My wife has spoken many words of wisdom to me over the years. I guess it’s a testimony to my stubborn and cantankerous spirit that I am no better than I am after sharing 46 years with her. Nevertheless, one of the simplest but wisest truths she has tried to teach me is this: It would be nice to deal with people as they should be, but our calling is to deal with people as they are.
Now such advice is not easy to follow, but it points to a basic premise of the Gospel we proclaim and embrace. God came in Christ and dealt with us as we are, instead of dealing with us on the basis of what we should be. The love of God is unconditional, indiscriminate, and everlasting. God does not love us on the basis of how good, courageous, beautiful or successful we are. God loves us as we are. That statement is so familiar within the church that it has almost become trite and hackneyed. But I know from my own experience that there are places in my heart that have yet to hear the good news. There are aspects of my life and fears in my soul that make me feel deep down that if I were ever brought before Almighty God, I would not be loved. (What I’m referring to is what we feel, not what we think.) In spite of the fact that I proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ week after week, I still need to hear the “Old, Old, Story of Jesus and his love” as much as that person who has never heard such a gracious message. And in my pastoral visits and conversations with parishioners over the years, I became aware that they needed to hear that they are loved just as they are – in all their weakness and strength, pride and prejudice, courage and fear, success and failure, compassion and apathy, righteousness and sin. None of us can hear enough the good news that God loves us just as we are. Such grace is God’ great “nevertheless” to our lives. And there is not a one of us who has not benefited from that “nevertheless” of God’s acceptance and compassion.
The blessed irony is that only by such unconditional love can we become what we “should be.” Only by such gracious acceptance and compassionate understanding can we be freed from the demons that possess us and let go of the idols that diminish our existence. And if that is true of us, it is equally true of others. It would be nice to love and deal with people on the basis of what they should be, without their foibles and weaknesses that inconvenience and annoy us. But if our own experience with the grace of God has done any redemptive and transforming work in our hearts, we know our calling is to love and to deal with people as they are. And once again, the blessed irony is that by such love others will have more of an opportunity to become what they should be.
Let me give several examples of the unique power of such transforming love and words of affirmation:
First, an amusing example: Jesuit priest and psychologist John Powell tells how an elementary school student was changed by the praise of a teacher. The boy came to school every day with hair that looked like a bird’s nest. His clothes were wrinkled and soiled. His hands and face were dirty. His parents tried to dress him and prepare him for school, but as soon as the kid was out of their sight, he was in the dirt and seemed intent on messing up his appearance every way he could. On the day that class photos were scheduled, his parents made sure he took a thorough bath, dressed him in his finest clothes, put on his best shoes, and carefully combed his hair. They walked him to the door of his schoolroom to make sure he had no opportunity to spoil his appearance. When the teacher saw him enter the classroom, she called him to her desk and said, “Tommy, I hope you wore your best running shoes today.” Tommy looked down at his shoes and asked her, “Why?” His teacher responded, “Because during recess when all the girls in the school see you, they are going to chase you all over the playground. You are so handsome!” The teacher told Powell that every day after that affirmation, Tommy came to class with his clothes clean and ironed, his face and hands clean, and his hair combed.
I had an uncle who as an alcoholic was a mean drunk. He made the lives of his wife and daughter very difficult. When his grandson was born, he reached down to the infant in his crib. The baby looked up at him and wrapped his fingers around his grandfather’s forefinger. My uncle began to weep deep tears of emotion. That one experience changed his way of relating to his family. He never touched a drop of liquor after that day when he was blessed by such vulnerable and innocent love. Beneath the alcoholic was a compassionate and joyful man who could be set free by the touch of an infant to whom he wanted to be a kind and loving grandfather. My uncle repeatedly told the story of this miracle of grace to anyone who would listen. There was no embarrassment on his part as he related his transformation.
Princess Di certainly had her weaknesses and problems, but through one act she endeared herself to the gay community. Royal women always wore gloves when they would shake hands with commoners. Princess Di made a point of taking off her gloves as she held the hands of gay men with AIDS, some of whom were facing imminent death. With that one act, she affirmed their worth as human beings who deserve acceptance and compassion.
Some years ago, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) held a summer camp for emotionally challenged, scarred, abused, and unloved children. In the short week the kids and counselors were together, an amazing difference was apparent as children began to trust and experience love and joy. Some of those counselors went home with a determination to see how they and their churches could reach out and find ways to share the love of Christ with those precious children within their communities who suffered from challenges and deprivation.
The blessed irony is that by such tenacious love we and others will be enabled to become what we should be. We shall be loved into our redemption.
Now, I know from experience that what I am saying is true. I often feel my life can be summed up in the title of a little book by Jesse Lair entitled I Ain’t Well, But I Sure Am Better. Believe it or not, I am a lot better than I was when Susan first met me. Just ask her. And much of that improvement has come from the steadfast, faithful and patient love she has offered me no matter what I have been or done. For reasons I do not want to share today, I always felt I was not good enough – that I was not lovable – that I had to work very hard to earn my acceptance, to make up for my weaknesses, to disguise my faults and unworthiness by excelling or by staying out of the limelight. When I was in college and seminary, an A was not good enough. I required an A+. If I made 99 on a test or paper, I wanted to know why I had not received 100. And no matter how many successes I had, they were never enough. I was only as good as my next success. And because I demanded so much of myself, I found myself demanding so much of others. Good, average, mediocre, passing, getting by were not enough. There must be excellence and perfection. I made a lot of good grades and achieved many goals that way, but life was not worth living. And I was not an easy person to be around – which only compounded my sense that I was unlovable.
Through some very special friends at seminary but mostly through the unconditional and tenacious love of my wife, that warped vision of myself began to change. And over the years I have been loved into my redemption, though I still have a long way to go. There are still too many times I wonder how my wife and friends can really love me as I am. So, as I said, I ain’t well, but I sure am better. At least I am going in the right direction. And the older I get, the more I believe that what is important to God is not where we are located on the continuum of our redemption and wholeness, but rather our direction on that continuum.
May God grant each of us the humility and the wisdom to do unto others as God has done unto us as we each hear in all the secret places of our hearts the good news of God’s unconditional and everlasting love for each and every one of us.