A call came into the office this week. An individual needed to “talk to a minister.” It was a cold call, which is to say the caller did not know me and I did not know the caller.
That kind of call comes now and then: someone is in some kind of trouble, is having some sort of crisis, and for some reason the caller imagines that “talking to a minister,” even if that minister is a stranger, will afford them some kind of help. And so they find the number in book, of some church they have seen here or there, and they call.
When such calls come I am invariably apprehensive. Who knows but what the caller is mad at God, or angry at the church, ready to take out a .45 caliber vengeance on the preacher foolish enough to answer their summons.
Beneath that obvious fear, however, is a more subtle one, perhaps a truer one: not that they will be able to hurt me, but that I will not be able to help them. Whoever places such a call reaches out, reaches out to a stranger, clearly needs something, some kind of help, but I am never sure what they want, less sure of what I, of all the people they might have called, can give them. I am not at all confident that any word I have to say will be of any benefit, lasting or otherwise.
And so, mostly, I listen. Which is to say I usually go when I am called. But I try not to say much, for fear of setting the caller off, for even greater fear of their feeling foolish that they called me.
This call came on Ash Wednesday. There had been a death in the family, such as it was. The caller just needed to talk…and so I went, praying God’s protection for the both of us. I called Jo, my wife, on the way. I left word with Tabitha, my secretary, before I left—described exactly where I would be, you know, just in case.
When I got there, the house smelled of animal urine and neglect. The caller sheepishly moved a pile of trash so that I could sit down, and so I did, horrified at what might be happening to the seat of my pants. I started listening. The conversation was difficult. There were long gaps of silence. Now and then I asked a question, said a word or two, to nudge the dialogue along, but mostly I was silent.
On either side of the silences the caller spoke of death—not just the family member’s that morning, but of other deaths: parents, friends, siblings, faith. The caller spoke haltingly of life’s futility, of a lack of accomplishment, of loneliness. The caller spoke of that especially: of deep and, indeed, disabling loneliness. Of how unfriendly our town was and is. Of how inhospitable and unwelcoming we were and are. Here the caller picked up tempo a bit as hurt and anger and resentment stoked the accusations.
But as the caller rattled-on—there was far too little energy to call it a rant—I remembered what I saw as I had turned into the driveway: no less than six “No Trespassing” signs posted here and there in the small yard and on the filthy house.
No Trespassing signs in the yard, and in the living room, a deep lamentation on account of loneliness. Quite apart from that particular conversation I have decided that that is an apt metaphor for the human condition. We are all of us so lonely, in a way, and yet we keep holding each other at bay, warning others to keep their distance, doing our best to be self-sufficient or let on like we are. We do not speak of loss or loneliness, do not let our hearts or our heartaches be seen. And when trouble comes, we keep that to ourselves too, or perhaps we reach out to strangers, if we reach out at all. Some of us, anyway.
Others of us, and especially those of us here, in church, are not so very isolated as the caller was, do not have to depend on the kindness of strangers. And still, even we feel the disconnect, the sense that we are alone in the crowd, that no one knows the trouble we have seen or even if they do they do not much care. Even among folk like us there is this fear, I think, this deep question: to whom can speak of death, or of life? Such conversations are not always welcome, nor are those who would seek them.
Deeper even than that observation is this one, and perhaps I make it because the call came on Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of Lent: Such, I believe, is our relationship to God. We go to great lengths, spend great energy in our self-sufficiency to put up the No Trespassing signs so that God will see them. Put them on our hearts, on our lives. We don’t need You here, don’t want You here; we warn-off God.
But then, when trouble comes, we wonder why God seems so distant. So disinterested. So far away.
I am not one usually inclined to quote Anne Graham Lotz, but I remember that on the Thursday morning after the Twin Towers fell, Billy Graham’s daughter was interviewed by Jane Clayson on CBS’s The Early Show. Asked “Why would a loving God let this happen?” –which, I must say, is the typical boneheaded question people ask to justify their smug anger at God or the church.
Ms. Lotz said words to this effect: for years we have shaken our fist at God, have worked very hard to expel God from our national life, the public arena, the marketplace…and God, being a gentleman, has done as we have demanded.
Now, whether or not you agree with her assessment of the particular causes or effects of natural disasters and terrorist attacks, the insight is a powerful one, I think, and especially for us beginning our observance of Lent. Could we not, should we not confess that we have spent great energy shaking our fists at God, expelling God from our lives?
Or if you do not see yourself in that harsh picture, exactly, could we not, should we not confess that we have sweetly marginalized God in our quest for self-sufficiency, winked at God week to week but gone busily about our business in order to make our own life and meaning?
Could we not, should we not confess that we have all of us placed No Trespassing signs here, there, everywhere, all over our driveways and homes, which is to say on our ears, over our eyes, around our hearts? In our offices and, sadly, even in our churches?
And could we not, should we not confess that often, when trouble comes or fear or death, we have wondered where God is after all. Where is God? Perhaps, as Don McLean sang it, God caught the last train for the coast.
Which is to say that God, being gentle—being just—perhaps has done as we asked and left us to our self-sufficiencies and spiritual dissipation.
The Good News, of course, is that God is not just gentle and just, but also gracious and fiercely merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, who relents from punishing (even if, as Paul claims, that punishment, that wrath, is God’s letting us go our own way). God is ever more ready to hear than we are to pray, ever more ready to forgive than we often are to confess.
But Lent is a season of confession. And so what better time than now to take down those No Trespassing signs—to invite God back into our homes, and by that I mean our lives, dirty as they may be with the trash and waste of this world. We take down the No Trespassing signs and we reach out to God who may, at first, seem like a stranger, but we really need to talk to God, you know. Death is all around us and we need to talk to our God.
And maybe we take down the No Trespassing signs we put up against each other. Maybe we reach out to one another and answer one another’s call, and tell the truth and listen and there may be long gaps as we talk but we talk about death and life and how we can befriend and be friends to one other against the loneliness we all of us have known. Maybe we talk to God, talk to each other, answer the call and listen…
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.