This is final installment of a three post series that tells a story of a journey I walked several years ago. If you’d like to read from the beginning, Part 1 (The Encounter) is found here and Part 2 (The Wrestling) is found here. Below is Part 3 (The Exchange) and the intent of today’s post is to share some conclusions I formed following the encounter with *Thea and subsequent wrestling. Again, my goal is not to create division or incite debate. All of this is just one girl’s winding road to gaining a clearer sense of God’s call for her in this crazy, crazy world.
Thank you for coming on this journey with me. Thank you for your willingness to read these posts. Although they are very personal to me, I have felt compelled to write of this journey into the mysterious grace and goodness of God. May the peace and love of Christ be with us all. We certainly need it.
*Thea’s name has been changed.
Part 3 - The Exchange
I remember that day vividly. I had just finished making a third attempt to schedule a time with Thea. On the other end of the line her voice was growing ever more distant. My intuition said our meeting would never take place. Thea hadn’t said so, not in so many words, it was a finality I sensed in me. I expelled a breath I didn’t know I was holding as I hung up the receiver.
The sun was shining outside my office and I was sitting at an oversized L-shaped desk that made me feel small and unfit for duty; like a child wearing ill-fitting clothes and playing secretary. Maybe that’s a bit how David felt wearing King Saul’s armor.
I stared at the faded walls painted with the slightest hint of blue. I focused on the stained oak trim, the speckled berber carpet, and the oval wood table wrapped by four empty chairs. This office had been a physical space ready to receive Thea. I had imagined her there. I prayed for her to be there someday soon. It was my heart, however, that needed preparation. My inner spaces had been stripped and gutted in the weeks I spent wrestling, all for the sake of preparing myself for Thea.
Sometimes the rooms that most need to be readied are the ones behind the walls of your heart.
The office, which was quiet, belied the storm inside me. I felt loss - a loss I couldn’t control. A loss for what might have been; what could have been. I felt unsure, questioning if I had misstepped and inadvertently hindered relationship. Mostly, I ached for Thea. The woman whose eyes had spoken more than her words had, and as a result, I caught a glimpse inside myself.
I moved my hand off the phone, folded my hands in my lap, and leaned back into the black desk chair. A flash of clarity struck in that quiet but chaotic moment. I finally grasped what I really wanted most from this burgeoning relationship with Thea, and it had nothing to do with theological conclusions regarding lesbian relationships.
I just wanted the opportunity to introduce Thea to Jesus.
I wanted Thea to know the love of God expressed through the Son. I wanted to help Thea to a place where she might consider a relationship with Jesus, not be shackled by religious rhetoric.
I laid my head back against the chair, let the sense of loss fully sink in, closed my eyes, and whispered this prayer,
“God, all I want is to get her to Jesus. You can sort out the rest, for all of us.”
And in response, God reminded me of a bible story I learned as a child about four helpers who carried their paralyzed friend to Jesus.
It’s one of the first stories that’s a Sunday School standard. It’s a story I’ve read it to my own kids. It’s a story that shows Jesus with the power to forgive and to heal. It’s a story that celebrates the faith of four friends who exemplified faith in action by helping their friend get to Jesus.
I can picture the four friends kneeling beside their crippled friend, having heard the news that Jesus was in town, and I can almost hear them say,
“Let’s get him to Jesus.”
They couldn’t guarantee what would happen when they got to Jesus, but they were confident it was the best place for him to be, so they loaded him on a mat and carried him to the place where he’d have the best chance for healing and hope.
Even in faux leather seats one can gather some authentic insights. Even sitting in your office at the church, God can clarify one’s calling long after you’ve been serving as a pastor.
“All I want is to get her to Jesus. You can sort out the rest, for all of us.”
I realized I held a lot in common with these men from Capernaum. We were bound by a common and compelling desire to get a friend to Jesus. My solitary hope was to say or do whatever I could to help Thea arrive at the feet of the One who knows her best and loves her most. The rest, I was becoming certain, would take care of itself.
“God, I just want to get her to Jesus. You can sort out the rest, for all of us.”
My ecclesiastical upbringing would rebuke me for what I wrote above in bold. I can hear the echoes that it’s not enough to get people to Jesus, but we also need to tell them what Jesus thinks. The latent fundamentalist in me would argue that what I wrote in bold is simplistic, naive, and void of the crucial responsibility of giving an answer to Thea’s question about God’s thoughts on lesbian relationships. Fellow evangelicals might demand that I “take a stand” and make a delineation about where I stood regarding the issue on Thea’s mind. Conservatives might begin to question my allegiance to truth, thinking I am wishy-washy and confused.
What do you do when you need to get someone to God but they have to go through you first?
Sitting in my office that day, considering the faith of the four friends, I had a freeing revelation. Just because someone drew a line in the sand regarding a particular issue and demanded believers pick a side, doesn’t actually mean that defines the reality of the Kingdom. What if there’s a different kind of line that’s of much greater importance? What if the line has to do with whether or not we will embody the love of God to all people, no matter what? What if love really is powerful enough to lead people to repentance, as Paul suggests in Romans? What if standing for truth meant more about clearing the path to Jesus, not making our way of thinking the gateway to His grace?
“I just want to get her to Jesus. You can sort out the rest, for all of us.”
Thus began the scandalous exchange. Right there in my office I began the trade. My debate card for a mat. Swapping my right to argue someone into the Kingdom for the privilege of helping someone get to the Jesus who opens up the Kingdom to all.
