I was shopping for CD’s at the office supply store when I noticed him. Nearly everyone in the store was in business attire, suits, sport coats, designer casual, mid-calf dresses. It was easy to notice him because he wore a tattered T-shirt worn thin in places with a message across the back, thrift store polyester bell bottoms and a wide belt. His chopped hair looked like it had been cut with a pocket knife and stood up, because of nature, not a stylist. I noticed a few of the patrons smile condescendingly as he passed by them, most pretended they just didn’t see him. When I got close to him, I got embarrassed.
The back of his T-shirt, in big block letters said, “ASK ME ABOUT JESUS”. His belt was one of those embossed cowboy belts, but instead of his name across the back it said, “JESUS IS LORD”. His belt buckle was the size of a hub cap engraved with “PRAISE THE LORD”. My first thought was, “Oh, no… these are the kinds of goofy people who turn people off to Christianity. There is not a person in here who would ask this guy about directions to Circle K much less about Jesus. And I know I certainly wouldn’t send one of these people to him if they were seeking authoritative answers about Christianity.”
Then I caught myself.
“So, just who do you have in mind as an authority on Jesus, Steve?” I asked myself, “someone more like yourself I’ll bet. Someone with a degree in Jesus-ology, someone who has a sharp, witty, articulate podcast about Orthodoxy? Someone like me who is judgmental, rejecting, condescending, and more impressed with the outward trappings of the culture than the inner spirit of the person?” (I talk to myself like this.)
He, I .... or whoever that was talking to myself. . . was right. So the guy looked more like a geek than a Greek scholar. But who better to ask about Jesus than someone who NEEDS him. Jesus probably IS his best friend because he didn’t look like a person who had many friends (I know, I know….even that is judgmental). And again, I was confronted not with a new distinction between essence and energies, but with the scandal of the gospel, the kingdom of “fools for Christ’s sake”. I thought about all the people who know Jesus far better than I ever will because they have no one else to go to, nothing else to hope in no illusions to hold on to, no pretenses to keep up. They may not be able to explicate the dogma of nature and person, but they are the foremost authorities on what it means to have Jesus as a friend… and not only does the world reject them, basically we do too.
We seek out the flamboyant, the clever, the pious and humble sounding ones, the people who can tell a marvelous, hilarious or moving story of how God works in their life and how He can work in yours… and then tell us how to be more humble about it when it happens. You will never see any “goofy looking”, inarticulate people on the lecture circuits telling their stories. No, you will never hear them on a podcast, read a book by them nor bookmark a blog or Youtube video by them. But if you get to the end of this and feel like you want to talk to one of them you don’t have to go far to find them, they are right in your church. They have been there all along, you just have not opened your eyes to see them. Look around next Sunday. You will see them in the same pew, standing in the same corner, week after week, quietly living out their private desperations in the company of their best friend, Jesus. Their lives are really the essence of true spirituality.
For the most part they give no thought to all the fine theological distinctions that separate Christians from one another, much less the distinctions between faith and endurance, spirituality and perseverance, overcoming and holding on, victory and sticking it out. Theirs is a death grip on life simply because to let go would mean utter ruin. If we understood their pain we would know they have greater strength in their weakness than ten of us who feel like we have found a convenient handle on God and life. Talk to them, see if it is not so.
They are the ones who take no thought for tomorrow, it is enough to survive one more day, sometimes one more hour. The burden of even three tomorrows would crush them should they consider it seriously. They are the ones who “let go and let God”, not because they necessarily gave control of their lives to God because some spiritual guru recommended it as a path to greater inner awareness, but because life was wrenched from their grasp by forces they could neither comprehend nor control. They have no inner strength left to hang on. They have no well devised plans and clever or ancient techniques left to arrange and order even a tiny corner of their universe. They do not read the latest Christian self help books on grief, depression, fear and anxiety or the Ladder of Divine Ascent so they can identify which stage they are in and work out a plan to get on to the next. They don’t read the Philokalia to find some ancient esoteric spiritual discipline that will transform their lives so they can glow with uncreated light instead of wearing T-shirts to profess their faith. They have no normal existence, they are perpetually out of control, careening in a fearful, wild roller coaster they are unable to stop, their screams of desperation drowned out by the voices of the pontificating Christians around them. Their humble prayers are drowned out by the lisping whispers of our faked humility.
You see, these are the true heroes of the Hillside Sermon. They are the poor in spirit, the ones who mourn. They are the ones in need of mercy, the ones starving for righteousness, the helpless, the hopeless, the castaways. But these are the guests of honor at the Feast of All Feasts. These are the lame, the weak, the spiritual bag-ladies and winos constrained by the Gospel from the gutters and cardboard shelters of life. They are invited to come enjoy the banquet given to those who can only come and eat but could never bring pot-luck or return the favor. They are the ones with no pretenses of being there because they knew the host, know the right stuff, read the right books and attended enough services. They know they are being fed, not helping themselves. These should be our teachers. The sign of the kingdom come is not the articulate, the bloggers and podcasters, the Who’s Who in Whatever, the easy to look at, the on-line gurus, the cutting-edge media people. It is them. “The lame walk, the blind see, the Gospel is preached to the poor” St. John was told when he asked if the kingdom that Jesus preached was for real. The shepherdless sheep are sought after and gathered into the fold. The outcasts, the ones we refuse to see, the ones who didn’t make the cut, the ones whose names are neither asked for nor remembered, the lepers, the untouchables, the social disgraces, the lowliest of the low, the sinfulest of the sinners, the lostest of the lost, these are all present at the king’s banquet table. They are the sign of the kingdom among you.
We should look up to them because they have been lifted from the last place to the first. They would never presume, dare, even think, of claiming the first seat. Even now when they hear the Master’s voice saying, “Come up here, sit by me”, they look behind them thinking His call is to someone else, someone like you or me who write blogs and post to lists and teach classes and tell stories and divulge second hand spiritual wisdom we read about in a book. But it is for them. The last in line are called out and given eternal “cuts” in front of us.
So, the next time I see him I hope I have the guts to set aside my arrogance and condescending spirit and ask him to tell me about Jesus instead trying to tell him about Orthodoxy. I hope he will take the time to talk to me even though I wouldn’t have taken the time to talk to him.