-anxious, objective, without judgment presence, hoping all the while that you are bringing a bit of the sacred to a situation that is just utter *%&^, with or without you.
In hindsight, it seems that i got 2 powerful, beautiful, inspirational signs of this calling; and then i got the drive to Bismarck. Each of them a moment for God to show up in my own life and teach me a simple truth of the life of discipleship. Some days, you get buffalo and shooting stars; and some days, you get a pissed-off mom at the Bismarck airport. But every day, you show up.
So often, that’s all we can do.
The Church (that is Body of Christ, with a capital-C) is called to show up where the world backs out muttering “But i wouldn’t know what to say.” We are called to provide some sort of sacred presence in those awkward, uncomfortable, and painful places where there is no clear response, no right answer, no easy solution. In places of death, divorce, mental illness; places of darkness and shame; places of sin, in the true sense of seperateness from God; there we are called to simply show up. Without answers. Man, that is a tough one.
Are we there to provide the help that is needed, or to open someone’s eyes to the consequences of wrong-doing ? The good news is, that part is not for us to decide. Our call, on the buffalo days and the Bismarck days, is to go and share the gospel that we embody–the love that never fails.
And who knows? We may come to play a part in somebody else’s storm story, or call story, or crummy-desolate-airport story. We might find ourselves in the offing, hear our name on the air, when it gets to the good part. “Well you see, i was sick and you comforted me. I was hungry and you fed me. I was…” well, you know. “And right then, God. Showed. Up.”
Church at it’s best, folks. All you’ve got to do is turn up. Thanks be to God.