“Now the tax collectors and sinners were gathered around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’.” (Luke 15:1-2)
The famous Swiss psychologist, Paul Tournier, confounded those who came from all over the world to learn from him the secret of his phenomenal practice. He insisted he had no special secret and he also insisted that no school of thought had a corner on success. He claimed that it made little or no difference whether the practitioner was a Freudian or followed Maslow, Fromm or the Rogerian non-directional school. He swore that caring for people is what made the difference. The psychological theory was useful up to a point but in the end, Tournier persisted, if the hurting one thought they were being heard and that the person involved with them felt them worthwhile the world was on its way to being changed. It all sounded so commonsensical that the seekers waited for something more specialized and esoteric from him but it never came. To be loved, to be thought worthwhile, and truly enjoyed is better than all the drugs and the clinical assessments. To believe that someone truly likes to have you around is medicine for every part of us.
So many of us have experienced that. There were things about us that we so detested that we would have spiraled down into emotional oblivion if it hadn’t been for certain individuals who loved us. They saw us for what we were and loved us as we were and came to rescue us from painful isolation and self-hatred. They gave us the strength to go on.
But it was no easy job for them. However cranky or rude or even abusive we’ve been or are we still insist that we have our rights. We might not use the word but we certainly act on it. Everyone owes us and we expect them to come up to it or we’ll give them a piece of our mind, even if it’s only inside our own head.
If we saw it all happen in a movie on the screen we would think we would recognize immediately that our behavior was abominable. We would wonder at the patience of those who have stood by us bearing the pain of the abuse and ingratitude day after day after day.
And if we’re mistreated, or even think we are, how well we remember the details. We’re able to recall the very tone in which the words were spoken (so we think), where we were sitting when it happened and what was said just after that. Instant and complete recall! We who can’t remember where we left our keys five minutes ago can recall a six-months-ago complex scene in all its details.
Luke 14:1 tells us this remarkable thing. “One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee…” In light of how the religious leaders treated him you might think Jesus would have said, “Thank you but no thanks” when the invitation for dinner came. But no, he graciously accepted even though he knew (as the text goes on to tell us, that he would be “carefully watched”). But we mustn’t assume this was “easy” for him to do. That is, Jesus was no machine, programmed by God to run without feelings. Like the rest of us, the temptation to dismiss people was real but he decisively set it aside and did what he thought would please his Father and what was good to/for others. It’s appears that he never treated anyone in such a way that they got the impression that if they were obliterated from off the face of the earth it wouldn’t cost him a moment’s thought.
And maybe it’s this that devastates us most: When someone treats us as though our presence or absence doesn’t matter, as though our life or death makes no difference at all to them. And God help us, even if we know we’ve behaved in such a way as to “deserve” isolation we’re thunderstruck if that’s what we get. We keep mistreating people, though we know if someone treated us this way we’d surely walk off, and yet when we’re sidelined we’re devastated. Even when we know we deserve no better we wish for better treatment.
Israel complained in Isaiah 64 that God had hidden himself from them. He hadn’t done remarkable things for them, and that he was nowhere in sight when they looked for him. In chapter 65 God finds that astonishing and says, “All day long I’ve held out my hands to a disobedient and argumentative people. I’m even found by people who weren’t looking for me.” The fault didn’t lie in God and maybe, most of the time, I’d suppose, the fault doesn’t lie in others.
But in fairness, we sort of expect prolonged patience in God. He’s up to it. It may not be right but it’s the case that we expect him to continue to work with us even though we’re consistently a mess. In some ways that makes good sense because if God were the kind of God who would gladly leave us sinking in the muck we would think we’ve got the wrong God. What makes no sense is for us to keep mistreating other struggling people and expecting them to be God!
But if the story is ever fully told maybe we’ll be amazed at how patient and loving even ordinary people have been. These are stories of such grace.
The two lead characters in the movie Awakenings are Leonard Lowe (played by DeNiro) and Doctor Sayers (played by Robin Williams). Lowe as a boy becomes a victim of post-encephalitic syndrome and is cut off from life for about forty years (though he’s always aware he’s cut off). The doctor discovers a drug that brings Leonard out of the dead-zone and they find life again. The now adult Lowe is astonished at the potential of life and he loves it even more now, having found it again, than he would have if he had never lost it. While exulting in life, within the walls of the hospital Lowe meets a beautiful girl whose father is ill, and the couple are drawn to each other.
Sinister side effects of the drug begin to show. At first twitches and then jerking movements and as it progresses facial distortion and bodily behavior reminiscent of Huntingdon’s chorea. He realizes he’s sinking and his panic and desperation are only matched by his disgust when he looks at himself. What makes matters worse is her gentleness, poise and beauty; it only underscores his own worsening condition and though he’s now head over heels in love with her he can no longer bear to be in her presence so he plans to sever the tie. Their final meeting in the cafeteria is awkward and during it he insists that he’s grotesque though she fervently denies it. Her grace only makes it more difficult for him and he says a poignant goodbye (made even more poignant because he shakes her hand in a formal way) as he tells her he doesn’t want to see her any more. The truth is, he doesn’t want her to see him anymore. Love for her and his self-disgust mingle in that mysterious way they often do in life and it’s precisely that mix that drives him against his will to walk away.
He moves from the table jerking violently, face contorted and with chaos in his soul. She follows him, turns him round, takes his hand and slowly but gently and deliberately puts it on her waist and holds the other in her own and begins to dance with him. There’s no music, and they’re oblivious to the people sitting around, there’s just the two of them, he reluctantly and pathetically shuffling and she molding her steps to his. And that’s when the magic wove its spell. Her nearness and grace gradually brought order into his chaotic inner world and what drugs couldn’t do she did; the jerking and contortion took their leave and he found peace there in the arms of someone who loved him. Watching the movie was for me an education as well as a profound experience.
I can’t say I’ve personally seen or experienced a transformation as immediate and dramatic as that but I believe in such things. I believe that to be loved or to love someone changes the world, it actually becomes a different place. If Hollywood can imagine scenes like this why can’t we? And if we can imagine it God said he can do it. Wouldn’t it be a life-transforming experience to move up to a poor, jerking, contorted soul and begin the dance? Who knows what might happen? I wonder if I’m up to that? I wonder if I want to be up to it? It would probably be very costly.
And if you, poor hurting, desperate soul, can be brave and trusting and allow Him to lead you maybe even without the lovely music of life that others gratefully experience you’ll find self-disgust and despair slip slowly away. Of this I’m sure, if the transformation isn’t sudden or soon it is sure, it will happen for all who in Jesus Christ long for it.
[Write me if you wish, please.]

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About Jim McGuiggan

Jim McGuiggan was Ethel's husband for fifty-three years. They have three children and eight grandchildren. Ethel went to be with Christ on Easter Sunday, 2009 at the close of a gallant life. He has written some books including: Celebrating the Wrath of God; Heading Home with God; Life on the Ash Heap; Jesus: Hero of Thy Soul; The God of the Towel, The Scarlet Letter; and The Dragon Slayer.


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