How is it possible to admire Jesus so deeply yet be such an abject failure in imitating him?
It was cold last Sunday, and it started to snow minutes before the morning’s activities at church were to begin. I threw on a hat and some gloves and went outside to shovel the entrance to the church and a few of the closest parking spots. I like shoveling snow. My job requires little of me physically, and I enjoy expending a bit of energy. I had also been struggling to tie up a few loose ends in my sermon and I figured getting a bit of fresh and frosty air might clear my head before church began.
I was busily working away when a young man strode around the corner of the church. This, in itself, is an unusual occurrence, as we don’t tend to get a lot of people walking around near our church. We’re right on the edge of town alongside a busy highway, with the industrial side further to the north. There’s a large motor sports dealer immediately adjacent to us, a bunch of hotels and a few restaurants across another busy street. It’s an area with virtually no pedestrian traffic. It’s probably not the greatest location for a church, truth be told, but that’s another post for another day…
At any rate, the young man paused to look at our sign and then meandered over to where I was. “So, your service begins at 11:00 am?” I looked up from my shoveling and surveyed him quickly. Twenty-five-ish? Thin, stubbly, a little ragged. It looked like he had a reasonably warm coat and adequate footwear. But it wasn’t at all clear where he had come from or where he was going. As I said, people just don’t walk in this area. “Yeah, that’s right, 11:00,” I said with significantly more preoccupied impatience than pastoral warmth. I wanted to finish shoveling and get inside to print my sermon. And, much as is shames me to say this, I figured he was probably more interested in asking for money than he was in worship (Christ have mercy on my calloused soul). He paused briefly, before thanking me and walking on.
I finished shoveling and went inside to attend to my very important tasks. While my sermon was printing, I looked out my window. The young man had made his way out to the highway. He cut a rather forlorn figure, aimlessly wandering around the edge of town on a snowy winter day. Or so it seemed to me. I sighed audibly, cursing myself for being such a miserably lousy Christian. Why, for Christ’s sake, had I not said any number of other things when this young man approached me? Things like:
Well, our service starts at 11:00 but you’re welcome to come in and join us earlier for Sunday School—we’d love to have you.
My name is Ryan, what’s your name?
Do you live around here?
Where are you heading?
Do you want to come in and warm up for a few minutes? Do you want a cup of coffee?
We have another shovel—feel like helping?
Any of these options would have undoubtedly been a better and more invitational response than the one that came out of my mouth. Any of these options would have been what you might call a minimal expectation for someone who had been keeping company with Jesus for thirty or so years (and a pastor, no less!).
Any of these alternatives would represent the sort of ground-level threshold of human decency and kindness for someone who has been walking around for a while with the idea that the love we owe to the God who made us is most plainly displayed in the love that we extend to our neighbour. And that our neighbour is whoever happens to cross our path. Instead, I chose, “Yeah, that’s right, 11:00 am.”
When I was a kid, I would often read the stories of Jesus’ disciples in the gospels with a kind of smug incredulity. What an obtuse and bumbling lot, I often thought. The same men who basked in the divine glow of words like, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” were the ones asking Jesus if they could call down generous doses of retributive fire from heaven to deal with a bit of Samaritan inhospitality. The same Peter who heard Jesus explicitly say that he was going to Jerusalem to die was wildly swinging his sword in Gethsemane to protect his life.
The same followers who heard Jesus say “The greatest among you will be your servant” would later be squabbling about who would have the seats of honour in the coming kingdom. The unflattering examples could, regrettably, be multiplied. All in all a rather dismal collective performance, I thought. How could Jesus’ disciples—the ones who were right there with him, and therefore had none of the excuses afforded by the intervening time that I was glad to seize upon myself—so persistently misunderstand, ignore, and betray him? How could they be with him so long and in such an intimate way, and still fail to understand who he was and what he was up to?
How is it possible to admire someone so deeply yet be such an abject failure in imitating him? How is it possible to be so drawn to someone who has a simultaneous capacity to repel, so impossible and impractical is his teaching? How is it possible to so consistently repay beauty with ugliness, mercy with selfish disdain, illumination for willful ignorance, forgiveness with accusation, grace with ingratitude? How is it possible to be so careless with the precious human lives for whom Christ died? How is it possible to love someone for so long yet still know so little of love?
The young man didn’t come to worship at 11 am. He faded into a snowy horizon, possibly wondering why the welcome wasn’t a bit more enthusiastic as he trudged away from the church parking lot. His wondering would have been well justified. But the church entrance was unburdened of its snow, and the sermon looked immaculate as it rolled off the printer. I’m sure Jesus was pleased.
My grandmother sends out a daily email to her kids and grandkids. She’ll often include a quote or a thought or reflection of some kind. Sunday morning’s quote from C.S. Lewis would turn out to be rather portentous in hindsight:
Relying on God has to begin all over again every day as if nothing had yet been done.
Yes. And loving God, too. Even if we have been loving and failing at love for a rather long while already. We begin again each day with the charge to love. As if nothing had yet been done.
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