What if the “what” isn’t nearly as important as the “who”? What if I surrendered the chance to tell people what to think and just helped them go right to the source? If Thea wants to know what God is thinking, why not introduce her to God?
It’s a scandalous exchange, to be sure. A dangerous sort of transaction to consider. For some, to suggest such a interchange is to place my salvation at risk. I am not afraid, though, because my salvation is secure because of Jesus, not because I have the correct list of beliefs on the day’s hottest topics.
As christians we love to talk about God as being full of grace, yet we function as if the grace is limited in supply. We sing of God’s amazing grace, but act like it’s merit is directly correlated to our finite understanding of God’s mysterious ways. The wideness of God’s mercy is not endangered if I refuse to state an opinion or express my uncertainty about a particular issue.
“God, I just I want to get her to Jesus. You can sort out the rest, for all of us.”
While I was on my high school’s debate team, as far as I can discern, debate has never proven an effective strategy for getting people to Jesus. Gandhi famously said that he Iiked Christ, but not christians. I understand that sentiment.
So for now, I am done debating. I want a trade. I want to exchange debating for a mat. The kind of mat that will help get people to Jesus. A mat that is woven with love and patience. That is stitched with enough of my own imperfection to remember that humility matters. A mat that is not rigid and unforgiving, but has shock absorbers and is able to move with the inevitable bumps and curves of the journey. A mat that doesn’t fear honesty, but welcomes the doubter, the afraid, the outcast, the skeptic.
The only discourse I am willing to continue is the one where I share why a mat eclipses debate. I want to be busy getting people to Jesus, and I trust that if I can get them to Jesus, then he will take care of the rest - for all of us. And just to be clear, in stating that Jesus can sort out the rest, I am not championing the removal of teaching or discipleship. What I am saying is that discipleship begins at the feet of Jesus, not in the opening argument of a debate. So, I’m choosing a mat, not a rebuttal.
You know, the paralyzed man in the gospel story had four amazing friends. There’s no record that these four friends sat down with the paralytic to make sure his theologically leanings lined up with theirs before carrying him to Jesus. I can’t find the verses in the story that say the quartet peered over their bifocals with a judgmental air. Likewise, the paralyzed man isn’t recorded as having to prove he was worth the trip the friends were about to take. There’s no hint at the four expressing any kind of disappointment or anger with the paralyzed man.
These four friends gave time, effort, energy to exercise their faith in God. They committed to the journey. They followed through. They didn’t stop halfway, they didn’t elevate personal comfort over possible healing. They didn’t allow obstacles to defeat, deter, or dissuade them from their mission. In a rather shocking turn of events, the four friends when faced with the daunting crowd, made their own way through. They did what could have been seen as disruptive, presumptuous, and even destructive by making a hole in the roof of someone else’s house. That tetrad of friends worked together and did whatever it took to get their friend to Jesus.
Those mat-carrying, roof-tearing friends were certain of two things: their friend was hurting and Jesus could help.
These friends believed Jesus could change the life of their friend for the better.They didn’t add to his pain, they didn't create obstacles. They did everything they could to get him to the feet of the One who had the power to cure the pain, restore his standing in society, and change his life.
If I may, please allow me one other thought. It might perhaps further cement my status as heretic in the minds of some, but I will speak it here nonetheless. It is my unfolding belief that you and I can hold very different perspectives on all kinds of issues (even the most controversial ones of our generation) and both be authentic, Jesus-loving, heaven-dreaming people. And if I turn out to be incorrect about that last statement, I will have no fear because I also happen to believe in a God whose love covers far more than we could ever pen or tell, even if the “sky were of parchment made and every stalk on earth a quill.” (1)
I am discovering God is a lot less angry than I believed Him to be. I am finding that God’s heart beats for people in ways I would never have conceived. The only thing I am more certain of is the belief that God has a “single relentless stance toward us: He loves us.” (2)
My job isn’t to save people. My responsibility isn’t to convince others to align with my theological opinions. My role is not to sit as judge or jury. Because of Thea, I am even more sure of my calling…to get people to Jesus. All the rest can be worked out from there.
I suppose, for some, I have asserted some scandalous ideas, and yet the biggest scandal isn’t me choosing to trade debate for a mat. The most provocative scandal of all is a holy and wholly loving God choosing to cradle broken humanity in His “wonderful, Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love.” (3)
My assignment is to do whatever I can to help people gain access to that love.
We never ended up meeting, Thea and I. I never saw her again after that Sunday, when her eyes revealed her pain, and her pain broke open my heart.
I am forever grateful for Thea. She was the catalyst for coming to terms with my calling in this crazy, messy, beautiful world.
Upon reflection, now after several years, I think Thea was an angel of sorts. The kind of angel that shows up in brilliant light that gently exposes the darkness in our own hearts. The kind of angel that delivers a divine message sent for you to receive. The kind of angel that stays for a moment but whose visit is never forgotten. The encounter with Thea presented me with an opportunity to wrestle with important matters that resulted in a scandalous exchange. Thea kick-started a journey that brought me to an important trading post in my faith journey.
Through Thea’s courage, God took me down a path that revealed a stunning and breathtaking panorama of grace. As much as Thea might have needed to see that loving grace, I did too. I certainly did too.
- Lyrics from the classic “The Love of God” written by Frederick Lehman
- Quote from Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel
- A recurring line used throughout The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones