I watched a four-part documentary on Netflix recently entitled, The Pharmacist. It tells the story of Daniel Schneider, a pharmacist from St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana. His 22-year old son was shot and killed in the 9th District of New Orleans trying to buy cocaine. Daniel and his wife were blindsided by the revelation that their son, Danny, was caught up in the drug trade. The local authorities seemed complacent in their efforts to find the killer, expressing the attitude that these kids are asking for it when they get involved with drugs. So Daniel Schneider, the pharmacist, set out to find the killer on his own. He tape records all his conversations during this journey, even recording his own thoughts and tender times of grieving with his wife and daughter. His taped conversation is often directed toward his son, assuring him that he is going to bring about justice for his sake. Daniel also speaks to God in the form of prayer, asking for guidance and strength for a seemingly impossible task.
Daniel’s search leads him into the neighborhood where his son had been murdered. He was warned by family, friends and authorities that he should never go into that area, especially alone. But he was unfazed, a man set on putting to rest the unfathomable loss of his son. Going door to door he relentlessly pursued justice but also became known on those streets as the white man who was looking to find his son’s killer.
It was during this first year after Danny’s death that the pharmacist began to notice how many prescriptions came in to his pharmacy for oxycodone. Most of these came from the same doctor who had non-traditional hours stretching late into the night and the weekends. Daniel’s quest to solve his son’s murder became an education in drug addiction in his town. This one doctor, Jacqueline Cleggett, was running a pill mill that fueled an epidemic of overdoses with young people. Daniel refused to fill some prescriptions because he knew that they were lethal doses and he didn’t want to be responsible for another drug-related death. The FBI and DEA were working to expose the medical violations of the prescribing doctor. However, it was the tenacity of a grieving father who wished to ensure that no other family had to experience his loss that brought an end to Dr. Cleggett’s career. Daniel put himself in danger countless times and described himself as someone who was “making a lot of noise.” His loss led to a compassion for other youth who were being destroyed by addiction. He spoke to students at schools about his son, Danny, and the risks of drug use. His determination to rebuild communities and restore a young generation to good health resulted in him playing a role nationally in bringing down Purdue Pharma, who marketed Oxycodone as the best and safest pain pill available. He has become a key player in national efforts to expose the problems of opioid addiction in our country. Daniel Schneider, with God as his guide, became a prophet who took on a giant and saved countless strangers in the process.
Rebuild. Repair. Restore.
It’s amazing how God will move in our hearts to bring about changes on a scale much greater than we could have imagined.
The prophet Isaiah, in the 58th chapter, is given the difficult task of calling a self-righteous people into worship. Did you hear the whining in the passage? They justify themselves, pointing to their acts of religiosity as evidence that they deserve God’s blessing. But God points out through the prophet that doing churchy acts to earn brownie points in heaven is not holy. When you have to point out your humility to God, you’re probably not very humble! So Isaiah maps out in clear terms what is expected of them. Rather than focusing on their own needs and continually proving their worthiness in God’s eyes, Isaiah points them toward others. Breaking the chains of injustice must be the heart of their concern. Their attention should be drawn to those who are struggling under the burdens of daily life. Prisoners should be cared for and released. Hungry people should have a share of their overflowing tables and those without adequate clothing should be covered by the generous donations of God’s people. Being a people called apart by a loving God means we will labor to reconcile people to each other. We meet their physical needs. We restore them to their communities where social companionship will nourish and protect them. We work against predators and find release for those who are in bondage. We do this by walking alongside of the beaten and bedraggled. Like the pharmacist, we walk into neglected neighborhoods trusting that Christ goes with us. We take on corrupt systems never getting so discouraged that we back down. It is this sort of engagement with strangers that brings us into God’s presence.
