“When we align the major movements of God’s story with God’s purpose, character, and priorities, we begin to identify with his wide range of attributes, such as life, grace, justice, mercy, jealousy, anger, hope, and expectancy. These qualities provide us with an awareness of God’s existence and presence as we experience [God] more deeply everyday.”*
A couple weeks ago we took 15 youth and 5 adults into our neighboring city, Philadelphia, to serve alongside residents of the city, learn their stories and see how the Kingdom of God was breaking through in the city life. We served with Center for Student Missions.
Mission trips typically stand as one of those God moments in which youth groups have unforgettable mountain top experiences, which are (ironically) quickly forgotten over a matter of weeks. God exists in those far off novel places, at those designated times during the year. But this year God met us very close to home, literally. After this week in Philadelphia, it wasn’t just the tourist locations, the sports stadiums, or the places in which people are entertained on a daily basis. We were met by God in the stories we heard and shared, the people who dwell, thrive, struggle, and suffer there, and in the stories of the city’s struggle for real flourishing (shalom).
When you’ve lived near Philadelphia for most of your life, it’s easier to go into the city but not know the city. It’s easy to see it for entertainment value and not be aware of God’s existence there. Heck, it’s easy to be unaware of God’s presence anywhere.
That’s what Jacob knew. The lying little pain in the you-know-what brother didn’t seem to have a sense of God’s presence until his dream as he was spending the night in no specific place.
“When Jacob woke from his sleep, he thought to himself, The Lord is definitely in this place, but I did not know it. he was terrified and thought, This sacred place is awesome. It’s none other than God’s house and the entrance to heaven.” (Gen. 28:16-17, CEB)
Our group had walked through and driven the streets of Philadelphia countless times over the years and little did we know, the Lord was definitely in that place. I watched moments of Heaven colliding with earth as our youth listened to stories of brokenness, pain, injustice as well as learned from people dedicated to the renewal, reconciliation, restoration, and redemption of the city.
Surely the Lord had been in this place and we had not known it! We had stepped into the sacred – “God’s house and the entrance to heaven.”
So when we stepped away from our work on Wednesday night, everyone was looking for some time to slow down, relax and have some fun. The initial plan was to spend the evening at a local park but the threat of rain pushed us to make a quick change. So the simplest solution was to spend the evening at the local Dave and Busters. Not my favorite choice for our night off but it would have to do. But I began to think “So what are we going to do when everyone starts winning tickets and turns them in for candy, weird useless toys, and novelty shot glasses? How am I going to justify this after we’ve spent so much time in scenes of poverty and brokenness?” So our leaders and I landed on a rule: any tickets won must be given away. You can play as many games as you want, but we don’t need the prizes.
Surprisingly, everyone was completely on board, and they ended up winning over 13,000 tickets, which they gave to a little boy who was spending the evening with his dad. What his dad told us was that he was bummed they didn’t get to go to the Phillies game that night. But as he watched the tickets pile up on their table until he couldn’t see anymore, he leaned over to his dad and said, “This is the best night of my life!”
13,000 tickets from Dave and Busters certainly isn’t going to change the world, but it certainly was a tiny glimpse of a better world of enough, of giving, of generosity, of neighbor before self. I witnessed a small act of what might be if we truly valued the things God values. If we could catch on to God’s dream and desire for the world. If we could find, as Andrew Root puts it, “hope in the promises of God to act to bring forth this new reality – a reality that comes in small ways now, but one day will be all in all.”**
Usually when we see a glimpse of something compelling, fascinating, beautiful, we have a longing to participate more fully in it. When I watch drummers at shows or listen to music, it compels me to practice, experiment, and create. When Jess watches womens lacrosse, she has a longing to play. When youth and adults go on mission trips, there’s usually some kind of longing to do more, to make a life change. But it’s soon diminished after a few weeks back in the old rhythms of life.
After Jacob met God in a dream, he is thrown back into the grind of life. He chases after a girl, gets duped by his uncle and flees, tries to deal with his pissed-off brother, wrestles a mysterious man, travels a lot, reconciles with his brother, and learns of his daughters rape.
And yet God called him back to the place where heaven and earth met. God did not want him to forget the unknown sacred place he was in. The place Jacob hadn’t even thought of as sacred before. A place like Philadelphia. A place like Dave and Busters. Places we’ve settled into so regularly that we’ve missed the angels ascending and descending.
So we know sacred places aren’t just across the country during the summer. God’s desire and dream for a better world begins close to home. It begins AT home. We experienced a glimpse of what it means to live for the sake of others. And now God is beckoning us to participate here, now, in our neighborhoods, our work, our schools, our sports teams, our politics, our families…our world.
Will we join?
*Chris Folmsbee, Story, Signs, and Sacred Rhythm (Zondervan: 2010), 53.
**Andrew Root, Unlocking Mission and Eschatology in Youth Ministry (Zondervan: 2013).