My friend, Tullian Tchividjian, and I co-wrote the following article, which was posted on his website yesterday (August 16, 2018). Here's the introduction, followed by a link to the full article.
Jesus said it would have been better for this man not to have been born.
Shocking words, sad words.
But they are not the saddest words in Scripture.
The worth of a congregation is determined by statistics. A church with 25 people in the pews is not as important to Christ’s kingdom as a church with 2500. It’s simple arithmetic, really. The more worshipers, the more worth. The larger the church, the larger accolades it deserves.
When a preacher steps into the pulpit, he may carry a few things with him. A Bible. A sermon manuscript. A bottle of water. Perhaps a little something that’ll serve as an object lesson as he preaches. But whatever he brings, I hope he includes two birds.
It’s only a few steps from the pulpit to the pew, from being a pastor to being a former pastor, but it feels like a marathon you crawl on your knees.
Ask about anyone to draw a picture of an angel, and 99% of them would be sporting wings. De-wing the angels and their popularity in our culture would fly out the window. We want angels as long as they have those cute wings.
It happens to almost every pastor at some point in his ministry. He may not even realize that he's working with this assumption. And if he becomes aware of it, he's probably too afraid even to admit it to himself, much less to accuse God of it. Some may get so angry that they directly accuse the Lord of it.
I like the psalms, but I can’t pray some of them with a straight face. Psalm 122 is a prime example. David is a little too cheerful for me as he exclaims, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’”
When he stepped out of his church on Christmas Day, 2011, Dan Chambers had no idea that he had just preached his final sermon at that congregation. All he knew was that he needed a vacation. He and his family were heading south, to the Texas hill country outside San Antonio. There they’d unwrap presents with family, get a little R&R, and drive back to Illinois in a week or two. That was the plan—the plan that never came to be.
Let’s sit side-by-side in the pew and observe a pastor for a few minutes. Listen not only to his words but eyeball him. See how he communicates non-verbally, by his actions. He’s standing in the pulpit. He’s folding his hands in prayer. Notice his face, too. He’s smiling as he greets us. He’s earnest as he proclaims the Scriptures. His face compliments his words.
They walked to the gallows together, pastor and penitent. Each step up took them closer to the abbreviated, fatal fall to come. The criminal stood above the trapdoor. Moments later, it would open to rope him into eternity. An officer asked him if he had any final words. “I place all my confidence in the Lamb who made atonement for my sins. May God have mercy on my soul,” he said.
The earliest the McKenzie family ever made it to church was during the closing stanza of the opening hymn. Every Sunday something delayed them. By the time they piled in the car, broke the speed limit, and pushed open the sanctuary doors, they were anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes late. Every. Single. Sunday.
The man was crouched down in the aisle of an Office Depot when I turned the corner and our eyes met. It was December, so the coat he wore didn't look out of place. I had one on too, but it was unbuttoned enough to reveal the clerical shirt I was wearing beneath. I had dropped by to pick up a few items for my study. He had dropped by to pick up an item or two as well…and slide them inside the pocket of his coat. In fact, he was doing exactly that when I rounded the corner. I stopped and stood there. Didn’t move. Didn’t utter a syllable. Didn’t even blink. Never unlocking his eyes from mine, the would-be shoplifter eased the product out of his coat, put it back on the shelf, stood up, turned around and walked quickly away. He cast one last glance over his shoulder at the pastor who had caught him red-handed.
As I’ve told this story over the years, it’s always prompted knowing smiles and laughter. I'd even wager that the man eventually laughed as well. It’s not every day a thief gets caught by a man dressed as the Almighty’s representative.
I wonder, though, upon further reflection, if there’s an unhappy side to this story. Unhappy not because the man was stealing—though, of course, that is, lamentable. Unhappy not because the man ran off before he could be collared. No, unhappy because though that thief fled from a man dressed as a priest, you’d have thought I sported a badge and brandished a pistol. And I wonder if his reaction sums up many people’s view of the pastoral office, as if a shepherd of Christ's flock is actually a called and ordained sheriff of the word.
