The occasional ding, ding of a heart monitor. Halls mostly quiet. Patients waiting behind drawn curtains — dozing off. Nurses, doctors, the social worker (me), we are upright but mostly sleepwalking. A rather demanding case has been completed, I quickly grab free clipboard and head for the next challenge, room 32. Knock knock I say as I slip behind the curtain into dimmed room. Slight frame shivers under the white blanket.
Working in the trenches changes people. It has changed me. I once lived in an Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories world — identifying all persons as either good or bad. Things done right or done wrong. Christian or sinner. As a kid, I heard it everywhere. The message simple. People who choose rightly and act accordingly belong to the kingdom of God. People who make wrong choices and act wrong belong to the Darkness. Kind of a Yankees — Red Sox rivalry, never to be blurred, each with its own uniform and identifying ways. It’s understandable why adults tell children these things. The hope is to prevent the child from doing something that will harm them. Still, the overall message is a lie.
From the vantage of a congested urban emergency room for about 20 years as a psychiatric social worker, hours of interviews with people, teeth black from meth, bodies covered in abscesses from heroin use, faces broken and deformed from domestic violence, infected by prostitution, my view has been close up. An hour or so of taking history, huddled on cot and head down, the tears and shame of it all, I end the interview by asking, “How have you managed to survive?” and many times I’ve heard the same answer, through tears… “I never would have made it without Jesus.”
We have this idea that when we say ‘yes’ to Jesus, there is a certain something about us that is different from what I just described above. I know Jesus stabilizes our lives. That’s the hope we all have, isn’t it? Why, then, after I gave my life to Jesus, do I still have a temper? Why do I still use foul language when I’m stressed out, even though I try hard not to? Why do I say unkind things to my children though I’ve taught my kids that Christians don’t want to be unkind?
God HAS changed me over the years. Cleared out much of what kept me stuck. At the same time, I’m not being kicked and hit and torn at. I’m not being raped. I’m not being lied to. I’ve had resources. I have strong friends, many for over 30 and 40 years. Friends who love and support me. I have a safe and loving husband. I have a job, and food and shelter.
God describes how we can tell if a person is a Christian or not “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:35. Love is different from addiction-free. Love and a cycle of hell sometimes coexist. If the church today were to write a list of Christian identifiers, the list would most likely look like this: “By this everyone will know you are Christ’s disciples, if you are strong, do well financially, dress well, are emotionally healthy, have a stable group of friends, are not addicted to meth, not shooting heroine, not living on the streets, not living with an abuser, etc..” Love and disaster in this life are not mutually exclusive. Love and human weakness. The best of us and the worst. Who we want to be and who we really are.
The God I’ve come to know while sitting alongside emaciated human shivering under thin white blanket on hospital cot is a God who does not abandon when we are too weak to get out from under the hell we’ve found ourselves in. God reaches into our darkness and holds onto us. In reality, not one of us fully escapes this sordid life till we step to the other side. The wretch we distance ourselves from has been made in God’s Image, very well could be my brother in Christ, my very own sister. Our mansions in Glory just might be parked side by side. Eternal neighbors with the hooker I turn my face from when light turns red on my way to work, good girl that I am, bad girl that she is. Sisters.
A fantasy, really, of us and them. The Bible teaches of the saved and the lost. Still, scripture reminds us that we as humans must not be the ones to determine who is lost and who’s saved. The sad reality is that if Jesus held hand and walked broken little prostitute into church this Sunday, I’m certain we wouldn’t recognize Jesus, and wouldn’t accept his company. I’m guessing your church would do as poorly as mine. No room in the inn. What would we do with her language? Her habits? With her reality? With his lack of discernment? We’d have difficulty making sense of her life. We’d question His love for her. Because Christians are liars. Our problem is not that we don’t believe that God cares for broken humans. The problem is our refusal to come to terms with our broken human self. We lie to ourselves about ourselves. We quick turn away from who we really are, causing us to quick turn away from anyone whose wounds are showing. Ultimately causing us to hide from Jesus. “Adam, where are you?” The question bounces off the emptiness of our lonely existence, God still searching for our hiding selves.
