Sometimes it catches me off guard when Christianity gets so very real.
I was sitting in church this past Sunday morning—in the congregation, for once, which was nice both because I do like the opportunities to be off the chancel and “just” a regular and also because I was having a rough morning and didn’t want to have to hide that as I sat in choir robes for an hour. (Go ahead, pick apart all the assumptions and distrustful self-concealing pieces of thoe reasons, I know they’re there.) We got to the prayers section of the service, known as “prayers of the people” or “the pastor’s prayer” or “the long prayer” or whatever you happen to call it that serves as both a momentary group conversation with God and also a community’s checking in with itself. These are the annoucements of the church family: Mary Sue is in the hospital again, Bob’s father passed away, Jane’s nephew was cleared of cancer, Larry’s brother found a job. Even as we bring these joys and concerns to God, we are telling each other status updates of our own lives. It’s a strange thing to balance, and I’m never quite sure how I feel about it.
But this week was the update of a parishoner going to federal prison for one of those crimes you see only on the news, for being one of those people whose choices hollow out your sould in a gut-punch that leaves you gasping at the evil humans can do.
Yet this is not on the news. This is the child of a friend of mine, a person with talents and aspirations whom I’ve met and congratulated in moments of success. This is someone who was going to be great and do great things.
This is a person.
I’ve known for a bit that something big was going on, though I didn’t know the crime involved. And it’s curious that, after the initial split second of shock, I had two reactions at once: 1) Thank God I’m not Interpreter, and 2) I have no idea how to love like God.
Because it’s a huge thing, yes, to ask a pastor to shoulder this with the family, to be at the court dates of a person you confirmed in faith, to hold the parents in pastoral care while their world crumbles? Interpreter, as pastor of this family, not only knows the ins and outs but is standing in this suddenly chasm-seeming gap between this person and God. It is not at all Interpreter’s job to condone but it is to love, to show even the tiniest sliver of the light of a God Who will not let go even as the rest of us shudder and shrink from the people related to that person who has done that thing.
And I knew I could not do that.
It is incredibly selfish, but I cannot love that deeply and I have no idea how to get my judgment out of God’s way enough to let Him love through me (which is really what would be happening, anyway). Yet if I even consider being a pastor, that is asked of me.
If I even consider being a Christian, that is asked of me.
The idea of a loving God and especially a loving Jesus has become, at least in my understanding of culture, pretty fuzzy, warm and faintly smiling like the murals on Sunday school classroom walls. I can consider my places of darkness and delight that Jesus loves me because He hugs kids and loves lepers and prostitutes and called tax collectors out of trees, so surely I’m okay.
How foolish! How blind! I even wrote for the confirmation of middle schoolers in the spring this credo, this belief, and still I have not internalized it:
He included women, men, kids, lepers, thieves, Gentiles, killers, Samaritans—every living being—in His time, love, and forgiveness.
ALL living beings—the cheaters, the drunks, the self-righteous, the self-loathing, the child molesters, the embezzlers, the rapists, the bullies, the bullied, the terrorists, the protestors, the wealthy, the poor, the envious, the hopeful, the preachers and teachers and all other creatures are God’s.
There is no one outside of God’s love.
Jesus wasn’t warm and fuzzy in hanging out with whores. He was going to the people who hollow us out when we hear their sins on the evening news and calling them by name, telling them they were beloved children who had to change to return to the God Who made them. Jesus did not condone their crimes but challenged their choices, refusing to see only what they had done and not who—and Whose—they were. He loved, fully, daringly, unconventionally.
And He calls me to follow this example.
He does not call me to it tomorrow, or when I get to seminary, or when I am ordained, or when I sit down with my own parishoners whose son/daughter/brother/cousin has broken the morality of law and self. He calls me now, today, to exhort myself and my brothers and sisters to stop missing the mark but to love even and especially when we do. He calls me to pray for the victims of crimes but also for those committing the crimes, for their families, for the mother who is my friend.
If God is a loving God, I have to be prepared to get real about what love is. God does not do halves.
And that, dear Reader, is really, really hard.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:6-8a, NIV)