First of all, let me say that I understand his reaction, because I’ve been on both sides of the fence. On the one hand, when I was in the ministry, a few folks reacted to me as if I wore a Moses mask and lugged around two tablets of stone. They wouldn’t answer my calls, wouldn’t open the door when I knocked, because to them I was the embodiment of their guilty conscience. To some extent, that’s unavoidable. A pastor must preach the law. And that law causes some people to dive for the nearest cover. On the other hand, I’ve also been that sinner who fled from pastors. For a long time, I was carrying around an enormous amount of guilt and shame. So I avoided contact with men who, in my eyes, embodied so much of my pain. I fled from them like a criminal would a cop.
But I wonder, is it unavoidable that sinners run away from Christ’s shepherd as if he’s an officer of the law? Is there anything they can do to try and prevent it? Think of those questions in terms of Christ’s own ministry.
What is most amazing to me is not that Jesus welcomed public transgressors into his company. What astounds me is that they came to him with the full expectation of not being turned away. He is the holy one of God, after all. He’s a sinless priest, above reproach, the most moral man on earth. Yet these unholy people seek Jesus out. Lepers cry out to him. Whores weep on his feet. Tax collectors climb trees to get a peek at him. Some men even rip apart a roof to lower their friend into his midst! Far from running away from Jesus, sinners of all stripes run to him.
Why? Because Jesus never preached the law? No. Because he was soft on sin? Hardly. Rather, it’s because he not only beckoned the weary and heavy laden to come to him; he took a seat at their dinner tables, became their friend, accepted them as his followers, praised their faith, and defended them. And, perhaps most significantly, Jesus shrugged his shoulders at the name-calling and tsk-tsking of the religious superstars who were offended that he would lower himself to hang in the gutter with such unworthies. He was the kind of pastor who didn’t damn the woman caught in adultery, much less make a public example out of her. He sent her away to a new, unadulterated life, forgiven and loved. He made an apostle out of a hated tax-collector. Restored another betraying apostle. Chose a murderous, blaspheming persecutor to be the evangelist to the nations. There was really only one group to whom Jesus was harsh and unyielding: those who deemed themselves better than other sinners, who walked around flexing their spiritual muscles, whose treasure was trashing others whose lives were not as outwardly righteous as their own.
It's a risky action to emulate this kind of ministry, to associate yourself with sheep that some consider wolves and others label goats. You’ll be lied about. Your morals will be questioned. You’ll be ostracized by some, laughed at by others, or simply stop hearing from those adept at toeing the religious-political line.
But you might also find yourself listening to hurting people pour out their hearts to you about how good it is to finally find a Christian who’ll listen to them and talk with them without sounding condescending. You might discover the outcasts and unwanted and branded and scarlet-lettered flocking to you because they perceive that in you they will find the sympathy and love and forgiveness of Christ. Rather than running from you as a called and ordained sheriff, they'll recognize in you the kind of shepherd who doesn't care how much mud and dung has defiled their wool. You stand in the stead of the one who washes clean every sinner, loves them, names them his own, and makes them part of his flock.
Fidelity to Christ and love of the outcast neighbor go hand in hand. The mark of an orthodox pastor—indeed, of an orthodox Christian—is not, for example, making sure everyone knows you would never attend a homosexual wedding, much less bake a cake for it. Maybe you would, maybe you wouldn’t; I don’t care. But I would like to know if you would bake them a cake when you asked them over to your home for dinner, introduced them as your friends to your Christian friends, invited them to your church, and showed them in every imaginable way that they, like you, are dead in sin but loved and redeemed by Jesus Christ. It seems rather impossible to bring the Gospel to those we will have nothing to do with. Might this scandalous love result in being shunned by some within the conservative Christian community? Yes, but there is perhaps no clearer sign that you are being a Christ-like shepherd than when you are rejected by some because you embrace those the religious establishment keeps at arm’s length.
This week, in at least two seminaries, men who have been studying for the ministry will receive their calls into that sacred vocation. I pray for them and the congregations they will serve. And part of my prayer is that they will not see or portray themselves as called and ordained sheriffs of the word, but as called and ordained servants of the friend of sinners.
Headhunters have a straightforward job. There’s a position to fill, usually in the corporate world, so they hunt down a candidate for that position. Of course, they’re searching for an employee with a top-notch resume, one who has the necessary experience and know-how. Headhunters don’t waste their time recruiting underachievers or amateurs. They’re matchmakers; they introduce just the right employee to just the right employer so that they’ll enjoy a healthy, thriving relationship.
And that’s why God would be, quite possibly, the world’s worst headhunter. Yes, often He does find people to work for Him who have extraordinary skills that they use for service in His kingdom. I have many friends and colleagues who are gifted in this way, and for them I thank God. But we cannot deny that the Lord also has a tendency to call people to do jobs for which they have little or no experience, not to mention few of the skills requisite for the task. In fact, some of them don’t want anything to do with the position. And, to make matters worse, when God strong-arms them into service anyway, much of the time they wind up making fools of themselves, making a mess of the work, or even telling God that He can take this job and shove it. It's as if sometimes the Lord asks Himself, “Now who would most people think would be a miserable candidate for this mission?” Then He goes headhunting precisely for that individual.
Case in point: Jonah. Calling this man to be a prophet makes about as much as sense as hiring an executioner to be the CEO of a hospital. To begin with, he doesn’t want the job, period. He lets his feet do the talking. When God says, “Go preach in Nineveh,” he boards a ship sailing away from Nineveh. Is he afraid of the people in Nineveh? No. Does he doubt his abilities as a preacher? No. Rather, those people he’s supposed to serve—they sicken him. Nothing would make him happier than for God to fry those fiends with fire and brimstone, to play the ole Sodom-and-Gomorrah card. They’re his people’s sworn enemies. They’re infamous as butchers. They make ISIS look tame. The problem is simply this: Jonah knows that if he preaches God’s word to them, they may actually repent and believe. And if they do that, God will do the very thing which angers Jonah most: He’ll forgive them. In His audacious, scandalous love, He’ll let them off scot-free. That Jonah can’t stomach. And if you remember the rest of Jonah’s story, that’s exactly what happened.
So why would the heavenly headhunter choose someone with such personal animosity towards his mission field? We could ask the same type question of any number of the Lord's other choices, many of whom have rather soiled resumes. Why would He choose Moses, a man with Egyptian blood on his hands, to lead one of the greatest act of redemption ever accomplished? Why would He let David, a renowned murderer and adulterer, remain on the throne of Israel, and even use his words of repentance in one of the most widely sung psalms in Christendom? Why would He fill Samson with His Spirit, a judge who's always getting caught with his pants down? Why appoint Peter as part of the apostolic foundation of the church, a man who publicly denied three times that he even knew Jesus? Why call Saul, a once blaspheming, murdering, Christian-hating Pharisee, to take the Good News throughout the Roman world? Why would the Lord of wisdom make such foolish choices?
Someone might say that the messenger doesn't matter but the message does. I disagree. In fact, the messengers do matter—they matter greatly. In fact, they are part of the word that God is speaking. And that word is that God is the God of the cross, the cross that is “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” (1 Cor 1:18). God has chosen the foolish things and foolish people of the world to shame the wise. God has chosen the lowly things and lowly people of the world to shame the high and mighty. God has chosen the weak things and the weak, broken, soiled, despised people of the world to shame the powerful and self-righteous. He chose tax collectors and prostitutes and renegades and doubters to show the religious establishment that they didn't know their theological ass from a hole in the ground. He even chose a mule-headed prophet named Jonah to demonstrate that He can be as stubborn in love as people can be in judgement.
God's kingdom is a wild and wacky place. It's pregnant with seeming contradictions. A God who's a man. A king who's a servant. A priest who's a sacrifice. Shepherds who get fed to wolves. Men and women with scars proclaiming His healing. Pastors with skeletons in their closets revealing a bodiless tomb. Preachers with soiled resumes uttering words that wash us white in the blood of the Lamb.
All this seemingly contradictory work God does, however, not to be vague and sneaky but to show us that it's okay to be weak. It's okay to be broken. You don't have to fix yourself so you're good enough for God. Christ loves you in your brokenness. His light shines through the cracks in your soul. His cross is for you, where He was broken to heal you, to cleanse you, to make you better than okay. In Christ not just your resume, but your whole body and soul are as pure as snow.
Blessed are the soiled, for in Christ they are clean. Blessed are the weak, for in Christ they are strong. Blessed are the despised, for they leave the temple justified. Blessed are the Moseses, Davids, Samsons, Sauls, and Jonahs, for in Christ they are God’s chosen leaders, poets, warriors, apostles, and prophets.
