The front entrance to this Presbyterian Church in this small rural North Carolina town is massive. It contains four towering white columns. Columns, which I am certain, provide support for the covered entrance as much as they pay architectural homage to the era in which the church was built. The soaring columns convey a sense of loftiness, most likely a reflection of a bygone era when this church stood at the center of public life and discourse in this small southern textile town.
On this particular Easter Sunday, the entrance to this Presbyterian Church is in disrepair. The paint on the soaring columns is peeling. The cement and flagstone porch, covered in years of neglect, screams for a pressure washing. The window frames are busting, peeling and losing their century long hold on the muted stained glass. In reality, the building looks and feels more like a mausoleum. The physical signs of neglect are outward manifestations of a local church in disrepair. From all indications, this church, like so many, is dying.
The welcome sign out front, missing the letters “t” and “h,” reads “The Ear is the Lord’s.” The Sunday School rooms smell musty and seem purposeless. Bibles and songbooks and children’s toys look like they were left in mid-use; almost as if the rapture took place and sucked the life out of the building. The manse, too, is empty; vacated by a burned-out pastor under cover of night. Most Sundays, less than a dozen faithful members populate a sanctuary built to accommodate at least 250 living and breathing human beings.
Yet, on this drizzly and overcast Easter Sunday, at 10:45; fifteen minutes before the official start of worship, Janice is sweeping the front entrance at this Presbyterian Church. Yes…she is sweeping.
Janice is in her mid-seventies. Her boney fingers clutch the broom handle with tenderness and while she sweeps, she tells me she has performed this task with regularity for the past fifty-some-odd-years. Janice sweeps in the face of death. In this geographical and spiritual location, where reality seems to raise its voice in verbose terms, “This is meaningless and unworthy,” she sweeps. I am tempted to join the refrain of reality and reprimand Janice for doing something as mundane as sweeping a porch when the church is dying. There are so many other needful things to be done!
But, as I watch and listen, the Holy Spirit grips my core and in one of those moments when heaven and earth intersect, I realize Janice is not unlike Joseph of Arimathea. For you see, Janice, too, even in the face of death, sweeps while “waiting expectantly for the Kingdom of God.”
According to Richard John Neuhaus, the Christian gospel is an interpretation of reality that bestows a “saving and order” upon our experiences. A holy imagination is mandated. Ministry requires it and cannot survive without it. It really is the task of the pastor, the preacher, the minister, or the under-shepherd (use whatever title you fancy) to hold in tandem the visible and the invisible.
In situations that seem desperately hopeless, as in the case of this particular church at this particular time, it is difficult, almost impossible, to “minister by hope beyond apology.” For I, too, am like those lofty columns. I am in disrepair! I battle a clamoring ego. I run from my own demons and I question the authority of the call. I am discovering how strenuous and grueling it is to buttress the invisible against the visible when the visible is so depressingly damning.
But, in spite of myself, and because I am drowning in an ocean of grace, I am set free to “sight, signal and support” the structure, albeit an imperfect structure, so that Janice, and countless others like her, can perform faithfully mundane tasks all the while waiting expectantly for the Kingdom of God.
The voice of Neuhaus, combined with an old woman named Janice and a good strong nudging of the Holy Spirit called me to “Repent and believe the good news.” Because on this Easter Sunday Morning, the Kingdom of God has come near! It really has.