As I write this, I am sitting in a hovel, partitioned off from our entire educational wing that has been gutted. I mean this job that our church has embarked upon was not an effort to put a band-aid on a sore. This was radical surgery! Dumpster after dumpster has come and gone, filled with debris from our building. Some days I feel I am presiding over a wreck, yet as work goes on you see signs of hope. New walls being built, sheetrock going up, new electrical work going in all directions, tile being laid in newly designed bathrooms, and, of course, new sidewalks and cement work outside. It’s all exciting, and at the same time it’s frustrating. You can’t find things you need, there is no place to sit, wires and phone lines are cut and disconnected, and the sound of pounding, drilling, and hammering makes it hard to concentrate, let alone talk on the phone (if it works, that is…).
So, it was a welcome invitation to jump on a plane and go to Detroit, another disaster/work in progress. It had been years since I had been to Detroit, which was always a city I drove through rather than a destination. This time it was a destination of discovery for myself and 13 others, who didn’t know what they were going to find upon arrival. However, if you keep your eyes open, you can discover a lot about any place. Detroit is part of the “Rust Belt”, those mid-western cities that have lost industry and population and, of course, a tax base to keep it going. A city that has watched infrastructure collapse as people fled and as it could not pay its bills, going bankrupt. Not only is it humiliating to go bankrupt, but you get the feeling of impotence – a powerlessness to do anything about your situation.
We came there under the theme “Rise Up”, an interesting slogan. I am usually not much for slogans, but in this case it crystallized for me a situation that not only Detroit finds itself in, but some of us may wake up to the fact that our infrastructure has collapsed, too. We could find ourselves with a huge debt burden, broken and fleeing relationships and in decline as our souls seem to have been wounded.
As I looked closely at the dynamics of our week, I still smile remembering wearing a bright orange T-shirt that said “Rise Up” on it. I felt a little self-conscious about wearing it, but the message was a strong one. I now wear the T-shirt as part of my PJ. Seriously, the word Resurrection literally means to rise again. It is the church’s message through the centuries. From the ashes of despair, from the hopelessness of bankruptcy, and from the sadness of death, Christians through the centuries have echoed this message.
It is the story of the empty tomb; it is the message that we must hear every Sunday – Christians met on Sunday because it was the Resurrection Day; from the Friday of the Crucifixion to the joy and surprise of Easter Sunday. So – once I got my head straight about the message on my T-shirt and saw 35,000 Lutherans on a mission to help Detroit rise again, I began to see again what we are all about as people of faith. Our vision is not just about St. John’s, Mamaroneck, as exciting as it may be this summer, with a new building in construction. Our vision is a world-wide one that includes, of all place, Detroit. It also includes wells being built in Central Africa; it also includes prayers and lobbying on behalf of those Christians in the Middle East that are being persecuted, made homeless, and butchered and murdered.
I guess there are many ways or metaphors to grasp onto the resurrection. We may announce the good news on Easter Sunday and every Sunday, we may proclaim it at a graveside as one of the faithful enters the Church Triumphant, and we may wear it on our T-shirts as we help a community down on its luck like Detroit. It’s that good news that shapes us and calls us into service in His name.
Being a Christian and a pastor, I don’t know what I would do without my fervent belief that not only I would stand again, but all of us who are living in the ashes of despair, from Detroit to Aleppo, Syria. What I do know and believe was printed on that gaudy T-shirt, that we will one day rise up by the grace of God to new life.