Although I wrote this article almost a year and a half ago, someone reads it almost every day. Readers stumble upon it when they Google phrases such as "divorce anniversary." That's just one small token of the multitudes of people who struggle to recover from a broken marriage and the lifelong scars that violent separation can bring. I am reposting it on my blog today so that perhaps it will reach some who haven't seen it. This is my own unedited, raw reflection upon what divorce did to me, as well as what I learned from it. I'm sure some will take issue with my disagreement with St. Paul, but that's okay. Perhaps I misunderstand the apostle and need to be corrected. If you are reading this as one who suffers the ongoing pains of divorce, know that I am praying for you, that Christ may work healing in you, as He has in me.
Today, December 29, would have been the twenty-second anniversary of my first marriage. Five years have passed since our divorce—years raw with emotion, scarred by mistakes, scabbed over with hints of hope. Every year, when this day rolls around, I turn over the stones of remembrance that litter my mind, to see what lurks beneath. I see things there I don’t want to see, learn things about myself that I never wanted to know, but do anyway. I also see there lessons learned, painful but positive lessons. This piece is more for me than anyone else, though you are welcome to tag along and spy on my thoughts.
1. The Undivorced Don’t Get It. I’ve never stood by the freshly dug grave of my beloved wife. Never has the blood of a fellow soldier been showered on me during a firefight. I’ve never been bankrupt or homeless or had cancer. I don’t know about a lot of things, because I haven’t experienced those hells. The happily married, undivorced man or woman knows nothing of the agony of divorce, and should never pretend otherwise. This includes pastors, and all those who may seek to counsel the divorced. They should never assume they “get” what the divorced person is going through. Every loss, every grief is unique, and to make it generic by universalizing it cheapens the hurt the divorced feel.
2. I disagree with St. Paul. When he writes to the Corinthians, Paul says, “One who is unmarried is concerned with the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife,” (1 Cor 7:32-33). Not for me. Most men who are unmarried are concerned with finding a woman whom they can marry. And until they do that, most of their thoughts, energies, time, and, yes, money, are directed toward that end. I was much more concerned about the things of the Lord when I was married than when I became single. It is not good for the man to be alone, and so long as he is, it won’t be good for him personally, or his service to the Lord. With notable exceptions, men are created for women. And it is in the vocation of husband that they serve the Lord best, for they are completed by her.
3. Lonely, Hurting Men Make Bad Decisions. I made the mistake many men do immediately after their divorce: the first woman I dated, I “fell in love with” and soon we were making wedding plans. I later broke off the engagement as the reality that this was a rebound relationship slowly sank in, although, of course, it was at an additional emotional cost to both of us, as well as our mutual children. Every relationship is a risk, but the risk skyrockets when the man is still nursing wounds from a failed marriage. He wants nothing more than a restored wholeness, to recreate a past that either did exist, or exists only in his nostalgic imagination. And in this state of yearning for healing, he tends to idealize a woman, seeing in her the wife he wants her to be instead of the woman whom she really is.
4. Divorce Unveils the Monster Within Divorce brings out the worst in people. It certainly did in me. I was little aware of the fathomless depths of anger, spite, depression, regret, pettiness, and selfishness within me until my marriage ended. Then it all came oozing, or exploding, to the surface, in various ways and at various times. I remember late one night, while working in the oil field, having a conversation with another driver who was going through a divorce. His wife had left him for another man. He described how his every waking moment was consumed with fantasies of revenge, murderous payback, horrid thoughts he’d never entertained before. Divorce can do that, unearthing new evils within. It’s a dark journey of self-knowledge. And although, thank God, most of the time these monsters within us remain caged, never acting out the evils of which they are capable, the sheer fact that they are there at all is enough to make me scared of the man I have the potential to become.
5. Healing Will Begin, But It Takes Its Sweet Time I’m fortunate because I survived divorce. I didn’t put a gun to my head and pull the trigger, though on my darkest of days I held the pistol in my hand. I didn’t become addicted to something that would dull the pain, though I did my fair share of self-medicating with alcohol. I came through, wounded and scarred to be sure, but at least alive. Not every one is so lucky. God placed into my life a few select friends without whose love I would not have made it. Not surprisingly, these friends are divorced as well. They get it. I am at a point of healing now, five years later, that I thought I’d never reach, even if I had five lifetimes. I still have a long way to go, but at least I’ve made progress. Baby steps are steps nonetheless. I have two children, a son and daughter. They live with their mother and step-father. I see them four to six days a month—days that mean the world to me. As heart-breaking as my time apart from them is, I have grown to thank God that, in the aftermath of our divorce, our children are still provided with a stable, secure, Christian home in which to grow up. Indeed, they are blessed with a good mother and a caring stepfather.
