“The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down” (Ps. 146:8b).
I don’t know why Jesus came for me, but I do know that Jesus loves low. And I know it because he came for me.
I met Joyce on Monday evening at Embrace United Methodist Church. Each month I take a group of students to Embrace to help serve the community meal, to feast together, and to worship. Over the past few years we’ve developed some great relationships. Mary is my best friend there. She always takes my picture and holds up her phone next to a yellowed wallet sized photo of her late husband, Dave, and asks (re: tells) everyone about the resemblance. This past Monday she used the word “reincarnation.”
But this was my first time meeting Joyce. I think Joyce is young, perhaps in her late thirties, early forties, but it’s hard to say. The age of her hair doesn’t match the number of years under her eyes. I’m afraid she has the quality of a face that has learned to love everyone but herself. She is quick to smile, even quicker to look down. Her eyes sink with her shoulders, low.
When I sat between her and Mary on Monday, she was accommodating. Mary did the ritual with the phone and the picture. “I can see it,” Joyce convinced herself. (I look absolutely nothing like Dave.) We then began sharing our stories across the table. It turns out Joyce “grew up in this church. This is my church.” A number of churches had in fact passed through the building, but she knew her church as this building. Despite the popular criticism against identifying a building (rather than the people) as a church, the fact is the faithfulness of a building almost always outlasts the faithfulness of the people. Such was the case with this building, this “church.” So this was Joyce’s church.
She spoke about her early days in the way you hear parents talk about children growing up so fast. What I mean is she spoke about those days as days she just couldn’t get back. Her words ached. They made me ache. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think it had to do with the thought of Joyce-the-little-girl running up and down the halls and playing in the sanctuary. It had to do with the thought that there was a time when Joyce had a sanctuary. And it was the awareness that at some point along the way something happened to her, and that sanctuary was gone, or at least the girl who used to play in that sanctuary was gone.
And maybe it also had to do with the memory I have of running up and down the halls and playing in the sanctuary of the place I called “my church” growing up. The church I grew up in is now part of an irretrievable past I have often thought of with the same ache in the deep part of Joyce’s eyes and the lost part of Joyce’s words. There was a time when I had a sanctuary, when I was a little child in God’s big house. But at some point along the way something happened, and that sanctuary was gone, because the little boy decided to leave and grow old. I have so longed to go to that little boy and reassure him, to get him to turn around, to stay, but I cannot. He is back there with that little girl. And now, here we are, older, lower.
During our conversation Joyce was texting back and forth with someone. With each text she seemed to be getting more anxious, and the more anxious she got the more troubled she seemed talking about ‘old times’. It was as though her cherished past was in confrontation with her heavy present. Then, out of nowhere, she announced, “I heard the voice of God in this church! I heard the voice of God in that room over there!” In tears, “I heard his voice…” She was now on the verge of sobbing.
“What did he say, Joyce?”
“I’m not done.” She said it resolutely. “I’m not done.”
I don’t know what that meant to Joyce, but I know she heard it. I know she believed it more than I think most people ever believe anything. I think she believed it more than she believed in herself. She believed it like she had to believe it, like if it weren’t true nothing were true, like if there’s no hope in God there’s no hope at all. I also know God said it to her, because that is the kind of thing God is always saying. But it’s something God says on a low frequency. It’s hard to hear the hope God offers when you’re on top of the world. But it’s the thing God came to say. It’s what God said to me, in no uncertain terms, when my life had sunk immeasurably low, out of touch with my past, out of the reach of any future to speak of. Long after I had left that child behind, Jesus came for me and took me as a child, just as I was.
Wherever he finds you, I know what he wants to say. He wants to say to you the thing he said to Joyce. It’s the message of Advent: I’m not done. Wherever that is heard, there is still a child, there is still a sanctuary.
And when it looked like the sun was never going to shine again, God put a rainbow in the clouds.