There we are, and there God is, and there are we and God together.
It's 8AM on Wednesday morning. Janice and I are in the front pews, I on the Gospel side, and she on the Epistle, with the nave and the rood screen lit low. Two candles glow on either side of the altar. Early light from the climbing sun refracts through stained glass onto the mahogany pews. All is quiet. God is near. Centering, we move into prayer from the Franciscan Daily Office: "The night has passed and the day lies open before us; let us pray with one heart and mind." (silence) "As we rejoice in the gift of this new day, so may the light of your presence, O God, set our hearts on fire with love for you; now and for.....CRASH! BOOM! BANG! WHIIIRRRRRRRR....BANG! BOOM! CRASH! Voices, a shout. The vroom of a large engine. The garbage truck right outside arrives on its rounds at 8:05 every Wednesday morning, its workmen ignorant of the peace and the prayer going on less than 50 feet away inside this beautiful sanctuary on Dorchester Rd.
We continue the prayer, barely audible over the bashing and booming outside: "...now and forever. Amen."
Neither of us has ever reacted to the intrusion, nor ever said anything about it to each other. It is such a metaphor, a cliche, in fact, that no words are necessary. We are here with Him in prayer, but He is out there as well in the noise and in the busyness of the day. He is in the hands of those men retrieving our garbage. "Pray for the world. Pray for the world," the drumming of the plastic cans and the whirring of the hydraulic compactor call to us. Here we pray, with purpose, bringing the entire world to God in intercession, and also preparing ourselves to meet the world outside. I am a parish priest. My prayer partner is a hospice chaplain. We know the joys and the sadnesses and the deaths and the resurrections that await us.
I am reminded of my old friend, Charlie Schleppegrell. He was my right hand man, a lay-leader, in a previous congregation that I served, and a dedicated, talented dentist. We would talk of ministry often, usually in his office, or while on the boat fishing. We came up with this phrase to describe what ministry is often like: "Dumpster-Diving". "Let's go dumpster-diving in people's lives, like Jesus did," Charlie would say. "You know, willing to crawl around in the garbage inside people's souls and help them find what they lost--their true selves." Charlie died at age 46 from complications after a brain aneurysm back in 2001. CRASH! BOOM! BANG! A gaping hole blown through the life of his wife, his two boys, our friendship, his church. The bomb went deep and then exploded, upheaving massive chunks of life and ministry and caring. I remember when all this happened because, while he was seemingly recovering from his aneurysm in the ICU, he saw TV footage of planes crashing into the World Trade Center with smoke and death and panic and shock ensuing. "What's going on, Rev.?" he asked. "Yes, it is possible that someone does not know what has happened", I thought. And I said, "Charlie, the world has gone crazy." "You OK?" he asked. "I'm OK. More dumpster diving." CRASH! BOOM! BANG! WHIIIRRRR...as all that we held dear and precious is crushed beyond all recognition and systematically folded in with everything else cast off from life and thrown into the fires of Gehenna at the county's edge.
When Charlie died later on October 27, I was with his wife, my wife and another friend at his bedside. We prayed through tears as we watched the monitor's numbers race down the screen...CRASH! We sobbed as his chest ceased to rise and fall...BOOM! I looked at his face one last time and turned to leave his wife behind the curtain for a very private and final goodbye....(BANG!) I talked at his funeral about dumpster diving, and Charlie's willingness to crawl around in people's lives, even if it involved getting into the dumpster with them, turning over, lifting up and casting aside the rotting refuse of shame in order to get at and bring to the light the buried, life-giving things. Or to save that which was relegated to the dumpster and wipe away the slime and toss it out into the sunlight to be retrieved later.
It was an expensive ministry. He cared less about getting paid for his services at his dental chair than in listening to, following up on, restoring hope to, befriending, visiting, caring for and dignifying other human beings. And to do this for such a wide swath of humanity, he did one thing supremely well--he reserved judgement. An icon of grace, Charlie never judged. And that is why he reached so many people. Because even if someone saw his or her own life as one big dumpster-full of reeking rot, Charlie's willingness to roll up his sleeves and trudge right into it with them, gave them dignity and value. CRASH! Up and over goes the dumpster lid. BOOM! Up against the green steel wall lined with perma-stink goes the ladder. BANG! goes the heavy lifting that only love can do.
Charlie would be proud to know that whenever I visit a dumpster or hear a garbage truck, I think of him as a rock-star of humble servanthood. He got it that life is not the pretty, sanitized illusion that we create for ourselves and try to live by. Real life is biological, dirty, smelly and in decay, mottled with consequences, and natural death--and also, because of LOVE, permanently joined to God in grace and dignity and Presence.
That garbage truck that comes by every Wednesday during morning prayer is no interruption. It is instead a reminder and a call. It is a reminder of the world outside, the call of Jesus into the dumpster of people's lives. It is a reminder of His willingness to crawl in here with us, even amid the things that bring us shame. It is a call to follow Him there.
Such is the inner and the outer reality of Wednesday mornings at a beautiful sanctuary on Dorchester Rd.