The very fact that I can write that last sentence, and mean every word, is proof positive that, five years after my divorce, the Lord has made a little progress in putting this shattered man back together again.
He had suffered through both world wars and the Great Depression; been amazed by everything from the first cars chugging down the road to a man stepping onto the moon; witnessed the rise and fall of world leaders, the terms of seventeen U.S. presidents; and several generations of his own family create families of their own. Ingram Robinson was 91 years old and had seen it all—well, almost seen it all. For what his eyes were about to behold, as the sun rose on his ninth decade in this world, was something entirely, and radically, new. Days you will never forget usually begin as days you will never remember. You roll out of bed, pour a cup of coffee, get yourself to work, and assume all along that the day will be a humdrum repeat of the days before. So it was for me on the first of December, 1998. Oklahomans were enjoying an unseasonably warm beginning to winter, with temperatures in the low 70’s. I spent the morning working on my upcoming Sunday sermon. Then it was off to Oklahoma City to make a hospital visit or two. One of my parishioners, Dennis, had invited me to visit his father, Ingram, who had been ill with heart problems. So I drove to his home, where Dennis met me and introduced me to his dad.
Conversations, as is their wont, drift from topic to topic, as ours did that day. We meandered from the getting-to-know-you phase, to a discussion of his medical problems, and finally to concerns which transcend this life. We spoke of Jesus. We talked of who he is, his active and ongoing love for us, our life unending in him. And Ingram believed; indeed, he had believed for years. But to my surprise, and contrary to what even his own son assumed, Ingram had never been baptized.
I suppose there are times when delaying baptism is acceptable, to provide an opportunity for fully instructing the believer in the Faith into which he is about to be baptized. But when a man is advanced in age, suffers heart problems, and confesses faith in the Messiah, you scout out the nearest water source and let the Spirit do what the Spirit does best. In our case, the kitchen sink was transformed into a font of new creation. Where two or three were gathered, there Jesus was in the midst of them. He co-opted my lips to speak his vivifying words. A prayer, a creed, a confession, and the words, “I baptize you, Ingram, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Above this holy sink a whole host of the celestial angels flocked to witness a sight rare even to them: a ninety-one year old newborn. New birth through water and the Spirit was his. Heaven and earth broke out in grand applause.
Within two or three months, Ingram said Goodbye to this world and an everlasting Hello to the Promised Land above. The angels who so soon before had rejoiced at his new birth, now rejoiced even more at a life in which 91 years is but a blink in eternal felicity. Some receive baptism’s saving gifts when life on earth has barely begun, and some receive them when that same life draws to a close. But young or old, or anywhere in between, baptism is never a work achieved, but always a gift received. Naked we come into this world, and naked we shall depart it. And anytime in between, the Father of all stands ready to clothe us all in the righteousness of his Son. One day, I was privileged to be the hands that wrapped those sacred garments around Ingram. And that’s a day I’ll never forget.
I had to introduce myself to her every time I visited. A thin curtain, strung from wall to wall, halved her already tiny room. The air was thick with that unmistakable nursing home odor. She’d point her two sightless eyes in my direction and ask, “Who?” I’d tell her again. Then as she sat on the edge of her tiny bed, and I on a nearby fold-up chair, we would visit as if for the first time. And as we talked, this blind, mere wisp of a woman would unwittingly remind me of who I was.
Who was I? A very different man from who I am now. I was a naïve, inexperienced pastor in his mid-twenties; now, a couple of decades and a lot of scars later, I am no longer a pastor, no longer naïve, and certainly experienced in a few things of which I wish I’d remained ignorant. Time and life and sin—yes, let us not forget that dirty word—they have their way with a man. Nevertheless, as I peer back over the years between the me-then and the me-now, I see one striking similarity. I am always a man who forgets who he really is, because I’m always focused on becoming the man I want others to think I am.
When I sat in that nursing home, with this sweet elderly woman, I was her pastor, there to give Jesus to her in word and meal. Yet what I really wanted people to think of me was that I was a professor-in-training, a man of deep learning, who knew the Old Testament like the back of his hand. I was a man who wrestled with doubt and unbelief, but I wanted everyone to think I was a man of unwavering faith. I was a mere servant, and not a good one at that, but I wanted everyone to think of me as that guy with those three Master’s degrees, who has mastered this, and mastered that, and deserved to go far and do well.
