Being taught by the negative

As I age I become more aware of what drives my ministry. I realize a large part seems to be shaped by the negative… the offenses (real and perceived)… the ways I’ve seen others treated by those in power and those who should just know better… and a whole host of intangibles, hard memories nesting just below the surface.

The negatives drive me to reach out, to grasp others before they fall prey to the harsh, gracelessness of human beings, and to meet glaring needs among groups of people Jesus calls us love. I get that line smacks of criticism. But there you go; I’m feeling the sting tonight.

Looking back smoldering compassion drove me to take a ministry position working with male street prostitutes in Chicago. Weaving my life with a marginalized population—men seen as utter outcasts—and walking beside those stricken HIV/AIDS, set a calling on fire. It’s a calling that now bleeds into the lives of the dying, orphans in India, and those who’ve experienced little grace or kindness.

But the smoldering began from a negative experience at a high impact event in my early 20s.

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The AIDS Memorial Quilt (courtesy of the Washington Post)

The AIDS crisis in the U.S. reached tragic proportions in the early 90s and my partner worked as an educator in the field. This is how I got roped into being a “quilt angel” at a full display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt on the National Mall in Washington. Quilt angels dressed in white and fanned out along walkways in between miles of quilt panels. Each panel, loving woven, personalized the life of someone who died from the virus.

Like all angels, I carried a box of tissues and bore witness to my block of quilt. I recall it included a boy who died from a tainted blood transfusion—his portion had a soccer ball and trophies; and the panels of three men, one who spent his life in the theater. The mother and father of the boy, and the partner of one of the men, spent nearly all weekend by their swatch of quilt, sharing with visitors the lives of loved ones cut down way too early.

There were too many tears and hugs to count that weekend. It was somber and sacred and my naïve 20 year-old world was rocked by it.

And then it happened. On Sunday, on top of a hill adjacent to the quilt, a large group gathered. They had come to protest the quilt display and brought their bullhorns. For what seemed like hours they shouted that loved ones were in hell and if the living didn’t repent they would be as well. A burly looking man paced back and forth carrying a large wooden cross on his shoulder. Eventually they were pushed away.

I didn’t know much about Christianity at the time nor did I understand worldview or the nature of protests. But I did see wounded hearts singed by bizarre, hateful words. My heart bled for those guarding their loved ones patch of quilt and for those visiting. The juxtaposition of compassion and sorrow to hatred twisted up in my heart and took root. That evening my partner and I joined rally hosted by ACT UP. There were more tears, anger, and an electric kind of energy. I was hooked.

Today I sat under a teaching from someone I should see as a spiritual leader. From my perspective he tackled a sensitive, much-debated issue recklessly. In the wake of the service I realized I could never introduce many of my friends to the Christian faith through this church. Jesus would be obscured. The teaching would stumble, alienate. I felt alienated.

The negative today taught me something: The path I take in sharing my faith is sure. It avoids the potholes of unessentials within the Christian faith and focuses on what truly matters, that of relationship with God through Jesus, grace and eternity. Let God tackle the thorny questions.

But it’s not all negative right now. These past couple of years have been filled with ministry done right—and that has driven me to higher ground and caused my faith to grow.

Several years ago, a mentor dropped me from the rolls during an especially dark time spiritually (I was a tough customer)—and every effort to find discipleship was thwarted. Now I have both a terrific mentor and discipleship. Where once my persistent questions were met with bewilderment or indifference, I’m now treated with kindness and grace is extended more than I deserve. I also work alongside people who selflessly pour out their lives for others day after day. Watching ministry in the hands of these people has infused much-needed positive into something that has been largely driven by the negative. And because of this I am a more effective, balanced, and passionate witness for Jesus.

I do know this fact:  My heart has been broken over the years and like a quilt it has been patched together—only now it’s more expansive. It is a large, imperfect vessel for God’s compassion.

Have you thought about how much of your calling is birthed from pain or negative experiences? And how much is impacted by positive experiences and interactions. Maybe it’s all jumbled up. I trust wherever it comes from God uses it for His glory.