I received a call recently that a local resident, a homeless man, had died. Many people didn't like this gentleman. He was mentally unstable, and could be threatening at times. Also, he was openly non-Christian. The man had no money, but needed a funeral. He was estranged from his family, and died far from his home.
Fortunately, a church offered to give him space in their cemetery and pay for his final expenses, despite the fact that he practiced a non-Christian faith.
To me, that's very comforting.
When I was a teenager, an elderly immigrant in our community passed away. Nobody really knew how to handle it. Here was a Hindu, living in the Bible Belt, with no surviving family members. And she needed a funeral. Finally, the most progressive church in the area volunteered to host the services, which would be non-religious in nature. The locals erupted into a flurry of gossip about how horrible it was that this "hell-bound heathen" was going to be eulogized in a Christian church. Some people sent letters of protest to the church.
Thankfully, the pastor ignored the mail, and conducted the funeral right on schedule.
Jesus Christ, who advocated practicing kindness toward strangers, and spent quality time with sinners, would doubtless have a word or two to say to these provincial "Christians" who couldn't give up a few square feet of their precious space to allow a tiny handful of people to grieve over someone's demise. Have things come to such a sorry state that we only extend civility to our own kind now? Has the Church become that much of a hateful, self-serving enclave? Remember, if Christians extend true kindness toward people of other faiths, then those people might be inclined to become Christians someday. If they're treated like garbage, it's a safe bet that they'll never set foot in a church again as long as they live.
Remember the old saying about entertaining angels unaware? That means that the angels are probably not appearing as angels; otherwise you'd be painfully aware of them. Instead, they're probably appearing as everything we have been culturally trained to fear. They are the homeless, the beggars, the mentally ill. How do we react to panhandlers, drug addicts, or that surly teenager who flashes obscene gestures as we drive past? Do you think that an angel would really look like a loveable toddler with eyes like a Precious Moments figurine? Well, perhaps. But loving something like that wouldn't be much of a challenge, would it? Try showing love, honor and human decency to a raging alcoholic. Now, that's a challenge. Try loving a death row inmate or a man wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe. Jesus Christ dealt with people who were actually demon-possessed. Would we be willing to go that far? He calls upon us to love everybody, not just the people who make us feel safe. He taught lessons of radical love. We have to go beyond our comfort zone. We have to go so far beyond it that our heart nearly dissolves with fear.
Which brings me back to Joe.
I'm writing these words out of guilt. Joe frightened me. I have actually crossed the street to get away from that man. Now that he's dead, I'd be lying if I acted as if he'd been my best friend. Honestly, I feel like a heel no matter what I say--whether I admit that I didn't like being around him, or if I suddenly started eulogizing him as if he'd been the President of the United States.
It's hard to know what to do with difficult people.
Could I have been nicer to Joe? Yes, indeed. Rather than avoiding him, I could have at least engaged in more conversation with him. How's it going, Joe? Have a cup of coffee, Joe. You're a child of the living God, full of dignity and grace, Joe.
Of course, there's nothing I can do now, except learn from these mistakes. I can take note of my shortcomings as a Christian. The next time God sends me an angel disguised like Joe, perhaps I can react in a more Christ-like fashion. It makes me wonder what other angels have come my way that I might have missed. The more that any given person makes me feel uncomfortable, the more likely it is that Christ expects me to extend my love. Sticking with my own kind might make me feel safer, but it's hardly a bold new step in Christian living.
So I can only pray that my awareness may be increased so that, in the future, I don't miss another opportunity to share the true warmth of Christian love.
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