One evening many years ago, while serving as a volunteer chaplain for a local hospital, I was called and asked if I might visit with a man who was on the tail end of a rather lengthy hospital stay. This was not a member of my congregation, so we’d never met and I was told very little about his situation. In fact, all I really had was a name and room number – so you can imagine my curiosity and concern when I got to the room and saw several signs posted on the hospital room door, the largest of which read, “PLEASE do not enter before checking with the nurses’ station.”
When I did just that, the charge nurse politely told me that before I could go inside, I had to be “properly attired” with scrubs, a surgical mask, hair net, latex gloves, the little booties that go over your shoes – the whole set up. And then, the nurse said, before you go, make sure you put all the hospital scrubs in the disposal bag. I’ll admit I was beginning to wonder a bit at what I was about to encounter: What kind of illness did this man have, anyway? Should I be worried? Do I shake his hand, or should I keep my distance? I asked the nurse if there was anything I should know before going into the room – “Oh, it’s not something to be that concerned about,” she said. “Just an infection. I’m sure you understand that we have to be cautious.”
Just an infection! I thought. Seemed like an awful lot of concern for just an infection – nonetheless, without knowing what to expect and somehow expecting the worst, into the room I went. The patient turned out to be a bright and talkative older gentleman who was simply discouraged at having been cooped up in that room for so long – to be honest, he really didn’t seem all that sick! And as I said something to that effect to him, he replied in a stage whisper for the benefit of the nurse who was nearby, “Well, I’m hoping these people will let me out of here pretty soon!” To which the nurse replied, “Well, if we can keep you from catching any more infections, you might be able to go!” And that’s when it hit me. All this caution and cleanliness – it wasn’t for my benefit; it was for his! Here I was, quietly worried that I might catch something, but it truth it was me who was the potential carrier of infection. Come to find out, I was the unclean one!
I’ve thought a lot about that experience – about the ways we so easily isolate and marginalize people out of our own ignorance, our uncertainty and fear; about how it must feel when you realize that you’ve been pushed away and made to be an outcast because of that; and how very loving and liberating it is when somebody reaches out through the isolation to encounter you and touch you where you are. Despite the fact that all the precautions, albeit ones temporary in nature, were taken for his own protection, this man had nonetheless been feeling very isolated and was grateful for any conversation; although, as he said to me, it’s hard to have a conversation with someone when you see so very little of them beyond their hospital garb. How much more difficult it must be for those who, in so many ways and for so many reasons, deal with isolation every day of their lives.
It seems to me that as disciples of Jesus Christ, part of our call is to break through life’s boundaries – boundaries created by culture, tradition, acceptability, propriety and so much more – all for the sake of reaching out in love to those who have become isolated from life’s joys and blessings. The writer Elizabeth O’Connor says it very well, that reaching out to the outcast “is the most creative and difficult work to which any of us will ever be called . . . and [yet] this is the call of every Christian.” And, I might add, of the Christian community as a whole: in whatever form our ministry takes, at the end of the day our mission as the church is always to embody the relentless and unchanging love of God that seeks to invite people in rather than shut them out. And lest we wonder how this can be accomplished, remember that we have a model for this in Jesus himself, a Savior who crosses all of our boundaries, and reaches out into the very depths so that our lives may be transformed and our hope restored.
For me, one of the great joys of being a pastor has always been to witness what happens when God’s love “gets through” and the well-built borders we’ve constructed around ourselves as persons and as a people start to crumble. I’ve seen it happen, time and time again: at places like Sunday School, or Church Pot-Lucks, or even during those delightfully unscripted moments of joy and wonder that unfold during morning worship – all times when we all end up acting (and learning) like children in the best sense of that. I’ve also seen God break through amidst life’s most impossible circumstances – the loss of a job, a serious illness or family crisis, at a funeral for a loved one – those blessed moments when the hope and support you need the most flows in abundance from people who have surrounded you in love. Inevitably, one of the things that you begin to notice in moments such as those is that suddenly there’s no longer any division in terms of gender, generation, economics or background – this previously random group of individuals have by grace and through love become the people of God!
In our service last Sunday at East Church, we sang what is perhaps my all-time favorite worship songs, Jim Manley’s “Part of the Family.” (“Come in, come in and sit down, you are a part of the family. We are lost and we are found and we are a part of the family.”) It was for me, a great song with which to start off a new year of worship, fellowship and nurture, and I remarked to Lisa afterward that in so many ways this song really seems to fit the personality and utter inclusiveness that thrives in this particular church family. But more than this, it reflects the incredible truth that what makes us family is God: God drawing us together in love and touching us with a Spirit that welcomes us, heals us and makes us whole; and that is what makes all the difference.
So “come in and worship and answer the call, for we are a part of the family.” For this and so much more, thanks be to God!”
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry