Sunday, March 25, 2018
Psalm 31: 9-16
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away. I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances. I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel. For I hear the whispering of many. As they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life. 
Reading this very much reminded me of common sentiments back home in coal country. “I have passed out of mind like one who is dead,” conjured images of bitter old men at the gas station, sighing and ranting like the news shows they watch or even empty, dilapidated buildings on Main Street that literally look dead. “They scheme against me, they plot to take my life,” is exactly how most coalminers feel about the EPA and environmentalists. And let’s face it, the rural poor are, in fact, the scorn of many, the butt of jokes, “objects of dread.” So, it is that the sentiment in coal country can be pretty daggon negative. Paranoia. Cynicism. Apathy. Darkness.
I’m often asked, “What keeps you up at night?” The answer is this: I fear that Coalfield Development can do everything right as an organization and still not make a dent because things have just gotten so bad, so far gone, so broken.
The phrase “life is spent with sorrow” reminds me of a crew member we have. For privacy’s sake, we’ll call him Buddy. Buddy grew up in poverty. He’s one that never even got to work in the coalmines because he came of age as coal was dying. With nothing to fill his days, he turned to drugs. “You don’t want to hire Buddy,” a local once warned me, “he’s a pillhead.” One day Buddy missed work and failed to notify his supervisor. When I confronted him about it the next week, he broke down in tears. His car broke down and his wife miscarried all in two days’ time. “I just can’t do this,” he lamented
The phrase “my strength fails” reminds me of another crew member. We’ll call him Caleb. Caleb started as a crew member more than two years ago. He struggled mightily. The most difficult dynamic with Caleb was that his family, at his home place up a holler, was the worst influence on him. They purposefully pulled him down every time he would start to succeed. “Don’t rise above your raisn’” is a too common phrase in coal country.
We facilitated multiple conversations with Caleb, trying to understand what was happening. But the more we pried the more he pulled away. After months of trying to turn things around, and of giving second and third and fourth chances, I got so frustrated that I slammed my hand down on my desk. “Why are you quitting on us, Caleb?!” I yelled. He just looked back at me blankly: “I don’t know what’s wrong with me Brandon. I just don’t think I’m cut out for this.”
Another question I get asked a lot is “What keeps you going? What gives you hope?” The real answer is my faith, something I don’t get to talk about nearly as much I’d like. Now I don’t mean rigid belief in some cartoonish character in the sky. I mean faith in the mystery and goodness of God, embodied in the person of Jesus.
The Psalm read earlier ends this way: But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, You are my God. Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love. 
We don’t single-handily get to transform lives, but we do get to be witness to the power of the Holy Spirit moving mysteriously and lovingly through life. We don’t get to awaken a place that’s fallen asleep all on our own, but we do get to participate in the divine nature of the resurrection. For change only happens one person at a time. But change does happen.
We worked out a no-interest loan to get Buddy a new car. We arranged tutoring and now he’s off academic probation. Somehow, through it all, he’s managed to stay clean. After quitting, Caleb came back seven months later. We gave another chance, and he’s got a 4.0 right now. “I just wasn’t ready before,” he says, “and now I am.” Small miracles resist the weariness, a vision for the future emerges. Courage. Optimism. Community. Light.
This is Passion Sunday. Deep reflection on the darkness of this world is required. To know the fullness of hope that is Easter we have to feel the depth of sorrow that is Good Friday. If we’re ever going to start moving toward the full potential of West Virginia’s future, we have to first feel the depth of despair being lived right now. And I won’t sugarcoat the realities in southern West Virginia. You can see it in our faces. You can feel it as soon as your drive in to our towns. Broken vessels abound. But through faith, through the mysteries of Love, broken vessels become fertilizer for new life growing up.
But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, You are my God. Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.
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          P.O. Box 1133
          Wayne, WV 25570