I’ve been pretty frustrated lately. This sort of thing happens to me periodically which I think is to be expected. Life is messy, you know? When I get frustrated, I try to deal with it through prayer, patience and staying the heck off social media. But, I’m doing better now. After giving myself some time; listening for the Spirit to convict me and being then convicted of my own sins, I think I can talk about what upset me without sin. So here goes…
My dear sister was incarcerated recently. She hasn’t had an easy life. We were raised in a church that preached a lot of hard truths, but frequently omitted the grace and mercy offered in the Gospel. God saw fit to allow several trials in both my sister’s and my life for our ultimate good. Her trials right now are particularly challenging, though. Yesterday, I explained the situation to my young daughters, “Your aunt is in jail. She made a bad decision, and while what she did was not a sin, it is against the law. She will be lonely for the next couple years. Let’s draw some pictures and write her letters to help her not be bored. Let’s makes sure she knows we love her very much.”
My sister is a Christian. Her first letter to me from prison was cheerful. She explained what happened, acknowledged her guilt and asked for prayer and some Frank Peretti novels. What has happened to my sister makes me very sad. I love her deeply. She has never been anything but kind and loving to me. She is an extraordinarily sweet person with a tender heart and an absolutely beautiful voice. She has sung more than one of my babies to sleep in her arms before. I think it is ridiculous that authorities are wasting her time, and taxpayer’s dollars by imprisoning a non-violent perpetrator when there are several other appropriate consequences for her actions. My sister needs help, not confinement. But what I got most frustrated about was how the Christian church, how some of my brothers and sisters in Christ, have treated her. I’m frustrated how the American church generally tends to handle situations like hers. It is easy to tsk, tsk when something like this happens and mumble something about her needing to get help. We shake our finger and say, “That is what you get when you commit a crime.” It is as though we have forgotten that apart from Jesus, the price for each of our crimes against God would justly send us straight to hell. People like my sister, they do need help, they need the love of God. But most of all they need the grace and mercy of the Gospel demonstrated to them in concrete ways. They need to know that they are worthy of love, worthy of our time and energy, worthy to receive mercy.
It bothers me how Christians can get so wrapped up in debating ideas that we forget our purpose is to serve one another. Don’t get me wrong, theology is important, but it is important because it helps us love and serve one another better. Theology for the sake of theology is an idol. If we don’t do anything useful with our theology, what good is it? We protest political injustice loudly but barely notice the injustice going on in our own homes. We are vehemently pro-life but reluctant to adopt unwanted babies. We condemn the addicts for their folly but refuse to invite them into our homes. We stand confident in the comfort of our church pew, partaking of bread and wine but refuse to give some cash to the homeless because they might spend it on a little wine. I admit that I am more than frustrated; I am angry. I’m angry that we are so skilled at taking grace and mercy from God and so stingy when it comes to sharing it with others. Many of the churches I know are getting quite adept at calling out sin, which is good. Christians need to be brave in speaking the truth. But we’ve slipped into the habit of only telling half-truths. We are good about telling sinners where their sin will get them, but we leave out the good news. We often forget to offer salvation when we speak the truth, and all that does is leave the helpless hopeless. It ends up being prideful condemnation — that is the opposite of what we are commanded to do.
We talk a big talk about the sin of homosexuality, but how many of us have invited a gay couple over for dinner so we could give them a taste of God’s goodness? When was the last time you slipped some cash into the mailbox of the family up the street who can’t pay their bills? When was the last time you passed over your gluten-free, organic free-range eggs so that you could afford to buy a cheeseburger for the homeless? Sure, we donate to charities, but we keep the gritty work at arms length. It is as though we are afraid to get our lily-white hands, washed in the blood of the Lamb, dirty.
Our actions will always speak louder. We need to reach out more and talk less. We need to put our theology to good use and help the helpless and bring hope to the hopeless in a useful way. And let me assure you, it won’t be fun, it won’t be pleasant. Don’t romanticize the idea of helping the destitute. Unlike my sister, most people who need help aren’t much fun to be around. They are often rude and smelly. Just ask my husband: As an EMT, he gets to care for the worst of the worst. The drug addicts, the drunks, the prostitutes, the homeless. But this is the work we are all called to in different ways. We need the whole body of Christ to address this problem. Some of us need to feed them, others of us need to give them a safe place to sleep, and still others to offer money, work, and education. We each have a useful skill that can be used for this good. But to accomplish this, we need to work together. We need to stop debating with our fellow Christians long enough to look around and see all the people around us who are hurting. For me, this is easy. I have my sister who I can lavish love and mercy on — the same love and mercy that has been extended to me. But what about you? Who in your life is struggling? Is it the lady next door? The man who sits outside your public library with a pillow and a shopping cart full of garbage? How about the girl who just had an abortion? How about the father of that aborted baby? Is it your son? Ask yourself, who is the person that would offend your Christian friends the most and then get to know that person. Challenge yourself to be more like Jesus.
“Later on Jesus was having a meal in Levi’s house. A large number of tax collectors and other outcasts was following Jesus, and many of them joined him and his disciples at the table. Some teachers of the Law, who were Pharisees, saw that Jesus was eating with these outcasts and tax collectors, so they asked his disciples, “Why does he eat with such people?”
Jesus heard them and answered, “People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick. I have not come to call respectable people, but outcasts.”
-Mark 2:15-17 (GNT)