Today, older yet evidently still as foolish, I fight the same battles. I drive a truck for a living, delivering and picking up freight, but I want others to think of me as a former professor who’s published a couple of books. I am now very happily married, but also twice-divorced, but I want others to think that I’ve never screwed up, that I’ve always been the ideal husband. Some days I wonder if there even is a God, much less one who loves me, yet I want other to think I’m a Christian who’s got it all together. Yes, I am always a man who forgets who he really is, because I’m always focused on becoming the man I want others to think I am.
A woman who suffered from dementia, who saw nothing through her eyes but blackness, she would remind me of who I am. An amazing thing would happen as we talked. When we got past the superficial introductions—since she always forgot who I was—I would speak to her of our lost condition, of our sin, of the dreadful place we find ourselves in apart from God, condemned by His law because of our transgressions. Then I would tell her of Jesus, who sought us in love, who bled out His life’s blood to wash away our transgressions, who exited the tomb alive and well that we might follow Him in our resurrection.
Every single time, after she had listened, speechless, to all I said, she would respond with shock and surprise, as if this were the first time in her life that she had heard the Gospel. She would literally rejoice, almost laugh with glee, that God loved her so much that He would do all things for her. If blind eyes could light up, hers would illumine the room. Then I would open my little Communion case, pour a little wine, select a couple of wafers, say the words of Jesus, and feed her the body crucified, the blood poured out, the gift given in God’s own Son.
Every time I visited this precious child of God, I remembered who I was really was. And thinking back on now, I remember the same. She would introduce me to myself. I am a man with a life full of regret, full of failure, whom Jesus loves without regret, without fail. No matter what job I have, I am defined not by what I do but by what God has done for me in His Son. No matter how stupid or how smart I am, no matter who much I know or how little, the only knowledge that really matters is that Jesus was ready and willing to die for me. That is my identity: I am Jesus’ friend, for He is the friend of sinners.
A woman who could barely remember who she was, much less who I am; a woman who couldn’t see a thing, much less read my soul through my eyes; this woman would teach me who I was. She would see the real me, and introduce me to myself.
Imagine a church where members are nicknamed for the most well-known sin they’ve ever committed.
Sitting on the next-to-last pew is Bob the Drunk. He’s now in his late seventies, and he's been sober for the last three decades, but up into his forties he was still hitting the bottle pretty hard. And everyone knew it.
A few pews up from him, surrounded by her doting husband and three children, is Backseat Betty. You see, her oldest child was conceived out of wedlock, when Betty was in her senior year of high school. It was the talk of the town back in the day.
The man in the starched white shirt and blue jeans is Mike the Thief. He served a prison term for holding up a convenience store. Although it was in a different town, and even a different state, the story had a way of catching up with Mike. So when he joined the congregation, the nickname was soon forthcoming.
Bob the Drunk, Backseat Betty, Mike the Thief, and other nicknamed sinners gather every Sunday with other sinners who are not nicknamed. They’re just Margaret, Paul, Cindy, John. It’s not that these others have not sinned; it’s just that their sins haven’t been big enough, or public enough, or scandalous enough to earn a nickname.
The preacher proclaims from the pulpit, to everyone assembled, that in the death and resurrection of Jesus, all their sins are forgiven. But in this particular church, all sins are forgiven, but some sins are more forgiven than others.
Every year, in the springtime, Christians around the world gather in their respective communities to celebrate Good Friday. It is the day Jesus was crucified to atone for the sins of the world. It is the day that he dies for Bob the Drunk, Backseat Betty, Mike the Thief. On Good Friday, they become Bob, Betty, and Mike.
Anyone who dares to attach a nickname to them seeks to uncrucify Jesus.
All sins are forgiven, and none are forgiven more, or less, than others.
Leave me alone. Please, just Leave. Me. Alone. Got it? Have you not poured enough grief into my life already? Just kill me and be done with it.
I didn’t sign up for this preaching gig. My name is Jonah, not Isaiah. He was the one all gung-ho with his “Send me! Send me!” attitude. Not me. I was perfectly happy back in the land of milk and honey. This swamp of ilk and money repulses me.
