Daylight was fading, and the rural highway seemed to be mocking me at every mile marker. My fuel was registering fumes, with no relief in sight. Each exit seemed to present the same absent hospitality that a traveling motorist searches for. And then, all hell broke loose…
From beneath the hood of my Volkswagen Jetta, glorious smoke began to interrupt the broadcast, invading my personal space. Without clear visibility, I put the car in neutral and drifted to the shoulder of the road until the car rolled to a complete stop. Opening the hood released the floodgates of hopelessness, a blown engine! In the middle of nowhere, as the October sun began to fade into the South Carolina west. I was frozen in the epiphany of helplessness.
No signal on my cell phone, and nothing but a lonely road surrounded by swamplands; have you ever been there? If you listen closely, you can hear banjo music and squealing pigs… What was meant to be a simple road trip from our new home in Asheville to the Atlantic coast had turned out to be a nightmare. My route home had been compromised, and my ideal surf trip would turn out to cost a fortune…a fortune that I did not have.
Bubba Gump stopped and gave me a lift to the nearest exit, where I set out on foot to the nearest gas station. Of course, they were closed! I found a payphone and dialed my wife… “Umm Jamie, I’m in a bad place. I hear banjo music. Have you ever seen Deliverance?”
Having recently transplanted from Michigan, we did not have very many contacts in our new hometown. So she buckled our two daughters into the minivan, and set out for the four-hour drive to rescue me. And after what seemed like forever, I called her back from the payphone. As it turns out, while she was in route to my rescue, the transmission on her van was blown. She was now the one stranded on the side of the highway with two little girls crying…
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”
If you have ever found yourself to be stranded on the side of the road, with daylight fading – you know the feeling of helplessness. If you have ever had your car repossessed for lack of payments, or your checks bounced for insufficient funds…If you have ever been forgiven 70 x 7 but then fallen off the wagon again, or completed twelve steps only to reach the top of the stairs for an epic crash all over again…If you have ever looked in the rear-view and saw the billows of smoke from bridges burned and relationships destroyed… If you have ever sat in the back of the church with arms crossed and fists clenched and tears of anger washing blood-stained hands… Jesus says, “You are blessed!” Perhaps a better translation of the original language is “happy” or “satisfied”. Because it is only in the posture of brokenness that grace is revealed to be all-sufficient.
Jesus talks about the poverty of spirit. He’s talking spiritual bankruptcy. The problem with the word “bankruptcy” and the concept of bankruptcy is that you’re not really broke at all. Currently, American Airlines is losing money, but the reason they talk about filing for bankruptcy is to protect their assets. That’s not spiritual bankruptcy. When we declare spiritual bankruptcy, there is nothing left in the bank.
Bend Your Knees
The opening lines of the Kingdom Manifesto do not begin with a call to arms, or a declaration of war. Jesus does not rally Israel to an emphatic battle cry against the Roman Empire. There is no Zealot flag waiving or palm branch parade… Instead Jesus interrupts the broadcast with a pregnant pause, followed by a description of what the Kingdom of Heaven on earth looks like. And it is NOT what they were taught to believe in Sunday school, with flannel-graph depictions of a white Jesus surrounded by the vineyard grapes of Zion. It is not a political delivery of God’s Fury on the Roman Empire.
Instead it is a hyper-exaggeration of the least of these; A characature description of a homeless, powerless, vulnerable beggar. Quite literally, the words chosen by Jesus to visually illustrate the coming of the Kingdom included “P’tochos” which means “to crouch or bend low, to beg.”
Happy and satisfied is the man who is broken so low that he has to crawl his way to the communion table. Because it is only the hungry that can enjoy the euphoria of the Body broken, and the Wine poured out… Content is the man who is spiritually bankrupt, for in his crawling in the dirt he has stumbled into a lottery ticket. And his subsequent inheritance is the immanent explosion of grace.
Jesus would exemplify this reality throughout his life and ministry. To the shock and awe of the professional religious establishment, it would be the self-righteous Pharisees who were often left standing outside the Kingdom Party, while ‘the least of these’ were embraced at the epic feast. On one particular occasion an unnamed woman ‘who had lived a sinful life’ had crashed the dinner party of a select audience. Her uphill clawing through the gatekeepers, past the hospitality team, around the host, and directly to the Guest of Honor – would provide the delicate platform from which Jesus would visually illustrate: This is what grace looks like - A woman of ill-repute clutching the dusty feet of a homeless, itinerant Rabbi, and finding the scandalous embrace of a God who crouches low to sit in the dirt with those who crouch low.
