Warning: This blog will disturb you.
Last year I volunteered at a local hospice, so I saw Easter through the eyes of people who were dying. This year, as I reflect on my time in India, I am seeing Easter through the eyes of trafficked sex workers.
As some of you know, I am training for ministry, and as part of my training, I am preparing to lead holy week services. These are worship services starting with Palm Sunday, and including for me, Maundy Thursday Communion, Good Friday remembrance, and Easter Sunday Celebration. I have led these different services, but never all of them in one week. This year is the first time I’ve thought through journeying with fellow followers of the ways of Jesus through the full Easter story and what that means in our lives today. No doubt I will experience this differently every year with every church I am at. (It amazes me that although the story hasn’t changed, it changes me every time I tell it.)
However this year, in every prayer, every talk, every reading, every hymn – I see the women and children I met in India’s red-light districts.
As I think of Palm Sunday and of the people laying their cloaks along the road for Jesus to ride like a king into Jerusalem, I think of the women worshipping God in the streets because there was not enough room for everyone in the small room that served as their church – the mats and their saris filling the road as they sang.
As I think of Jesus’ anger when he turns over the tables in the Temple, I think of the men handing each other money in exchange for women, the men who stood in the background, always watching our every move as we walked the red-light district. I think of the woman who came to worship covered in bruises.
As I think of the story Jesus tells when his authority is questioned by the Pharisees – the parable of the tenants (Luke 20) – I think of the stories of the women and how they were forced into prostitution. And of the young boys who get taught how to be pimps and then one day to torture women. And of the children who witness everything.
As I think of Jesus – who was innocent – tortured, crucified, and placed in a dark tomb, I think of the process the women went through to have their wills broken. That bit of them that wanted to return home, to not be a prostitute, but to be the person they wanted to be as a child. That bit of them had to be destroyed. All their hopes, their dreams were torn from them with every rape, every beating, every withholding of food, every lie said to them – sometimes happening in a dark pit underground with the only signs of life being the people hurting you and the screams of others being hurt.
This reminds me – Christ descended into Hell.
You could easily lose sight of any glimmer of hope.
While we were in India, each morning we met for prayer. Someone would sing Matt Redman’s “10,000 Reasons.” For me, the second verse became important – crucial – a declaration about God’s character, despite how horrific the lives of the women and children were. In a place where some people might say that God causes people to suffer or is indifferent to their suffering, to communicate truth of who God is becomes all the more important. God, “you are rich in love. You are slow to anger. Your name is great, and your heart is kind.” A promise that as our God lives, things will change for these women. The lives of their children will be better. Their lives will be better. Can this happen through a song? No, but thankfully, the act of singing is more than words to music.
For me, the very act of worship has changed. The prophets warned us this would happen, as we fed the hungry, clothed the naked, walked the red-light districts. Our hearts would be changed, which means our worship – that heart-felt interaction with God – is changed. The love we have for God and others expands somehow in ways previously thought impossible, and our worship songs praising Jesus and singing of God’s greatness become declarations of God’s will expanding into the lives of those who desperately need it. And then God communicates His heart to us for His people worldwide or in our neighbourhood. He shares His hopes and His dreams. We listen in the worship service. After the service finishes, we continue to worship as we obey God in action. Worship is more than what happens in church on a Sunday.
Worship is an act of defiance against anything that is working against God’s will. Worship is an act of obedience to God that unites us in God’s purposes.
On Easter Sunday, we celebrate (as we do every day!) that Jesus is risen. He is in Heaven, already reigning over God’s kingdom which was “forcefully advancing” while Jesus walked the earth (Matthew 11:12). He is breaking every chain right now. He has people walking the red-light districts of this world – finding those chained in lies spoken over them, chained in addiction, chained in shame or fear, chained by physical violence – and God carries truth into these places.
Then God brings resurrection, as those once called dead are brought to life, new life.