There are a thousand stories; I’ll tell three (with changed names):
One: I come early to church on Sundays to meet with John and Robyn. We spend an hour praying for the needs we encounter throughout the week and praising God for his provision; usually we run out of time.
One Sunday I was running late. James was sitting on the sidewalk in front of the church—he had slept there—and I called a greeting over to him as I unlocked the door. He said, “Pastor, let me ask you something.” I locked the door and walked over, trying to think through what food we had in the church to offer. He looked up at me, I was still standing. His eyes were red and a little yellow and his grief was visible. He wasn’t asking for food. “Why is God punishing me?” he asked. I sat down.
The conversation took the hour. In short, he was grieving the loss of a relationship—one that he knew was unhealthy, but at least it was something reminiscent of family. I didn’t say much, but I did tell him the story of the man who was born blind, and the disciples ask Jesus: who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?
I love this about Jesus: he never answers the questions we ask; he answers the question we should have been asking the whole time.
Jesus tells his disciples, it wasn’t the man’s sin which made him blind, but he was blind so the works of God might be displayed in him. See, the disciples’ question assumed, sleeping on the streets, begging, blind, broken—God must be punishing this man. They see a man who is a warning, a cautionary tale of the depths to which our sin is able to take us if we don’t confess and repent. In short, they see the works of man displayed in him.
Jesus, though, had come from the Father who is working even now to right all wrongs and restore all things to rights. The disciples see shattered glass and want to know who broke it. Jesus sees shattered glass and is eager to know what image the Artist will forge from the pieces: a window, perhaps, in a church through which light shines to remind people of the great salvation of our God. In short, Jesus sees the works of God displayed in him, even before God works.
I told James I didn’t think God was punishing him, that God desired to display His work in him. James’s sins had done damage to his life, but for God’s part—God is waiting and watching for the moment his son might come home.
James didn’t like my answer. “Nah, I think God’s punishing me,” he said, and smiled as he lit a cigarette. Then he he promised me: “I’m going to think about what you said, though, pastor.”
Two: The first time I talked to Thomas, it was Sunday morning, and he was trying to get me to give him money. He started with kindness. He called me over to a corner of the church and told me his problems and how five dollars would fix the worst of it. When that didn’t work, he raised his voice so the room could hear him as people were finding seats for Sunday service and accused me of a variety of prejudices and character flaws explaining why I wouldn’t help him. I asked him to stay for worship. He cursed me out and left.
I didn’t have high hopes for the trajectory of our relationship. (I say this to my shame; there is always hope in Christ for reconciliation.) When he came back the next Sunday, I’ll admit, I was surprised, and I avoided him. I didn’t want to be threatened or yelled at again. This time, he stayed through service, and we were able to tell him about our shower Friday homelessness ministry. When he showed up Friday, he refused to speak to me, and talked to the other ministers about the things he needed.
Once he knew about Friday, I figured that would be the end of him coming on Sundays. I had him pegged as someone who would take, and take, without ever having any kind of gratitude or response. Sunday morning, he came in and participated in the service. I wondered what he was going to ask for at the end of service, but for several weeks in a row, he came on Sunday just to worship. I got over myself (which is to say, the Spirit won out) began to speak to him, and got to know him a little bit. He is a believer, and we began to pray for and with him.
He came to our Wednesday night small group last week just to thank us for everything we had done for him. He was working, back in an apartment, and was otherwise doing well. He shook my hand. He gave Phil a hug; we caught up. It only took Christ our Reconciler a few weeks to take Thomas and me, two sinners who can’t stand to be in the same room, and make us brothers.
Three: God is good about giving us reminders that He, and not we, is the one who saves people from their sin, who gives them a hope and a future. Shawn walked in on Friday, asked who the pastor was, came straight up to me and said, “I’m done.” It was the first conversation I had ever had with the man. I asked him what he meant, and he explained to me that he realized recently he was wasting his life, and he was old. Before he died, he wanted to live, so he was trusting in Christ to heal him and change his life.
I said, “That’s great,” and asked what I could do. He told me he needed to get out of New Orleans, and he needed a place to stay while he got sober. We made a call, got in the car, and I drove him to the bus station. He thanked me for the ride, and got out. About a month later, I called our ministry partners in Memphis where we had sent him, and asked them how he was doing—great: clean, sober, praising the Lord together with the church. God had transformed his mind, opened his eyes to see clearly, convicted him of sin, healed him, forgiven him, and saved him. We bought him a bus ticket. Praise the Father who allows his children to be a part of his work in the world.
Lord God, I praise you as the Artist who forges beauty from our brokenness, as the Reconciler whose blood covers a multitude of sins, as our Father, who allows us to participate in your good work in the world, who waits and watches for each of us to come home from our wandering, and runs to meet us in the way.