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"Watch" by C. David McKirachan
"Relatives in Australia" by C. David McKirachan
"As For Me and Mine" by Peter Andrew Smith

Watch
by C. David McKirachan
Matthew 25:1-13

It was a ministers’ retreat in a new presbytery, a wonderful opportunity to get to know some of my compatriots in the business, partners in the journey. I’d spent five years in the inner city, where survival is a noble endeavor. Those five years had taught me so much, but in some ways the ministry there had been so intense, it had left me with questions I’d never had a chance to ask.

The Bible study for the first day was the parable of the foolish maidens. Strange passage to allow us to have a sense of partnership. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I think in many ways I was wounded from the battle that is inner city ministry. PTSD is not only present in veterans coming home from foreign wars. It can be present in anyone that has confronted situations from which they carry wounds to the soul.

For five years I had watched my parishioners struggle to survive in a hostile environment, in poverty, despair, and violence. Murder, suicide, starvation, and the grinding loss of hope left them few places to go for comfort and with few or no resources to confront the monsters that pushed them beyond their abilities to cope. A counsellor once told me that someone who lived in the midst of that cross fire who didn’t get wounded wasn’t sane.

Now I’d moved up. I had a job in a community where people didn’t have to make the choice between rent and food. Where they could walk out their front door without wondering if they’d get beaten and robbed before they got to the elevator. But in many ways I was still there. Those people were still in my mind and my dreams. I had left that environment, but that environment had not left me.

The Bible study put us in small groups of three or four. Three or four ministers who knew scripture. They knew theology. They were professionals. The discussion dipped into the purposes of Jesus and his ongoing confrontation with the rulers of the Jewish community. But all I could think of were the maidens who weren’t willing to wait. My soul bled for them. “I do not know you.”

I couldn’t swallow it. If God was going to exclude some teenaged girls, I refused to abandon them. One of the people in my group picked up my discomfort and asked me to share.

All I had was anger and pain. All I had was the hopelessness that I had left in Newark. Hopelessness that I had survived. Hopelessness that they, the poor ones who couldn’t move had to live with every day. Hopelessness that the God that I knew would not abandon them to. The foolish maidens were victims of choices they’d made, foolish choices. How could the Lord who went to the cross for fools like me say, “I do not know you.”? I refused. I went back to my room and wept.

It took me a while to calm down. It took me a while to realize I was stuck in survivor guilt. It took me a while to remember that this was a parable with one point and that the point wasn’t exclusion, but staying ready. And it took me a while to realize that I had some work to do.

My job in the new church wasn’t the same. The issues weren’t the same. People dressed a lot better, they had enough to pay their bills, to buy food and go to the doctor. They had enough to eat. But these people were still desperate. In their comfort they were wandering without direction or in the wrong direction. They were being foolish maidens.

And I felt the touch of the Lord there in that hotel room. I realized that I had work to do on myself. The maidens may have been foolish but the Lord never is. I needed to get some help learning to carry my city experience, I needed to learn to handle it rather than letting it handle me.

And I needed to pay attention to this moment, to its opportunities and its limitations. I needed to watch. Hey, I just read that somewhere.

* * *

Relatives in Australia
by C. David McKirachan
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

I have a confession to make. For years I did my best to help people wrestle with the death of a loved one, or even the end of their own lives, confronting their fears and sense of encroaching darkness without a firm sense of life after death. It’s not that I didn’t believe in resurrection or our life with God, but I had no sense that it was in any way specific. It belonged to God. Whatever it might be it was beyond my own poor power to understand. The here and now surrounds us and at times of grief it seems to crush us with a finality that transcends fragile promises of happy reunions.

Death was a part of my ministry before I was ordained. I was trained in crisis intervention and suicide prevention and had put myself between people and their won desire to walk away from precious life. It was perilous territory, but it taught me the power of life and the power of death and the terrifying and fragile balance between them. It taught me of despair and utter heartbreak. It taught me that if I meant business in that territory, I had to be scrupulously honest with myself and I had to be willing to ask for help from others when my skills and resources were not adequate.

It became a model for my ministry. Placeboes don’t work when darkness surrounds us. We need to be real, and honest. So, when I moved to my first parish in Newark, New Jersey and violence, poverty, and despair were part of the very air we breathed, I was glad to have had that experience. I was willing to comfort folks, but I was very careful to stay away from the swamps of sentimentality that often infest our attempts to present the non-anxious presence of Christ in such situations.

Then my brother died. He was 55, an ordained pastor, beloved by many for his willingness to confront the monsters he found on his journey. He was a warrior of the light. After his funeral, a few people asked me, “What will I do without him?” I was asking the same question. He was my brother.

It took me some time, some counselling, and quite a bit of reflection to get to a place where the world out there reminded me of its glory. It’s called grieving. But as I came up for air I realized there was something new in my world.

I had stood at the dark gulf of mortality shouting out beyond my stance, but I never heard anything except an echo. A version of my own voice bouncing off something in the darkness. Now, as I stood there at that same gulf, I had no doubt there was a presence out there, a specific presence. My faith had grown and become more specific.

