Somewhere Between Grace and Truth
We stopped at an Arby’s outside Chattanooga, Tennessee on our way back to Nashville. An emaciated figure named Jim sat across from me weeping into his meal. I had never seen a human being so totally broken. Pieces of him were strewn all over his life. He was reminiscent of those ubiquitous gaunt figures within Nazi concentration camps staring out from eyes that seemed too large for their sockets. His childhood friend and cousin, Tom, sat beside him holding him up as he ate. We were quite the trio. I had only just met Jim a half hour before.
Earlier in the day Tom called me with some vague description of a cousin who’d gotten himself in serious trouble. He needed my help in getting him out of it. I dropped what I was doing, walked out of my office and sat down in the passenger seat of Tom’s car around noon. Where I’m from you can assume what “trouble” means – Methamphetamines, or similar types of southern delinquency. On the ride down I got the back-story. It was not what I was expecting.
Jim was forty-five. He was a lifetime practicing homosexual who was HIV positive. He had a legal union from Vermont with a partner of ten years. The two of them were living in Atlanta. Through some series of events their relationship had turned violent. Eventually, it got out of control. After beating him and attacking him with a knife his partner had bound and gagged Jim leaving him to die in the back room of their suburban home. After days of captivity with no food or water Jim struggled loose and climbed out a bedroom window while his partner was at work. The only person he knew to turn to was Tom. Tom immediately called a ministry in Atlanta that specializes in serving the homosexual community. Tom called me. Four hours later the three of us were sitting in an Arby’s. Hence the reason Tom waited on the ride down to share the specifics.
Watching Tom put his arm around this diseased man startled me. To say that I was uncomfortable being this close to a homosexual would be an understatement. As a southerner I had been raised to stay away from them. To hate them. I can remember taunting the few I knew of in my high school. I did it with a certain sense of righteous indignation. My brand of church and theology over the years had reinforced the idea that homosexuality was an especially heinous sin that incurred a peculiarly intense form of the wrath of God. Any society that tolerated homosexuality was certain to incur the judgment of God. They are after all what’s wrong with America. I had the biblical passages to prove it. But that is not how I felt. I found myself caught between grace and truth.
My Pathetic Hateful Heart
We sat there in silence – except for Jim’s uncontrolled sobbing. Tom and I were there at that rare moment when a person reaches the end of themselves. Not many of us ever do. Every few seconds he would heave his shoulders upward, take in a desperate mouthful of air and collapse back down in a bend. It was a wheezy rhythm of brokenness. Unexpectedly, from a place deep inside my heart I caught the rhythm. I began to weep along with him. Partly for him, but mainly for me. He was pathetic, but he was not as pathetic as I. My abominable hatred for another human being was thrown back at my feet. My self-righteous nose that allowed me to consider his sin more offensive than mine was being rubbed in the gospel of grace. His humanity and need for mercy was doing a number on my sanctified homophobia. I reached out, took his hand and broke with generations of cruelty. We were the same untouchable and desperate leper bowed at the feet of the same Savior. Unclean. The untouchables.
I began talking. Fifteen minutes later I had dug underneath all the muck of his life and touched on that one root beneath all his current pain – sin and a need for fogviveness. Previously. Jim and I would have agreed on one central point – he was beyond God’s forgiveness. Fixed in his rejection. At this table at this moment Jim was the last remaining proponent of this conviction. “Where sin abounds, grace much more abounds.” The gospel of God’s grace was laid out with compassion and clarity. A righteousness which was not his own, but could be by faith, was set before him in the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He could be made clean this very day by faith.
I knew this lifestyle that lay on the surface was only a symptom of the same destructive idolatry running through every human heart. My heart. Strangely, at no point did I call him to repent of his homosexuality. Because, I did not need to. In the same way I don’t spend my time telling a drunk he needs to flee his drunkenness. He knows this. Besides, drunkenness is not the reason he needs to flee to the mercy of God. Jesus did not die to help people sober up. The sequence of grace is not clean yourself up and God will accept you, but God accepts you go sin no more. It’s our nature that’s the problem. Someone outside of us has to touch our eyes and heal our blindness; touch our lives and raise us from the dead.
The gospel I preached on this evening might well have been offered to a homeschooler. The same gospel applies to each equally. For when we speak in terms of the unapproachable purity of a holy God there is no difference between a homeschooler and a homosexual among fallen men. “For all have fallen short…” When I was done he looked up at me with a “thank you” on his face and then looked back down. There was no reply. We drove back in silence. Jim slept the entire way. Exhausted by decades of being exhausted no doubt. When we arrived back in town Tom took Jim into his own home with his wife and two young children. Tom’s unswerving mercy toward this man was a rebuke to me. I’m certain I would not have done the same – family or not. We parted ways. I went home and shared the day’s events with my wife.
I See It. It is Glorious
Two days later while sitting in my office I got another phone call. This time from Jim. “Byron. My eyes were opened. I see it. I see what you were talking about. God’s grace is astounding. God has forgiven me of my sins. I am free. Thank you for sharing the gospel with me. Thanks for coming to get me.” I wept again. Partly for Jim. Partly for me. I had so discounted the power of the gospel. Deep down I wondered to myself whether a person like Jim could actually be transformed by it. But, indeed it does reach down that far. Quietly, on that very morning, while he was eating a bowl of cold cereal in Tom’s kitchen, the light dawned in his heart. Jim called Tom. Then he called me.
Months later Jim stood before our congregation in the waters of baptism (we baptized him last so as not to scare the decent suburbanites who were baptized before him to death). He told the entire story. People sat stunned. He was baptized… “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Afterwards a line formed at the front of the sanctuary as all of us who had spent our lives staying away from the likes of Jim embraced him. We needed to embrace him. Octogenarians. Middle age couples. Single adolescent males. Southerners. Moms. Families. Conservatives. This may have been as close as any of us had ever been to sheer grace. Jim had single handedly altered our perception of gay people.
A few weeks later, as he was departing to live with family out of state, Jim addressed our church family for the last time. “You know that person you stopped praying for a long time because they are too far gone? That individual you gave up on? I’m that person. Don’t stop praying that God’s grace would break through. It can raise the deadest sinner from the dead.”