In the Shadows of a Burned Out Church

On May 15th, a fire broke out in downtown Milwaukee on the roof of the historic Trinity Lutheran Church (LCMS) and one of downtown Milwaukee's oldest church landmarks. Many of us in SE Wisconsin have seen the devastation from that fire and felt a loss and a perhaps a bit of wonder at how God allows something like this to happen.

Whenever we go to events in downtown Milwaukee, we frequently park in the lot behind the church so this fire had something of a personal effect for me and my family. A couple weeks ago, after a chilly Tuesday evening softball game, I took my youngest son, Thomas, down to see the remnants of the church. From the parking lot you could get something of an idea of the impact, but not until you walked to the side did you see the full impact of the fire. As we talked about the work of the firefighters, what the congregation may do and the fact that there is nothing that can pull down the Gospel of Christ, a man who lives on Milwaukee's streets walked up to us. As I asked him how he was doing, his response was direct and to the point, "Terrible", and I was not surprised by this answer. So I asked him to tell us about Terrible.

LW is 51 years old, an African American man who was quite eloquent, well mannered, and respectful, but bore the evidence of a hard life. He had come from Chicago and through a series of circumstances found himself on the streets of Milwaukee where he shares poetry and appropriate jokes for people in the city. Odd jobs around town is what he tries to do when he can get them, but without the degree and skills that come from a more significant education or trade work and without the stability of a home, he relies on whatever comes. The sins of his youth bare their scars today, but he handled himself in our presence with respect and some words of advice for my young man.

I asked him what gives him "joy", and not surprisingly, there wasn't much that left him deeply satisfied, but a memory that gave him peace was the mother of his children before they were no longer together and she passed away. Relationships in good and difficult times, they are one of our greatest blessings! I asked if I could share what gives me hope with him and for him. You see, what I saw in this man was perhaps something of the best Milwaukee might offer. A black man and a white man, not afraid to be honest with each other, respectful and vulnerable in the presence of my 13 year old son. Yes, I know what addiction has done to so many that find themselves homeless, but in that moment it was three human beings made in the image of God, standing in the shadows of a burned out church.

And I shared with him the Joy of the Lord and prayed it would be his strength as it is ours. Hebrews 12 finds these familiar words "For the Joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God". That it was in Christ's humiliation that he paid the price for our brokenness and sin and then calls us sons and daughters of the King who created us and calls us his own. We stood on the corner with our hands on our shoulders and prayed over LW's life and future. After saying Amen, my young son, remembering that he had gloves he wasn't using, quietly handed them to LW on this chilly evening. LW looked at Thomas and down at the gift and to Thomas again and said "Thank You young man". A few minutes later he remembered the cookies that he had brought and offered them as well.

I couldn't help but think that perhaps this church now more accurately reflects the Body of Christ. Whether homeless or well fed, jobless or well employed, in families or if we're fatherless, we all have a heart that has been burned out, desperate to be made new.

 

 

And yet, our baptisms remind us daily that God is renewing us day by day, constantly calling us back to himself until the full renewal comes when he does make EVERYTHING new! The cross reminds us that in brokenness, Joy is possible because when we have relationship with Christ he will work all things to the good of those who love him and he will use our brokenness to call others to him!

It is a beautiful thing to consider that a broken black man, a broken white man and a broken young man, might be brought together to share the "Good News" that makes all things new. God's grace through the Gospel, a personal message meant for every living person, still goes forward, even in the shadows of a burned out church!

To God be the Glory!

 

 

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