Let me put it another way. I’ve never been to Australia. I know it’s there. I’ve seen pictures. But it’s beyond my experience, beyond what I can affirm with my own senses. But if somebody I knew, someone I loved, was living there it would change my relationship with that far and distant land.

Now my father and mother have joined my brother in Australia. Through their deaths, and through the years since then, I have struggled with the darkness repeatedly. And when I come to that dark gulf, holding hands with someone grieving, burdened with the crushing weight and horror of death, I can say with confidence, “I believe. I really do.” I can say it with the honesty that such a moment requires and deserves. And when I hear Handel’s “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth,” the power of Death’s darkness cowers in the face of the light that we carry.

We are all warriors of the light. And the gates of Hell shall not prevail against us. After all, we’ve got relatives in Australia.

* * *

As For Me and Mine
by Peter Andrew Smith
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

Paul pulled off his football helmet and grinned at Jose. “That last touchdown pass was awesome.”

“We’re on fire.” Jose gave him a first bump.

Coach blew his whistle and signalled for the team to gather around.

“Great practice, guys,” Coach said. “Those offensive plays are coming along nicely. Keep this up and nothing can stop us.”

The players let out a rousing cheer.

“I’m still concerned that we aren’t doing as well defensively though so I want to see you all here on Sunday morning to run those new plays -- rain or shine.”

Paul raised his hand. “Uh, Coach?”

“Yes, Paul?”

“You said when we started the season that we wouldn’t be having games or practices on Sunday morning. We all agreed to that because lots of us go to church.”

The other players nodded in agreement.

Coach held up his hands. “I know, I know. The thing is I think we have a real shot at going all the way. You guys have been burning up the field and with a bit more practice we could have a shot at the championship. You want that, don’t you?”

“I do,” Paul said. “Isn’t there some other time we can practice other than Sunday morning?”

“That’s when the field is free. So you need to be here Sunday.”

Paul looked over at Jose who shook his head. Paul cleared his throat. “Sorry, Coach but I can’t be here on Sunday. I’ll be in church.”

“Well, I’m sorry you feel that way Paul but if you don’t practice then you won’t be able to play.”

A rustle went through the team.

Jose raised his hand. “You’re not serious are you, Coach?”

“You need to practice to be able to play. No practice no play.” Coach shrugged. “You all agreed to that when we started the year.”

“We also agreed to not practising on Sunday morning.” Jose turned to the other players. “I go to a different church than Paul but that’s where I will be on Sunday morning too.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way but there are other players who are willing to put in the effort and practice,” Coach said. “We practice on Sunday. Am I not right?”

The other team members looked at Paul and Jose and then back at Coach. One after another they said they would not be there on Sunday.

“But we don’t have any choice but to practice on Sunday,” Coach protested.

“We have a choice, Coach,” Paul said. “We choose to be in church.”

“All I want is for us to win.” Coach sighed. “We need the practice in order to get better defensively.”

Paul rubbed his chin. “Is Sunday morning the only time you’re available, Coach?”

Coach shook his head. “No, I’m free Saturday morning too but the field isn’t.”

“So why don’t we practice somewhere else?” Jose asked.

“I checked and there are no other fields available. The community field and the school field all have other groups using them.”

“What about behind my church?” Jose asked.

The Coach frowned. “That isn’t a field.”

“It’s actually half a field. Paul and I measured it for some games our churches did together for a faith festival,” Jose said. “Since we’re only running plays wouldn’t that work?”

“There isn’t a changing room for you to put on your gear.”

“There’s a room downstairs that we could use.  I know Pastor Michael would be thrilled to have someone using the church on Saturdays.”

Coach thought for a moment and then nodded. “Okay that might actually work. Can everyone make Saturday morning?”

The team members all nodded.

“I guess I’ll see you guys then,” Coach said. “Paul and Jose can I see you for a moment?”

The two boys waited until the rest of the team headed inside to change.

“Are you mad at us, Coach?” Paul asked.

“No. I was a bit surprised when you said you wouldn’t practice Sunday morning but I respect your choice,” Coach said. “I want to make sure we’re okay.”

Paul and Jose looked at each other and nodded. “Sure no hard feelings.”

“Good. I also wanted to ask you a question if you don’t mind.” Coach paused for a moment. “You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”

“Ask away.” The boys said at almost the same time.

“Why is church so important to you?”

The boys explained to Coach their faith and hope in Jesus and how church grounded and enriched their faith. When they finished Coach had an idea why worship was so important to them and for the first time in his life Coach considered going to church himself on Sunday morning.

*****************************************

StoryShare, November 12, 2017, issue.

Copyright 2017 by CSS Publishing Company, Inc., Lima, Ohio.

All rights reserved. Subscribers to the StoryShare service may print and use this material as it was intended in sermons, in worship and classroom settings, in brief devotions, in radio spots, and as newsletter fillers. No additional permission is required from the publisher for such use by subscribers only. Inquiries should be addressed to permissions@csspub.com or to Permissions, CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 5450 N. Dixie Highway, Lima, Ohio 45807.
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