Saturday, August 11, 2012

More Than Just Words?

A change in Internet Service Providers (we still don't have a new email set up) and a move have kept me away from the computer for most of the last several weeks. Looking at gaps in blog posts suggests we've had company in distractions. I thought a weekend might be a good time to get this one on line, since it's sat in the draft file for most of a month.

A continuation from my June 29th post: His Strength is Made Perfect.

My journal records this account in stark detail. I was thankful even then that I didn’t know the whole story up front. The man came into jail with an abscessed tooth, visible swelling on the side of his face. He paced the floor for hours.

His story came out in bits and pieces, interrupted by pacing. He seemed hollow, empty, emotionally dead.

With his wife and child, he had taken part in the first Pro-Life rally in Toronto I had participated in. As a family they’d been active in a church. I don’t recall him telling me where or if he was employed, but they already faced financial hardships and obviously had no insurance when his tooth became infected.

My journal asks one set of questions, summed up as: how could any man stoop so low? But a second set of questions, even more painful, haunt me today. Where was the church? How could any family be part of a Christian church here in Canada, where love is integral to the vocabulary and creed, yet feel compelled to choose such a desperate path? Was there no one among that body of Christians who recognized the need? Was there no one responsive to a little nudging from God?

Privacy in jail is rare or non-existent. I asked for the privilege of praying with him, but, in front of all those other men? I can’t fault him for turning me down.

I prayed for him. But the opportunity never came to pray with him. He spent only one night in Remand 2C. Then, in one of those perverse twists our justice system imposes, the care our government could not give to him as an ordinary citizen was given under police escort, at many times the cost. He was taken from our unit to have his tooth dealt with. I never saw him again.

There are a number of practices I find exceptionally abhorrent. Pimping, child sexual abuse, and senior sexual abuse top that list. My Bible uses an old word, “sin.” It uses the same word for stealing a candy. I acknowledge that all are equally wrong in God’s eyes, but confess that my gut reacts to some much more than to others.

I had spent as much time with that man as I could, trying to encourage, to challenge him to cling to the remnants of his faith. Then I learned that he faced pimping charges, “living off the avails of a prostitute.”

His wife had been working the streets of Toronto, trying to raise money to pay a dentist.

HE HAD FAILED!! On my scale he had failed about as miserably as a man possibly could. He had failed as a Christian. He had failed as a father. He had failed as a husband. On my gut-level emotional scale you couldn’t have dug a hole deeper than he had already fallen.


God found me there—in Remand 2C of the Mimico Correctional Centre. I had prayed for the opportunity to reach out to these men. God held me to that prayer. He expected me to put hands and feet and words to His love.

HOW? How do I move past the revulsion and see the man? How do I move past my abhorrence, and reach out to the deep, raw hurt, the self-condemnation, the shame? How do I share the love of God in a place where the most privacy is a ledge in the bathroom, facing a row of five exposed toilets—and the man I’m called to love has bottomed out my scale of “unlovables?”

I can’t. That’s the simple truth. I don’t have it in me. BUT GOD CAN. And somehow, God can use even a guy like me to do it.

In the hours I spent with that man I ached with him and for him. Before I knew that he was “one of those kind” I had entered into his pain. When he spilled that last self-damning confession, God had already taken me beyond myself.

Did I fail him? Did I fail God by never finding a time to pray with that man? I don’t think so, although I regretted it deeply at the time. Embarrassing him in front of 30 men, most street-hard and cynical, would have done little to draw him closer to God.

What did God accomplish through me? I have no way of measuring if even 48 hours later, a single word I said lingered in that man’s mind. I do know that a man who felt his life was worth nothing heard repeatedly and directly from God’s Word, that he was loved. I know that man knew he was accepted AS A MAN, not as the scum of the earth – by at least one person in that room. I think it’s fair to call that love—but I must acknowledge that it is a love way beyond my own capacity.

Twenty-two years later my gut-reaction hasn’t changed toward certain practices. But perhaps the most profound thing I learned in jail was that these men and women, who have often committed acts I find abhorrent, dream like I dream. They hunger for love, for respect, for understanding. They ache for something better. But society, and too often the church, has told them they are scum, and they’ll never be anything but scum. People tend to “rise” to our expectations.

And we – the church – hide behind our stained-glass windows, in our air-conditioned sanctuaries – and use the vocabulary of love. Every week people like that man come through our church doors and listen to our language.

Do they hear more than just words – in your church – in mine?


Laura J. Davis said...

Very emotional post Brian. Thought provoking too. Thank you.

Glynis said...

What an eye-opener, Brian. Thanks for sharing your heart on this one. I suppose the barometer of our Faith might just be the action that we take in the name of Christ... Glynis

Peter Black said...

Thanks Brian, your writing has never failed to inspire and challenge me. My young pastor continues to bring to us as a congregation such challenges as you bring here.
God is not finished with us yet, and it seems likely that your experience from all those years ago will continue to bring forth the fruit of God's love in others of us for some time to come. ~~+~~

Donna Mann said...

Thanks Brian - I had the benefit of hearing this at Word Writers, but reading it allowed me to hear it again.

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