This week's 'thought' comes from a fascinating little book entitled, "Holy Fools - Following Jesus with Reckless Abandon." I picked it up at a local bargain basement for $.99. (One of the better deals I've found in recent months, especially when one considers the quality of the book!)
It's written by Matthew Woodley who began his journey as a 'holy fool' after coming to realize his life as a comfortable, respectable, and "nice" pastor wasn't exactly what God had called him to be -- nor us.
The book is honest, well-written, realistic, theologically sound and challenging. And it lives up to the claim made on the cover: "A spiritual jolt for when your respectable faith becomes deadly dull." This particular selection (a story of sin on Woodley's part, and the grace he learned) has to do with "Embracing Ragged Sinners." Enjoy.
"I'm afraid that we (in the church) have become so ghettoized that we no longer (like Jesus) make contact with 'sinners' -- and we like it that way...
So we return to Phillip Yancey's question: 'What would it take for a church to become a place where prostitutes, tax collectors, and even quilt-tinged Pharisees would gladly gather?' I would answer: It takes holy folly -- and not just one or two holy fools, but an entire community of holy fools. If it takes a village to raise a child, it also certainly takes a community to embrace fellow sinners and raise new followers of Jesus.
About a year ago a bunch of big, tough-looking, pasta-addicted Italian guys with names like Sal, Vinny and Johnny, rented the abandoned restaurant next to our church building. They were trying to create a fine dining experience in an ugly part of town. Even after everyone told them it was a dumb idea (in five years this location had chewed up five restaurants), they did it anyway. They called it "316" because it was located at 316 Main Street.
As they were getting ready to open for business I paid them a visit, because: (1) I'm a very nice Christian neighbor and (2) I wanted to scope out the building so that after the restaurant failed we could use it for a cool young worship service. But when Sal and Vinny and Johnny discovered I was a local pastor, they asked me to come back in a week and bless the building. Of course, this put me in a tough spot: How do you bless something you want to fail?
A week later I returned and offered one of the most insincere blessings ever given in two thousand years of professional Christian blessings. It was very awkward. They kept calling me 'Father,' and I kept waiting for the Godfather to show up. They begged me to stay for a drink, so when I asked for ginger ale they laughed hysterically and poured me a glass of their best Scotch. (Just for the record I hate Scotch, but I did sip some of it despite the elders meeting that night.)
My wife and I became good buddies with Sal and Johnny and Vinny. They let us eat expensive meals at 316 for free. When my wife read to them 3:16 from the Gospel of John, they were so moved they framed it and hung it in the middle of the restaurant. I even repented and started praying with utter sincerity that God would bless 316.
We invited them to church, and Johnny actually showed up for Easter Sunday, and occasional Sundays after that. Another guy named Guido (or Jimmy) wanted to come, but Vinny told me he had to spend a few years at 'college' (i.e., the local jail).
About two months later, Johnny pulled me aside after a worship service. He showed me a pretty little box and said, 'I want you to pray for this box.' After praying for a building, I figured I could pray for a box. 'Sure, Johnny, but what's in there?' Tears welled up in his eyes as he said, 'These are the ashes of my twenty-nine-year-old daughter. She was murdered in Vegas. She told me that she had found Jesus through a church out there, but then she was shot. Will you bless her remains, and will your church help me do a memorial service for her?' My heart shattered, I gasped for air, and I whispered, 'Of course we'll be there for you Johnny.' I couldn't meet Johnny's request to pray for dead remains, but I would do everything in my power to walk beside Johnny in the depths of his grief.
The next week my wife and some other folks from the church helped me with the memorial service. We packed out the place with big Italian guys who stood by Johnny and wept like babies. I spoke from Isaiah 53 about how we're all just a bunch of lost sheep but Jesus loves us like a Good Shepherd. They wept even louder. Through it all, I was proud of our church family. I had started out acting like a religious jerk, but God used the entire church anyway to reach beyond our ghetto walls. We were acting like a community of holy fools.
How do we heal the wounds of broken people living in a broken world? It doesn't happen with programs or strategies. It happens person to person, through a complete identification of oneself with others. And it happens not just with a solo holy fool, but with an entire community committed to a lifestyle of holy folly."
What else could one add?
May God bless you as you seek to venture out of the fortress, or the "church ghetto" of respectability and niceness, as he calls it, and identify with those "sinners" living in the border lands all around us.
In Him, Pastor Jeff