Who are we rejecting?

Historically, we haven’t been great at creating accessible space.

When Jesus welcomed children, the disciples rebuked the families. (Matthew 19:13)
When a woman poured expensive perfume on Jesus’s feet, the disciples and others were indignant and reprimanded her. (Mark 14:3-9)
When Jesus ate with “sinners and tax collectors”, God-followers called him a drunkard and glutton. (Matthew 11:19)

People who claim to follow God have often created firm boundaries around who they should and should not interact with.  In fact, it’s such a recurring problem in scripture that even post-Spirit Peter is rebuked for his prejudice against the gentiles. (Galatians 2:11-14)

The hard reality that we don’t want to accept is that we too are prone to reject others.

We don’t always do it overtly; instead, it comes through in the places we avoid, ways we design our spaces, and internal barriers we cultivate.

It comes through when we stare or avert our gaze when someone looks different, walk away if someone has an odor, or get upset if someone is disruptive.  It’s present if our spaces aren’t handicapped accessible, or are only accessible if you are wealthy enough to own a car.  It plays out in a combination of unintentional reactions and intentional choices that ultimately ensure a controlled audience around us.

This is not how Jesus operated.  When he entered a space, every image-bearer there was fair-game for his love and compassion.  He invested in those others rejected, touched those others avoided, and fellowshipped with those others judged.  He ensured he was accessible to any who desired to come.

If we desire to be Christ-followers, he bids us to go and do likewise.

I had the privilege of seeing this play out this past Sunday.  Jill is a member of our Community Bible Study who is navigating dementia, among other challenges.  The result is often constant –sometimes minute to minute — disruptions where she repeatedly asks the same questions or interrupts someone speaking to talk across the table.  In any other context, the quick reaction would be anger and ultimately kicking her out.

However, Jesus invited us to create accessible space.

I don’t think Jill recognizes the extent of her disruptions, and moments where she repeats things points to something deeper at play. Ultimately, amidst a lifetime of rejection and loneliness, she longs for community.

It can be so easy to grow annoyed at interruptions that we can miss cries for love and acceptance. Jill was crying out, and had we cared too much about finishing a study we may have justifiably gotten mad at her and forbid her from returning. Fortunately, God gave us ears to hear.

A pivotal moment came after she had been particularly disruptive; she turned to me and said, “Pastor Paul, I want to share something at the end.” Jill is not shy about asking for things – a ride, a cigarette, money – and I assumed she wanted help from the group; however, I felt a nudge from God to give her the floor.

Before we closed, I asked everyone to listen to Jill for a moment. Jill’s face scrunched as tears began to well in her eyes. “I just want to thank all of you. It has meant so much to me to be here with you all.” There was a clear depth she was pulling from with simple words, and I was reminded of several things: I thought of her alone in front of her quadplex, realizing her waves were not to be seen, but attempts to wave someone over to talk. I thought of the repetitive stories, where the character would listen to her and their lives would be changed. I thought of the frequent interruptions that ultimately formed a connection between her and someone at the table, even if small.

For years she has felt alone, neglected, abandoned and unwanted, until one day Ms. Chetta and a room full of people decided they were willing to listen to her. The simple act of being heard conveyed a level of love that she believed was out of reach, and where we felt disruption she felt acceptance.  In fact, she began attending the large gathering of the church when someone could give her a ride, and found even more people willing to listen to and hug her.

After one service, she boldly proclaimed, “I want to get baptized!”

For weeks she told everyone who would listen that she was about to become a part of the church; when the day finally arrived, she was simultaneously excited and nervous.  The moment of baptism was encouraging to the Body, but what was truly beautiful was her heartfelt and emphatic sharing of how this spiritual family made her feel accepted and loved:

“I didn’t know what it was to have people to love me, and not to criticize me, and to accept me as I am; and I know God accepts me as I am.  And this is best church, the best people, that I’ve ever had in my life, and I don’t want to give none of you up, because you make me feel like I’m somebody.  And I love every one of you.  I’m ready to give myself to Lord any way I can.  Thank y’all for accepting me in this church, and I love every one you.”

The Body gave her a standing ovation.

This moment was sandwiched between the moments that could normally be hard — repetitive questions, interruptions, asking for things — but this spiritual family decided that loving Jill was more important than a smooth, comfortable service.  Choosing to cultivate accessible space shaped by God’s Love led to immeasurably more than the congregation, or Jill, were expecting that Sunday.

Before Jesus approached them, so many people had lived with rejection, loneliness, and loss, and may have come to believe they didn’t deserve more.  Then Jesus saw them, heard them, touched them, and made it clear they were worthy of love, not because of who they were, but who HE IS.

We are to do the same.  I challenge you to take a moment now to ask the Spirit, “Is there anyone unseen, unheard, or rejected in my spheres that you would like me to love?  If so, guide and equip me.”  Then, go and love.  Reshape your spaces.  Cultivate community.  And do all of it not through your own wisdom or capacity, but HIS.

 

Excerpts of this blog were taken from “Stinky Feet: Loving beyond our senses”.  If you want to grow in “loving your neighbor” in hard spaces, this book is for you; learn more about the book and how to get a free PDF here.

 

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