When, early in 1992, I began full time work at what would soon become Sanctuary, I had already been involved in some kind of consistent outreach work in the inner city for close to eighteen years. Despite such lengthy previous experience of hanging out on the street with hustlers of one sort or another, or in bars with the kind of folks for whom the local pub is a combination of home and church, I arrived quite convinced that I had meaningful answers for people who often weren’t even sure what the questions were.
My earlier experience had involved touch-and-go activities – doing outreach for an evening or playing a gig in a bar, then going back home to “real” life. It took only a short while of walking day by day, every day, beside some of the poorest and most excluded people in the city – men and women whose lives had been smashed by repeated traumas, psychiatric illness and the homelessness and addictions that often resulted – to discover that my “answers” were irrelevant, my solutions ineffective.
I wanted to cling to the ordered convictions of my youth, but the chaotic lives of my friends pried them one by one from my grasp. I began to see that a happy, chirpy gospel that claimed everything would turn out the way we wanted it if we just had enough faith was not only not good news, but an affront to the very people Jesus said he had come to announce it to: the poor, blind, imprisoned and heartbroken. It was neither salvation nor justice for the ones who were beginning to win my heart.
It was unnerving to have the pillars of my certainties knocked out from under me. It was humbling to discover that my efforts were often ineffective. But what at times felt like snowballing catastrophe turned out to be a series of gifts.
I discovered that I needed my friends as much as they needed me. There were innumerable little ways, I saw, in which they were blessed, just as Jesus said they were – and some of this blessing began to rub off on me. Dimly, I began to realize that God was far, far bigger than I had ever imagined, or could imagine, and so was his gospel; that my own competence, while still of some value, was not even close to being the point; that it wasn’t up to me to rescue anyone. What a relief.
I began to revel in the joy of loving and being loved – loved! – by dozens of people who had nothing else to give. And by giving their love to me, they taught me this:
God is not in the business of giving answers. He is in the business of giving himself.
To receive a gift, you have to open your hands. I had wrapped my fists tightly around my own dogmas and putative abilities; only by releasing my hold on them could I begin to accept what God offered. To see clearly, you have to look past the familiar – you have to open your eyes and really look. I had to release my previous view of both God and people in order to see something I hadn’t recognized before: that God is among us, with us, just as surely as Jesus was so long ago, and often in the most surprising form.
Open eyes and hands. Open ears, nostrils and mouth. An open mind and heart. What the shepherds saw and heard on the hillside further opened their eyes to recognize, in a poor, defenseless infant, the King of Kings. And that must surely have opened their hearts and minds to a new understanding of the character of God, as well as their own blessedness.
“Why us?” they must have asked themselves and each other, over and over. “Why did God choose to announce this good news to riff raff like us?”
Why, indeed. You can imagine the reactions they must have gotten when they began to tell others what had happened. I wonder how long it took before they just shut up about it entirely, except among themselves? But the sound of that choir, the blazing light, the smell of the animals sharing space with the young family, the softness of the baby’s cheek – they must have carried those sensual memories with them for the rest of their lives.
I have sat beside Jesus in a dying man, held him in the shape of a homeless young girl, smelled him in the soiled clothing of one lost in addiction, tasted him in shared bread and wine, and heard his voice in the cry of one tortured by loss and even mental illness.
I want more of him, but I can’t control it. I can only be open. Simply open.