Snowmelt from the mountains above filled the river I was wading through. Needless to say, it was cold. For fear of losing the box of food I was carrying, I took careful attention not to slip in the swift current.
I crossed the river to visit a camp where several river guides made a makeshift home. During the summer, these guides worked for one of the many rafting companies based in the Colorado town where I live. They don’t bring in a lot of money during the rafting season, so camping deep in the mountains (free of charge) makes sense.
Indeed, when off the time clock, river guides try to live on the cheap. If they can find a place to set up camp for the summer, they can live free of many financial obligations. They only have to worry about what they eat and drink.
My box was full of food: fruit, soup and cookies. (Items that would supplement their diet of “noodles in a cup.”) Once I crossed the river, I climbed up a steep bank and walked a semi-hidden trail that led back to an obscure camp. All was quiet. They must have been in town … probably working. I dropped the food off in a shady spot, left a note and slipped back toward the river.
The food was an act of love. I met these guys a week earlier in a class I was taking with 20 other river guides. The course was a medical training seminar for “First Responders” who offer first aid in wilderness situations. For the most part, the people in this class needed the medical certification in order to meet hiring requirements for local rafting companies. I needed the course, too, but for other reasons. I’m a resort chaplain and needed the training for ministry-related reasons.
For sure, I was the oddball. Our first day in class started with a “getting to know you” exercise. We were charged with introducing someone else we met in the class. Tony was the guy who introduced me. “This is Joe. Umm … he’s a resort chaplain in Durango.”
Then came the awkward silence.
I know what they were thinking, “Why is this dude in our class? And what the #@&* is a resort chaplain? Isn’t this the wrong crowd for a religious guy to hang out with?”
Fortunately, after a few moments of pause, class continued.
One thing I loved about this group was their authenticity. They didn’t hold back. Even with the resort chaplain in the room, they felt no inhibitions about being themselves. Language didn’t change, and neither did the openness about partying, drugs and sexual exploits. (I’m not trying to draw a broad general description of the river guide culture … just expressing what many openly talked about.)
And then the great part … they eventually took me in. They accepted me into the fold. They shared with me, and talked openly of their dreams, religious perspectives and struggles. The resort chaplain guy began to become part of the river guide community!
Honestly, as the week ended, I didn’t think I’d made much of a connection. Then, on the last day of class, people started coming up. “Great to meet you Joe,” one guy said. “Give me your email address. We need to go kayaking sometime.” Other encouraging comments like that followed from others I’d met in the class. I was connecting!
So what happened? I think it was simple — love was at work. I listened and tried to be authentic and sincere. And these guys loved me in return, in a river guide sort of way. I discovered that the people in this course liked the fact that the resort chaplain guy was okay with them. More importantly, they needed to know that God was all about loving them even though they struggled with stuff that is diametrically opposed to His ways. I found a group of spiritually thirsty people, who needed to know that God is safe.
So a week later I was delivering food to some of these guides who’ve made their home in the mountains near my house. I’m trying to keep the connection alive with this group. I want them to know that I’m safe as they try and sort out spiritual issues.
Here’s what I’m learning …we’ve got to learn how to relate to people in a way that reflects the heart and love of Jesus. Matthew 9:9-13 is a story that helps us learn how to do this. In the story Jesus invites a tax collector to join his gang of disciples. The tax collector, named Matthew, throws a party and invites all the “wrong” people. Tax collectors and “sinners,” as they were called, show up. They were the kind of crowd that would have included my river guide friends.
Jesus is having a blast at the party. He loves hanging out with the “wrong” crowd. Then enter the antagonists, aka religious leaders. The religious leaders are noted as watching on the outside as the party continues at Matthew’s house. I imagine them peeking in through the window. They are shocked. This was scandalous. They ask Jesus’ followers, “Why is Jesus associating with the wrong crowd?”
Jesus overhears the comments and responds. “I didn’t come for the righteous, but for the unrighteous. I came for the sick, not the well.” Jesus was explaining to his religious critics that He came for the “wrong crowd.” In fact, Jesus made it clear that the “wrong crowd” mattered to Him.
There are two things we need to take from the story of Jesus at Matthew’s house. First, Jesus wants us to hang out with the “wrong crowd,” because it is an act of walking in His image. The alternative is peeking through the window and scoffing at those who have rotten reputations. (The sad part is that the scoffers are really the rotten ones.)
Second, this story tells us that we need to join up with the wrong crowd to truly identify our own condition. The “wrong crowd” is really the group most ready for Jesus. Honest evaluation brings all of us to the point of deciding whether or not we will see our true condition. We are spiritually sick people in need of the good Teacher’s healing touch. Joining up with the wrong crowd means embracing our need for God’s grace and love!
So, I guess, this is why I really deliver food to my river guide friends. They help me out. They help me see myself clearly. I am one of them. And I, like them, need to experience the love of God that awaits the “wrong crowd.”