We have twelve students in our confirmation class this year. They worship at the Jewish Temple for a Shabbat service. They travel to four churches during the course of the year to experience different kinds of worship experiences in a variety of denominations. This past week they journeyed to Division Avenue in downtown Grand Rapids. Heartside Ministry is usually one of the favorite congregations they visit because they are so warmly received. They love the bagels that are up for grabs on the way into the sanctuary at Mars Hill. But authentic and kind outreach wins out over free food even the hearts of middle schoolers! For suburban children to travel into the Heartside neighborhood is instructive in and of itself. The membership of the church is a mix of people. Certainly they reach out to the homeless in that area. Some folks obviously suffer from mental illnesses and their conduct in the service is not very “churchy.” Some people don’t have the luxury of a shower and that’s evident to those sitting near them. Others who worship there on a regular basis are well-educated, well-off and well-dressed. They wish to be in a Body of Christ that is not all of one stripe. Our confirmands feel uncomfortable initially because many of the people are quite different from them…until they have a conversation with one of the parishioners. This past week a woman took time to meet with our group, telling them that no matter how little she has (in terms of money, family, resources, willpower to fight addition) Heartside Ministry is her FAMILY. As long as she has them, she knows she will be OK. She knows that she will be loved by “her people” and by her God! The confirmands and their chaperones were aware of how vastly different many of these people’s daily lives are from our own. Yet the message that comforts them is the same message that comforts us: God is love and that love is always available to us. Jesus paid the price and you can trust Him with your burdens. The Gospel becomes so real for our children when they worship with a community whose home base is Division Avenue! By the end of the morning, they announce to me that it is their favorite worship experience.
Sometimes we repair a breach by sitting next to folks on hard chairs in musty buildings, joining our voices together to praise God! By walking down streets that scare many away, we restore the dignity to an overlooked neighborhood. The ancient ruins of a run-down urban area are rebuilt with smiles of love and offers of hope. Our youth return to our sanctuary with an expanded understanding of what it means to call ourselves Christians.
Three congregations gathered for our Ash Wednesday service tonight. All three congregations represented here tonight have newly elected to serve the homeless in our area through Family Promise. When I asked how many there had volunteered in some capacity for the family shelter, most of the hands went up? I am certain that we have already been changed by being given even a glimpse into the hard lives of families who have no place to call their own. This past week a family of seven stayed with us: two young parents, two young adult relatives and three children, ages 3,2 and 6 months. They spent two evenings at the ER because of the health concerns of one of the adults. The night I stayed at the church they arrived at the church at 11:20PM, the mother trudging through the new snow with the baby in a carry cradle. The three year old walked in on her own and the two year old was over the shoulder of the 20 year old young man. They were hungry so we reheated the evening meal of spaghetti which they enthusiastically ate at 11:30 PM. The wife had to pick up her husband at 1:30AM since he works second shift. He came back to the church to enjoy his dinner at 2AM. They were on the road to the day center by 7AM. I was tired simply from spending the night at the church but I was exhausted looking in on their life! Our congregations have chosen to rebuild families by giving them safe space to rest each night. While we have not turned stones into bread, we have brought food from our homes to nourish their weary bodies. We have played with their children and transformed our space into a home for a week. This is the kind of fast that God asks of us!
The temptation to focus on our own needs is great. The preoccupation with flattering selfies is an obvious sign of our egotism. I think of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, preparing for His ministry. He was offered dominion over all the people scattered in all the communities of the world if he would bow down to Satan. In the austerity of the desert, after he had fasted for 40 days, He was tempted to turn the rocks strewn all across the arid landscape into bread. How wonderful that must have sounded. I made the mistake of having high schoolers bake bread as a fund-raiser in the church many years ago. The problem was that it was during a lock-in when they were fasting in order to raise money to combat hunger. The moral of the story for me was “Don’t ask starving students to bake aromatic bread in the church kitchen when committed to fasting for 30 hours!” I turned a well-intended fast into a torturous evening! Jesus refused to turn the stones into bread because He chose the fast that would prepare His Spirit for the work ahead.
The 40 days of Lent are roughly a tithe of the year: 40 days out of 366 this year! What a great opportunity we have to be more earnest in our commitment to follow Jesus. Perhaps you take on spiritual disciplines that add something to your life each day. Perhaps you give up something that helps you to feel in some small way what Christ suffered for us. It is the motive behind our Lenten disciplines that matters. Isaiah pointed out that the Israelites were cruel to their workers on the days they fasted. Even though they gave up food, they made sure other needs were met. Dressing the part of the penitent by lying in sackcloth and ashes did not earn God’s favor. Joyfully serving the needs of others in whatever way we are able is what brings us God’s protection and aid.
Isaiah paints a picture of what changes when we gladly serve the needs of others in sacrificial ways. God continually satisfies our needs in desperate places. Our bodies are strengthened for service and our cities are rebuilt. Our legacy of faith serves as the foundation upon which future generations establish their own relationship with God. And a final image makes me wonder why we ever get tempted away from following in the way of Jesus: “…you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.”
On a cold winter evening that we call Ash Wednesday, I will hang on those promises and work alongside of Jesus by following the urging of Isaiah to rebuild, repair and restore!