”Oh, it can’t be that bad!” “Praise God in all things” and on we blather, using God’s Word to shut each-other up from speaking truth about our real and messy lives. So much evil in denial. God Himself is the most solid model of seeing all, telling all, and loving, even-though. Scripture is full of stories — stories of what really happened. God’s people were often up to no good, he corrected them and yet continued to own them as His, His own broken kids, even when they were despicable.
There has been a lot of talk recently about churches and why women in domestically violent situations are less safe at church. It’s true. And the reason, Christians have fine tuned pretending. Telling a woman who is being beat at home ‘…all things work together for good’, ‘men are wild at heart, honey’ — yes, words spoken to battered women — words that kept her in a dangerous situation far too long.
When my patient’s arrive for therapy, they need help. They are willing to own what is. Every person who sees real change has a single thing in common. They are done pretending. There is a willingness to lay it out there, even despite the consequences. Because they want wholeness more than face saving. They want to get well more than to avoid pain. They also realize on an intuitive level that face-saving does harm, and so they pursue honesty.
Jesus Powerful Cross leaned hard on the wall between God and us and broke that wall down. The Cross tore the curtain from top to bottom, the wall that separated us from the Presence of God…. drawing us closer, still closer to himself. Not the pretend part of us. But all of us. Even the disgusting parts of us.
I think the sin of the church in our century is the sin of pretension (deceit).
Lying to ourselves about who we have been and who we really are. Minimizing our stories. Holding up the wall between us and them by pretending about us. The people hurting and wounded will never be accepted until I replace pretension with a good hard look at my own compost pile of a life, I embrace my actual story, I see the way God’s grace has met me in my pain. When I do, I am filled with love for others like me, with messes like mine, and there is acceptance.
Street Sheep. Jesus precious kids.
Baby girl born to house of drugs, molestation and rape since age 4, a runaway at 10 who became a prostitute for the safety of the thing, now trapped. desperately needs me to see her not as despicable but as made in Holy God’s Image.
Woman deformed from years of domestic abuse, I’ve seen her again, and again, every fresh visit to the ER, I work hard to provide her a hiding place, she always returns for more of the same, and is broken again, and much worse than the time before. Silent and tears, and shame. She repeats in a whisper “Jesus, Jesus, ….” She is my sister. Walking through this life alongside each other. Both needing Jesus to save us from ourselves. Both hopelessly stupid. Both clinging.
Man with abscesses from heroin. All the warnings in the world and he’s at it again, and worse off than ever. The PTSD war horror that he tries to manage in ways he knows how, and finally the needle is the only thing that stops the pain, and it will kill him. He always asks for prayer, tears streaming. My own brother. Together we strive to survive, letting Jesus hold us.
I can see them, the masses. The despicable. The broken down by life. The ones I distance myself from. Unbathed. Teeth mostly gone. Faces hardened by life. Bodies stiff from life under the bridge. Oh when the saints go marching in…. The lady who pulls eyebrows out and most of her hair – since the rape, forever pulling. The man stuttering his answers, face red from shame. The child covered in blood, still alive, saw it all. The young boy had never used a drug, talked into it at some festival, word salad and parts of words is all he can manage, and the rocking. His heartbroken parents with no answers. The confused Grandma who lives alone with her cats in a trailer. The dirty woman who just can’t get clean – life in the shelter, safer than home… I see them all together – moving forward, full of muted love for a Jesus who knew it all, never left, and refused to let go – they move together forward…. Oh when they march around the throne, when they march around the throne, I want to be in that number, when they march around the throne.
Oh When The Saints Go Marching In: Black Spiritual
Thanks to Ian Espinosa for image.