Nineveh. The very name makes me throw up in my mouth. A hovel of hate, that’s what this city is. Need I remind you that these pagans find sadistic joy in knifing open the bellies of pregnant women? Ripping the skin off their enemies and draping it over their walls? Beheading, mutilating, and impaling the bodies of their victims high on poles to make the world cower in fear? These people, why they’re not even people; they’re animals. Subhuman. The devil’s spawn. They play at evil. And, to top it all off, they’re the enemies of your own chosen people.
But as if none of that matters, as if somehow even these people are the objects of your care and compassion, you have the audacity to tell me to go preach to them. Cry out against this city, you say. Warn them that if they don’t repent they’ll be destroyed in forty days, you say. So of course I ran away. And of course, you chased me. Onto the sea, into the fish, out of the fish, you chased me. Until finally I walked through the streets of Nineveh and preached. I did your bidding.
I hoped like mad they’d spit in my face and laugh me all the way out of town. I wouldn’t have even cared if a mob of them had beat me to death in a back alley. But heavens no, I couldn’t be that lucky. They believed in you, the whole lot of them. From the lowest slave to the king himself, they just had to repent. And they went all out: fasting, wearing sackcloth, praying for mercy. They went so repentance-crazy that they wouldn’t even let their beasts eat or drink; made farm animals fast. My Lord, they even dressed their cows in sackcloth!
I’m watching this spectacle and thinking, “Oh, no. Dear God, don’t you dare…don’t you dare…don’t you….” Then you do. Of course you do. As if their bloody, prideful, despicable past means nothing; as if their gargantuan mountain of evil weighs not an ounce on the scales of justice; you let them off the hook. They repent and you relent. Just like that.
I saw it all coming, long before today, while I was still back in my hometown. I even told you so. That’s why I ran away—not because I was scared to preach, or frightened of these lowlifes, but to delay this evil day of mercy as long as possible. I just knew it. You and your grace. You and your compassion. You and your slowness to anger. You and your scandalous, damnable, exasperating love!
Where is justice in this, God? You can’t keep on letting evil men off scot-free. Know what you're like? You’re like a judge who, every time a criminal apologizes in court, takes off his robe, lays down his gavel, and walks up to the felon to hug him, kiss him, and ask him to come live with him and eat at his table. It’s beyond ludicrous. It’s shameful, downright embarrassing the way you let mercy triumph over judgment. Listen, when a man sins, he’s got to pay. It’s as simple as that. But you act as if someone has already paid for his crime, as if someone has already been executed in his stead. I simply cannot wrap my mind around it.
If you want to know why I’m so ticked off, well, there’s your answer. You’ve gone and did your God thing again. It’s not too late to change your mind, so I’m going to sit here and watch the city. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll come to your senses, decide there needs to be more fairness and justice in this world, and you’ll afflict them with plagues, or throw fire and brimstone on at least part of the city, or something, anything, that makes them realize how wrong they’ve been.
I tremble to think of what message this sends to the world. If you want people to get the impression that you are all love, that you’ll forgive their past no matter what, that you will accept and embrace even the most wicked person of earth, keep it up. Keep doing what you’ve done in Nineveh. Keep being that kind of God. But I warn you, that if you do, pretty soon everyone will assume that you love the world so much that you’ll stop at nothing to save it.
When they pulled up in front the farmhouse, the elder behind the steering wheel cast a sideways glance at the vicar who rode shotgun. They’d both spotted him, the man they’d come to visit. He was slouched on the porch, shirtless in his overalls, surrounded by empty beer bottles. A sneer twisted around his unshaven face. He hadn't darkened the church doors for months, probably over a year by now. And it was the job of this pastor-in-training and his lay sidekick to provide the loving admonition needed to try and bring this lost sheep back into the Lord’s fold. But the only "admonition" about to happen didn’t come from these two church-goers, and neither was it delivered in love. It was the late 1940’s, in a small, rural parish in central Oklahoma. The vicar was a student at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, in training for the ministry. He’d been assigned to serve one year in a kind of internship at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wellston, Oklahoma. Because the church’s budget was a bit restricted, the vicar boarded with congregational members, a new family welcoming him every month. He preached, he taught confirmation, he visited the sick and shut-ins. And, like it or not, he also visited members who, for one reason or another, hadn’t been to church in a blue moon.
