How might I do a better job of loving the unlovely, people covered with the filth of sin?
It was the summer of 2000, if I remember correctly. Even though I'd only been serving God for a year and a half, I was zealous for God's Word and heartbroken for those who didn't know Him.
I had shared my desire to take my music to the streets with a friend, and as we prayed, she asked, "What's stopping you?" So I went. It was my first day of playing guitar out in the park. It was a very busy weekend in Boston, as there was a big tourist attraction in town, and there were literally thousands of people walking through the park.
I was ready to take on the world for Christ. Or so I thought.
I was unsure of whether or not God had really led me to sing in the park that day, and I wanted His confirmation. As I began to strum my guitar, I closed my eyes to sing some lines of a Delirious song:
Lead me to the cross
Where we first met
Draw me to my knees
So we can talk
Let me feel your breath
Let me know you're here with me
When I opened my eyes, there was a man standing in front of me. He was visibly intoxicated, and he reeked of mouth wash (I later found out sometimes alcoholics drink a certain brand of mouth wash when they can't get hold of alcohol). He was dirty, smelly and scary.
I was speechless.
And then he spoke. "I was headed in the other direction down the path when God told me to come over here and talk to you."
I didn't know whether I should be praising God for this confirmation or running for the hills.
I grew up with an alcoholic parent. I don't drink, and haven't for years. In fact, I can't stand the smell of alcohol. If I'm in the proximity of someone who has had a drink in the past 24 hours, I can probably tell just by standing 5 feet away. And I can't stand it.
Yet here was this man, standing in front of me, claiming that God had sent him to talk to me. I didn't know how to respond, so I asked him to sit on the bench next to me.
* * *
I was out of my comfort zone. God was having me share His love with the "unlovely." The thing is, Jesus was one of the original lovers of the "unlovely"; out of the many examples of this in the Gospels, a story in John 8 sticks out to me.
Jesus was teaching one morning, when the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees brought a woman to Jesus who had been caught committing adultery. They asked Jesus if she should be stoned, as Mosaic law required. After a lengthy pause, Jesus responded, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her."
Many people walk away from this passage and think that this statement from Jesus is the key moral of the story. And maybe it is. It just strikes me slightly differently. Personally, I rarely have to remind myself that I'm a sinner. I could have written the words from Psalm 51: "For I recognize my rebellion; it haunts me day and night." I was once the woman caught in adultery. I also was ungrateful, bitter, self-righteous and proud. I'm generally very aware that I'm still many of these things, but I have to wonder if the majority of the Church can see themselves this clearly. Indeed, as Scripture says, if we think we are without sin, we are lying to ourselves. Even as believers who are no longer bound by the laws of sin and death, we still sin.
I knew a homeless woman who went by the name of Friend. We attended the same church for a year or so. Since she didn't have a place to live, she had nowhere to store her things. Every Sunday, she carried two huge pieces of luggage full of her stuff, big duffel bags that she threw over her shoulders, down into the basement sanctuary of our church.
That year, the associate pastor got engaged and invited everyone in the church to attend the wedding ceremony, which would be held in another, more traditional church in town. Friend showed up to the wedding with all of her stuff in tow. She was dirty, and she probably smelled, but she wanted to attend her pastor's wedding. I was shocked when I saw the looks of disgust on people's faces as she walked down the aisle — people whom I knew were Christians.
I honestly wanted to punch a few of them, evidence of my own unlovely attitudes surfacing.
For me, John 8 is about how Jesus deals with sinners, sinners like me. It's not only about how He dealt with the unlovely people, but also the unlovely attitudes that live in all of our hearts. How would Jesus respond to the man who smells like body odor and mouth wash? The homeless woman who carries two bags of her stuff into a church wedding? Or whichever unlovely person He might come in contact with? How did He deal with this woman, caught knee-deep in her sinfulness?
To help me resolve these questions, I turned to German theologian Helmut Thielicke:
When Jesus loved a guilt-laden person and helped him, He saw in him an erring child of God. He saw in him a human being who His Father loved and grieved over because he was going wrong. He saw him as God originally designed and meant him to be, and therefore, He saw through the surface layer of grime and dirt to the real man underneath. Jesus did not identify the person with his sin, but rather saw in this sin something alien, something that did not really belong to him, something that merely chained and mastered him and from which he would free him and bring him back to his real self. Jesus was able to love men because He loved them right through the layer of mud.
All of the accusers left. Jesus illuminated their unlovely attitudes. But the woman stayed. Was she waiting to see if Jesus would accept her? Was the hope in her heart that Jesus would be able to love her, that He would see right through her layer of mud?
Jesus did not condemn her, nor did He shy away from commanding her to "Go now and leave your life of sin." I see Jesus' admonition here as a general admonition, not a specific one. Even if she stopped the specific sin that got her into this situation in the first place, she would not be in any better position than she was in before. She would still be a sinner, in need of a savior.
I've noticed that Jesus often refused to point out people's specific sin struggles to them. Instead, He pointed out the overall sinful condition of people's hearts and their need for a savior. He loved this woman caught in adultery and extended His grace to her, just as He does to us, and just as He asks us to do for others.
* * *
I wish I could find a written account of my encounter with the man in the park. I can't even remember his name. But I do remember how God worked in my heart, and in his, that day. I talked with him, as scared as I was, and I shared God's love with him as best as I could in my own brokenness.
He eventually consented for me to pray for him. I put my hand on his shoulder as I talked to God on his behalf, and he wept so hard he was shaking and snot was unabashedly running out of his nose. I struggled in that moment with my own unloveliness as I looked around and wondered what people were thinking about me, if they were noticing me and the snot, and looking down on me.
When I finished praying, his face was genuinely different, his entire demeanor lighter. He asked me to play "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore," which I faked my way through. He sang passionately, at the top of his lungs, for all to hear. By that point, I had gotten over myself and I sang out loud with him. Eventually, we parted and I said goodbye, letting him know I'd pray for him.
I don't know what happened to him after that. I never did see him again, though I would often look for him in that park, the same park where I would sometimes meet up with Friend for lunch. I know I was changed in that encounter, and I still pray that he was, too.
In the years that followed that day in the park, there have been many times that I've felt very unlovely, times when I was sure no one could handle seeing my brokenness or hearing about my unloveliness. I know that in the times when I've let my guard down and shared my struggles with someone, I've most often found compassion and acceptance, and rarely rejection. I find comfort in knowing that I have a high priest, Jesus, who sits at the right hand of God, interceding for me, a high priest who has been tempted in every way, who, when I confess my struggles, can honestly say to God the Father, "I know exactly what that feels like."
I sometimes wonder how we, as believers, might do a better job of loving the unlovely, people covered with the filth of sin. How we might love them right through "their layer of mud." How we can extend the message of grace and love to those who so clearly need it. And I sometimes wonder how willing I am to come face to face with my own unloveliness.
Copyright 2008 Brenna Kate Simonds. All rights reserved.