I was listening to a podcast by Paul Zahl entitled “A Disease I Do Not Have the Courage to Name.”
The title comes from a now out-of-print book entitled My Son Is a Splendid Driver, set during the Great Depression. In it, the protagonist’s mother is given a deadly STD by her husband, a traveling salesman. She feels ashamed—too ashamed to go to church.
“Mother had stopped going to church. ‘Church isn’t the place to go with your troubles. Church is just a place to go when you’re feeling good and have a new hat to wear.’ There was a little bitterness in what she said, a little self-pity, but there was also truth. Our minister would have been the last person in the world she could have talked to, to have lifted the curse she felt upon her and save her from feeling damned. She would have embarrassed the man into speechlessness had she gone to him with her story. He would have been unable to look at her or my father without coloring.”
That struck me.
Am I an unapproachable pastor? Am I the last person who could relate to a woman who caught an STD from her husband?
If that were the case, what would that say about my religion?
I thought about Jesus. He ate with sinners. He was well known for it. In fact, sinners wanted to eat with Him. After Jesus called Levi (Matthew) to be a disciple, he threw a banquet for the Lord, provoking some gossip:
The Pharisees and their scribes began grumbling at His disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with the tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30).
At church, we just finished going through Galatians. My emphasis throughout the series was how Paul distinguished between law-religion and grace-religion, between law-thinking and grace-thinking.
Hence, it’s not surprising to me that it was the teachers of the Law (i.e., the scribes) who objected to Jesus’ eating with tax collectors (i.e., collaborators and traitors) and sinners.
That’s all the law can do: condemn.
The law doesn’t see people, but perpetrators. It reduces people to their sins and tells you why they should be rejected.
No wonder sinners find that sort of religion unapproachable. No wonder sinners weren’t keen to eat with the Pharisees and scribes (assuming the opportunity ever came up). And if that’s the kind of religion depicted in My Son Is a Splendid Driver, no wonder the mother was too ashamed to go to church.
This past Sunday I took a break from preaching in Ephesians and discussed Luke 5:30. I recounted some of my experiences working with “street people” in Montreal. I was in my early twenties. Single. Working. I didn’t do the ministry with an organization. I did it on my own time, with my own money, with a couple of other Christian friends, but often on my own.
I’d go out on Friday nights with a bag of sandwiches and a couple thermoses of homemade soup. I shared how it sometimes took weeks, if not months, of regular contact before I could even get a genuine hello out of some of the panhandlers I met, but, eventually, I had a few breakthroughs. I even got invitations back to their places.
There was a group of pretty fearsome (on the outside) punks who eventually got used to me. They looked like what you would expect—mohawks, face tattoos, piercings, leather. I offered to buy them groceries if they told me where they lived. So they did. And the next week I brought them groceries, enough for all of them. I did the same thing two weeks later. And then two weeks after that. And again. And again.
I’d get to this decrepit three-story apartment building in the worst part of town which no one in his right mind would come near. As I walked up, one of the punks might shout, “What the &$%# do you want?” and then one of the others would say, “No, no, he’s cool,” and they’d let me in. I got to know the guy who signed his name on the lease, a big ‘ole guy named Fats. And once Fats said it was cool for me to be there, everyone else fell in line. One day, they even asked me to stay for supper, and they cooked the steak I bought for them.
It turns out…they were just kids like me.
Teens. Early twenties. Some from normal homes. Others from nightmarish homes. Most of them made poor choices over and over again. Others had poor choices thrust on them by their parents, and they were just doing what they knew.
The bottom line is they were just people who needed love and grace like anyone else.
My point to the congregation was that I’m no prude. I’ve seen a lot of human depravity (outside of my own heart), and I’ve witnessed first hand some very terrible consequences of sin, and frankly, I’m not shocked by it. Not anymore. And more importantly, I don’t think any of it puts you out of the reach of God’s grace.
Sin is sinful, but grace is greater.
Coming back to Jesus, in answer to the accusation made by the scribes and Pharisees, the Lord said:
“It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick” (Luke 5:31).
I can’t say I had any spiritual breakthroughs with any of those kids. However, I did re-connect with one of them through Facebook a few years ago. Frankly, I was glad to find out they were still alive. None of those kids expected to live past thirty. I hope that line of communication stays open.
For whatever reason, as small as we are, our little church has seen some very marginalized people come through its doors. I thought I’d be teaching the Bible to theology nerds. Nope. God has put me in a place where I’m meeting people who have hard lives. Homeless, just out of prison, burnt out, struggling with drug addictions. We need to do better reaching out to them, loving them, and expecting them to be there. Grace is approachable. Or it should be.
I’d like us to be a church where it doesn’t take any courage to name your disease to the pastor, or anyone else, because you know that’s exactly why the Great Physician is there— to love and heal you.