When the duo stepped out of the old Ford, the man stepped off his porch to meet them. “Morning, Mr. Jones,” said the vicar, attempting a jovial smile. Mr. Jones didn’t see fit to return the greeting. Or the smile. He stopped a few paces away and crossed his arms in front of his chest. “What do y’all want?” A good question that was. What did they want? Honestly, the elder really wanted to be back home with his wife and children. The vicar really wanted to be back at the church scratching out next Sunday’s sermon. But here they were, so they’d just as well make the best of it, say what needed to be said, and hightail it out of there. “Well,” said the vicar, “folks've been missing you in church. Everybody has. So we thought we’d stop by and visit with you for a bit, if that’s okay.”
The thing was, it wasn’t okay with Mr. Jones. Not only was he in no mood to visit. He was in no mood to see them, to hear them, or to tolerate their continued presence in front of his house. So if they knew what was best for them they’d get themselves back in that Ford and get the hell off his property. This he made abundantly clear in rather colorful language.
As the man went from speaking to growling, the vicar tried his best to calm him down. But the storm of liquor inside him raged. He took a menacing step forward, then two. “Let’s go, Vicar,” said the elder, opening his door and sliding behind the wheel to start the Ford’s engine. The man was now in the vicar’s face, his breath reeking of whiskey, his words reeking of spite and plain old meanness. He didn’t give a damn what nobody thought of him, he said. And he wasn’t about to go back to a church with all them there hypocrites and holier-than-thous. He was spitting the words out by now. The vicar, still facing the man, fumbled behind him to find the door handle. He grabbed it, pulled it open, and jumped in.
But the man—who supposedly didn’t desire this visit—now seemed intent on it not ending there. Through the open window on the vicar’s side he shoved his massive frame, reaching for the car keys. The elder threw it in first gear and popped the clutch. As the vehicle started to lurch forward, the man yanked his body out, cursing them both. And they almost got away unscathed. Almost. But just as the car moved, the man let go a swing with his right arm. His fist flew through the open window and found its target in the face of the young man from St. Louis, who showed up to church the next morning with a blackened eye and a bruised face and the remembrance of a pastoral visit he’d never forget.
I should know. For over half a century later, when I served that same Oklahoma congregation as a young pastor, he recounted it to me, as I have to you, in vivid detail. While researching the history of the congregation in preparation for its centennial celebration in 2000, I’d unearthed the bare bones account of this story in the minutes of a church meeting held after the services on that black-eyed Sunday. My interest piqued, I did some hunting, found an address and phone number, and phoned our vicar friend.
He was in his early 80’s by then, living in the Houston area near his family. Having served a handful of congregations, he’d retired years before and settled into that vocation of rest and reflection reserved for our twilight years. He told me about that infamous visitation, and all the drama that unfolded after it (the man was excommunicated, and eventually repented, was absolved, and restored to the fellowship). He went on to talk about some of the loving, welcoming families with whom he had stayed; how much he had learned about himself and the church during that year; and how it had helped shape him as a pastor. At the end of our conversation, he wished me God’s blessings as I served at that congregation where he himself had served as a vicar decades before. And he said something else, something that has always stuck with me, “That was one of the best years of my ministry.”
When I hung up the phone, I sat in my study and thought about those words. I had yet to suffer from a blackened eye, but my pride had been severely bruised many a time during my service there. There were a few people who didn’t want to see my face or have me on their property. I’d been verbally attacked, lied about, scorned. In other words, I’d suffered what just about every pastor suffers. I’d borne the cross of the ministry. But I’d also been welcomed by families that gathered around this pulpit and altar every Sunday. They had defended me, loved me, supported me privately and publicly. And, right or wrong, I’m pretty sure that if I’d shown up for the liturgy with a blackened eye, I knew a couple of guys who’d pay a visit to the perpetrator to return the favor.
The vicar’s story helped put my life, and my ministry, in perspective that year. Pastors are like everyone else; they are tempted to view everything as negative when looking through a blackened eye. But that’s only part of the story. There is the joy over one sinner who repents. There is the joy of being God’s hands to hold the child who is washed in water and the Word to become a member the divine family. There is the joy of the grieving consoled, the wayward led back, the guilt-ridden soul set free through the absolution. I thank the Lord for that vicar, his black eye, and what he told me on the phone that day. For I began to realize then, and fully realize now, that it was one of the best years of my ministry.