Whoever Jesus Drags Through the Door
There was a grizzled old man sitting outside the coffee shop yesterday morning. He was dirty and unshaven; he was missing a bunch of teeth and had dirty clothes. He was just hanging out by the garbage can, twirling a single cigarette in his grimy hands. I made eye contact and he perked up. “Hey brother, can you spare a bit of change?” I looked him up and down. “Do you want a coffee?” I asked. It was a bit chilly outside and I figured it would warm him up. He grinned sheepishly at me. “Nah, I just need some cigarettes.” I sighed (hopefully inaudibly). I asked him where he was from (Williams Lake, BC) and where he was going (Montreal). We talked for a few minutes more. I gave him a couple of bucks and went inside to get a coffee. He lit up his cigarette.
It was an unremarkable encounter on pretty much every level. But it was also one that I had to chalk up to Jesus. I stopped and talked with him because it was something I figured that Jesus would do, and because it was something that someone who claimed to be interested in Jesus probably ought to consider. Pastors shouldn’t get in the habit of crossing over to the other side of the road, I thought. I didn’t particularly want to stop and chat and I wasn’t particularly surprised by how the conversation went. It was just one of those tiny little inconvenient encounters that you open yourself up to because you figure that Jesus would (irritatingly) probably be in favour of it.
I sometimes remark to my wife that God dragged me into pastoral ministry to force me to act like a Christian. It’s a joke. Kind of. Sometimes. Maybe.
When I have the courage to be honest with myself, I know that I could quite happily and comfortably live the rest of my days surrounded with people who are pretty much like me. People who have had relatively comfortable, impediment-free upbringings and who have enjoyed opportunities that they assumed they were owed and appreciated far too little. People who like books and culture and are animated by relatively abstract matters of theology and philosophy. People who enjoy sports, who value active lifestyles, and who can afford to be entertained. People who are comfortably middle-class and entrenched in the illusion that life is an unqualified meritocracy, pretty much oblivious to and untroubled by some of the ways that other people experience the world.
I could, in other words, reproduce Facebook in real life. I could screen out all the people whose views I don’t share, all the people who seem find it difficult to stop shouting, people who remind me that the world isn’t the way I would prefer to think that it is, people who are walking, talking reminders that the world is full of desperate, lonely, needy, confused and conflicted people who require a great deal more energy to be with than I am often prepared to invest.
In a recent sermon preached after Election Day, Will Willimon talked about how when he was a chaplain at Duke University, he could go through most days talking almost exclusively with people who were like him, people for whom education mattered, people who had all the advantages he had, people who largely shared his assumptions about the value of the institutions he represented. When he became a churchman, he said, he had to deal with whomever Jesus dragged through the door. How very true.
As I thought about Willimon’s comment, it occurred to me that there are all kinds of people and situations that I would happily avoid if it weren’t for this uncomfortable Saviour of mine. I made a (not by any means exhaustive) list.
- Sitting across the table at the soup kitchen from a junkie who is narrating the most incredible of life stories, where fact and fiction blur together into an indecipherable and incoherent amalgam of pain and heartache.
- Talking theology and discipleship with people for whom reading the bible sometimes seems largely like an inconvenient impediment to snack time or potluck.
- Trying to summon forth the words for another sermon when the last three seemed to have hit the floor with a silent and unremarkable thud.
- Being in countless spaces with desperate people who have little interest in you as a person or the church you represent, but only want to get something from you.
- Hanging out in social contexts with people for whom church largely meets an often desperate social need, but couldn’t care much less about the theological questions that keep you up at night and that motivated you to study theology in the first place.
- Dealing with angry and inflexible conservatives whose theology hasn’t moved much beyond what they learned in Sunday school and who think that you need to just start writing and preaching the “plain truth of the bible.”
- Dealing with angry and inflexible liberals who have swapped the gospel of Jesus Christ for whatever liberal political agenda happens to be in vogue, and think you need to just start writing and preaching more “progressive” theology.
- Trying to help people who need you in all kinds of ways while knowing in the back of your mind that you will almost certainly let them down.
- Spending time with people who are sick and hurting and falling apart in countless ways.
- Sitting with people who are dying.
Yes, Jesus has this habit of dragging all kinds of people through the door that I would just as soon avoid or dismiss.
I was recently sitting in one of the contexts described above and silently rehearsing my own private litany of inconvenience. What am I doing here? I wondered. I thought about how some of my friends might be spending their evening. I thought about how nice it would be to be watching the game or sitting in a hot tub or whatever. But then it was like the heavens parted and the voice of Christ himself descended and penetrated my thick and stubborn skull. Yes, of course you’re spending time with people who aren’t necessarily like you and that you wouldn’t naturally be drawn to spend an evening with and who might not be super convenient for you. That’s called community. That’s actually kinda what the church is supposed to be. And that’s actually what you’re supposed to be about as a Christian. You know, loving the least and the lost and all that… Ring any bells?
Like I said, being a pastor sometimes has the necessary, if unintended and underappreciated consequence of forcing me to think and act more Christianly.
And being a pastor also provides me with the equally important reminder to be thankful that such a place as the church exists. Where else, after all, could I encounter people who have been compelled by Christ to love someone like me, another sinner that Jesus has dragged through the door, another wayward soul that Jesus is resolutely shepherding to glory.