On another occasion, Jesus tells the story of two men who sat side-by-side in the front pew of the Temple Baptist Church. One of them lifted his King James Bible from the interior pocket of his three-piece suit, and waived it in the air as he praised himself for not being a dirty, filthy, sinner -> winking toward the alcoholic sitting beside him. Simultaneously, the spiritually bankrupt heathen had crashed on the altar during the last stanza of “Just As I Am”, and knocked with bloody knuckles on the door of heaven, for God’s mercy to expunge a criminal record that had made the front page of the Muskegon Chronicle.
Every chapter of the New Testament is drenched in the bloody blanket of God’s forgiveness toward the unforgivable. Blind men crying out against the insistence of the liturgical police, contaminated lepers reaching in faith for the Holy Touch of the Great Physician. Jesus had come to illustrate the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven by signing His Name next to those who have dismal credit history! He stoops to write in the sand beside a spiritually-bankrupt prostitute, the finger of God carving out a New Covenant!
This is the fulfillment of the Old Covenant, foreshadowed through the window of Rahab (the prostitute of ancient Jericho), as she was rescued from the immanent destruction. Her scarlet red cord was the fleshing out of her faith in the God of Israel who had come to set the captives free. So she imitated the exodus pattern: a sign of blood redemption over the doorway of her house… Blessed is the prostitute who is hanging on by a thread, to the hope of deliverance! Rahab would be rescued and redeemed by the God of Israel, and brought back to join the Royal Family. She had been lost, but now she was found.
One day, Rahab caught the eye of Salmon the Prince of Judah. He saw through the shame of her previous occupation and found her to be gloriously redeemed! He got down on one knee and wrote in the sand, “Marry Me?” History records that a prostitute would marry a prince. And Rahab would give birth to Boaz, who married Ruth. And Ruth gave birth to Obed, the father of Jesse. And Jesse would be the father of David, the King of Israel… And the ancestry of Jesus begins with a lineage traced back to a prostitute.
Unless you have ever been hanging on by a scarlet thread to the hope of a rescue, you would never fully appreciate the coming of the Mercy King. It’s not until you have considered robbing a bank to feed your children that you learn to appreciate the desperate times that call for desperate measures. And the journey from the cradle to the cross would paint a portrait of the scandalous grace that inaugurated the heavenly Kingdom.
Grace. Scandalous grace. Mysterious grace. Amazing grace. Bang my head against the wall grace. Knock me off my feet grace. Incomprehensible grace. Violent grace. Furious grace. Bloody grace. Terrible grace. Awful grace. Inexplicable grace. Stand up and sing grace. Sit down and cry grace. Gospel grace. New World Disorder grace. Upside down grace. Inside out grace. Crucified grace. Resurrected grace. The last chapter is still being written about grace. Redeeming grace. Whore-turned-virgin grace. Prostitute-turned-Princess grace. Body broken, blood poured out grace. Welcome to the Table of grace. Pull up a chair grace. Light a candle grace. Burn down your religious castle grace. Beautiful ashes of grace.
A friend of a friend heard from a friend who knew a guy who had a flatbed trailer. After what seemed like an eternity on the side of a barren road in South Carolina, my rescue had come. As the morning daylight was chasing the darkness, I could not lift a finger to save myself. Instead the rescue mission interrupted the noise of distant banjos and squealing pigs; I emerged from the bushes with self-inflicted camoflage and a mild case of night tremors.
I stood helpless beside the pick-up truck, as the Rescuer lifted my lifeless vehicle from the grave of hopelessness. I climbed into the passenger seat and began to take an inventory of the mileage on the dashboard. I started to calculate the cost of my rescue, and made mental notes as we began to drive away. Thank you is not sufficient! In a moment of clarity, I realize the ginormity of this occasion, and the visible picture of the heavenly invasion to a broken world.
The Rescuer was a man of few words. We did not speak for most of the ride home. He enquired about the safety of my wife, whom as it turned out, had made it home safely. He had come for one reason, to bring me home. He was committed to the mission, and I was strapped in as a passenger on a tour from a distant land; a prodigal who had filed for spiritual bankruptcy and had holy jeans, dirty hands, and a bit of a temper.
