It happened to me again last week. A total stranger began pouring out their soul to me. This time it was a man at the hospital. He was clearly disturbed — wiping his eyes and putting his sunglasses on while waiting for the elevator to arrive at the fifth floor. He was fidgeting, nervous, desperate to get out of the building. So I struck up a conversation with him. He told me he needed to talk to someone, but he didn’t know where he was going to go, or what he was going to do or who he was going to talk to. And so I said – “talk to me.” At first, he was taken aback, but then we talked. And he scared me. He scared me because he hurt so much and because there was a battle raging inside his soul — a battle between good and evil.
He told me about the woman he loved deeply who was lying in a hospital bed, sick. Whose mental status rendered her incapable of making medical decisions. And although the two of them had been living together for ten years, he was not able to be part of her decisional care. His heart literally ached because he had pounded his chest in anger until it was bruised. He wanted to be part of her care, he wanted to take her home, to love her, to provide for her — and he wasn’t being allowed to.
And then he began to talk about being a sinner. The worst of all sinners, he told me as he began to list the sins that he clearly felt made him an awful person. So I tried to enter into that with him. I talked about grace and sin. And I joined him at the front of that line of sinners. And then he said he had to go. He said he had an agenda, some things he needed to do. But before he left, he gave me his phone number “in case I ever needed to talk.”
I was left to observe that the world is full of hurting people. Desperate people.
What is one to do? How does one bring light to darkness? How does one bring hope to desperation? How does one bring healing to hurt?
How does one help people realize that they are “an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe.”? (Dallas Willard’s definition) How do you help them understand what that means and how it changes their life? And finally, how does one do it while standing in a hospital corridor in front of a gift shop filled with meaningless trinkets?
I did my best to be present in his pain as my mind raced, wondering — how was I to fully enter into this conversation? How could I, in this God ordained, unexpected moment, bring the Light of the world and the presence of God’s kingdom into his reality?
I struggled, you see, because I was raised in a religious culture where the answer was always to say “the sinner’s prayer,” to “ask Jesus into your heart.” And then magically, everything would be alright. Except, of course, it wasn’t.
I have learned as I have grown older that this world is a broken place and that pain and suffering is continually present. And I have learned that the gospel isn’t a prayer.
What is the gospel? Literally, it is the “good news.” Do you know what the good news is for Alan? It is that the kingdom of God is available to him, even to him, who believes that he is the worst of all sinners.
And why is he blessed? Because even in this, the worst of circumstances, the kingdom of God is available to him.
Isn’t that what Jesus really meant when he announced the coming of the kingdom? Let’s suppose I decided to write a modern paraphrase of the Gospel of Matthew — couldn’t I write: “blessed are you when your live in girlfriend is lying in a hospital bed in a non-decisional state — for yours is the kingdom of heaven?”
And what is the kingdom of heaven? It is the presence of God with us in the here and now. It is God entering the sphere of humanity to walk with us in our frailty, in our weakness. It is relational. It is God’s power available to us. It is grace fueled. It is “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
The kingdom of God is not some faraway place that we get to go to someday if we have followed the proper religious protocols! The kingdom of God has already broken into our earthly reality and is available to everyone – everyone who will receive that kingdom. Everyone who will take up the mantle of disciple and fully trust in the living God. A trust that is characterized by a radical shift in our thoughts, actions and motives. A shifting of dependence from ourselves to God. This is not an intellectual ascent to a set of salvific propositions, or the utterance of a formulaic prayer, but a trusting embrace of a risen Savior. It is embracing God with the entirety of our being: our hopes, our dreams, our future, our ambition, with all that makes us uniquely us.
It should not come as a surprise that a radical shift from self-sufficiency to God-sufficiency leads to an entirely different perspective on those concerns which dominate our daily lives.
Jesus said to his disciples:
Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them . . . . “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin . . . . So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’. . . . But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.
And what is the result of joining Jesus in living out the kingdom life in the here and now? Jesus put it rather directly to his disciples when he said:
Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.
As I look back I’m still not sure what I should have told Alan or what I did tell him. I do know that I tried to enter into his pain. I tried to assure him that God loved him and that God created him with worth, value, eternal purpose and meaning. That God had things in store for him to do. That he should go back up to that 5th floor and sit in the chapel and listen quietly and let God speak to him. I tried to tell him that God wanted to walk with him in this crisis, to hold his hand just like he held Deb’s. And that together, they (he and God) would make it if he did that. I don’t know if that’s enough. I don’t even know if that’s right anymore. Bud I do know God cares. I know He cares about a desperate man in a desperate world facing a desperate situation. And so I pray for Alan. That somehow God will intervene in his life. That God will fight that battle — that spiritual battle that is raging within him. And in that spiritual battle between the Truth and a lie, I pray that he finds the Truth.