We stopped to pick up a meal at a fast food restaurant, and at the drive through I reached in my pocket for what was left of quarters and dimes and… he ordered a full meal for both of us. At that moment, I felt so unworthy, so helpless! After my first bite, I reminded him about my insistence to retain all receipts for gasoline and meals. After all, I explained, this was all going to be repaid! The Rescuer turned his face toward mine with a Southern grin, as if to say, “Bless your heart.” But instead of agreeing, he interrupted my insistence with an abruption; “You don’t understand grace, do you?”
And the truth is, I do not.
Grace is an unsolved mystery that has taunted me in the midnight hours. I don’t understand the reverse psychology that lovingly responds to hate, and turns the other cheek. I can’t comprehend praying for my enemies or giving my jacket to a thief. I can’t wrap my mind around offering to lay down my life for those who would relish the opportunity to take it. No, I do not understand grace.
Blood On Your Khakis
A few years ago my friends and I started a church. Downtown Asheville, North Carolina is a bubble in the bathtub of the Southern Baptist Bible Belt. This vacation destination in the center of the Blue Ridge Mountains is a home to an eclectic community of train kids, neo-hippies, trustafarians (suburban kids that are living off the grid, but frequent the ATM to access their Trust Fund), and one of the largest populations of the Gay and Lesbian community in the Southern United States. The ideal climate is an invitation for countless homeless individuals who are looking for a place to belong, and southern hospitality will bless your little heart…
One day I met a homeless man named Chris. He had once been a scholarship student at a private college, where he thrived as an athlete on campus. But Chris had an injury that led him to painkillers, and alcohol followed. Within a year he had lost his scholarship, dropped out of school, and was a homeless, drug addict. He burned bridges in nearly every relationship he had, and found himself in jail. The day I met him, Chris had been recently released from incarceration, and had hopes for a new beginning.
I began to meet with Chris for weekly bible studies and discipleship. He was learning to follow the Way of Jesus, and he seemed hungry to learn more about the Path of Descent and the journey of the cross. After a few months of intentional devotion, I baptized Chris in the Swannanoa River, behind one of the shelters that housed homeless veterans in our community.
Two weeks later, Chris disappeared. He had all but vanished from the grid, and no one had seen him in weeks. On the night before Halloween, I finally found him. He was standing behind a tree in a park, hiding. His hat was pulled down over his face, and he was literally trembling in fear… When I approached him he immediately confessed, “I relapsed, man. I need help!” As it turned out, Chris had gone on a crack-cocaine binge, and ran up a debt to a local dealer. “This guy is going to kill me if I don’t pay him immediately; Jay can you cover me?” Chris was looking over his shoulders and fearing that at any moment he was going to be physically attacked.
After a quick inventory of my seminary notes, I couldn’t find anything about how to deal with this situation… The answer might not be as obvious as one would imagine. Is the Church in the habit of paying off drug dealers to secure the release of a homeless addict? And after all, isn’t that kind of like the Ransom Theory of the Atonement - That Christ paid a debt to purchase our freedom? I labored over this question, but the answer came inevitably through practicum, no. Because we don’t have the money anyway!
Two days later, the Exodus Lovelution gathered for our weekly
“Family Reunion” inside the Community Theatre. As the call of the tribe was
swelling, the smell of coffee filled the auditorium. The drums began to pound,
and the natives assembled together to sing and celebrate and explore the Love
Letter… Hands were lifted in the air in adoration to the Mercy King, “and
heaven meets earth like a sloppy, wet kiss…”
And then it happened. Through the back door, a shadow emerged… stumbling down the isle came the prodigal. During the third song of our worship set, Chris crashed down to the front of the church. As he neared the stage, the lights captured a profusely bleeding forehead. His fingers had been literally ripped from his hands, dangling by a thread to the hope of redemption. The Worship Leader looked at me, and I looked at the bulletin: “This isn’t calculated in our order of worship!”
The music stopped, and the hush of the Family allowed for the audible evidence of a broken heart. I approached Chris, as he wept. He just kept repeating, “I’m so sorry God! I am so sorry… I abandoned you, Jesus have mercy on me!” The blood pouring from his head, mixed with his tears. His snot spread down his shirt, and he clutched my khaki pants at the foot of the stage, just sobbing. What a mess… blood, sweat, tears, snot, and a strung-out addict who was desperate for a pill to kill the pain.
P’tochos. Blessed are the spiritually bankrupted, homeless drug addicts, for they shall receive the sloppy, wet kiss of heaven – crashing into earth!