I had just placed my open Bible on our wobbly old communion table when a racket in the main entrance stairwell interrupted. None of our group of 50 or so could see what was happening at first, but we could hear it: the door banging open, slamming shut; the steel nosings on the stairs clattering wildly; a woman’s voice leading the way, shrieking panicked profanities; the door banging open again, followed by a man shouting more of the same.
Robyn was sobbing as she came, flinging incoherent curses back over her shoulder. I spread my arms a bit in a “What on earth do you think you’re doing?” kind of gesture; Robyn opened hers too, and ran right into me. She squeezed me fiercely, hanging on as if I was a log in a raging river. My arms instinctively closed around her.
I had an inkling who might follow her through the door, and sure enough, here he came, spitting invective, snorting mightily and practically pawing the ground. Others had moved to stand quietly between us; he skidded to a halt, realizing he’d come as far as he could. The shift within him from blind rage to bluster was actually visible.
“Darren,” I called across the human barrier. “Go. Go now.” He was a short plug of a man, tattooed to the knuckles—not with the clever, colorful sleeves of a hipster, but with the blurred, blue-green phantasms of the jailhouse—pale scars snaking through the dark stubble on his head. After lobbing a few more threats and insults, with decreasing vigor, he turned and swaggered out.
Religion, as we understand it, is becoming less and less valid to us, but our hunger for real, deep, sustaining and refreshing spirituality is as voracious as ever. Often, such “spiritual” people are particularly sensitive to the essential fraternity of humanity and the magnificence of the natural world. Fragility touches them. Creativity moves them. They tend to be curious, and want to be open to possibilities that others might consider absurd or valueless. They believe that the universe is made of more than atoms and molecules, and that life of any sort is precious.
To such folk, and such values, I utter a quiet, “Amen.” But I think there’s another side to what a lot of people really mean when they say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” I think they’re sometimes saying: “I don’t want you talking to me about it. I don’t want anyone else scrutinizing my faith, because if they do, I’ll have to scrutinize it, too—and I may discover that my spirituality isn’t all that deep, coherent or integrated with the way I really live.
As much as we might like to at times, we can’t divorce our inner, individual spiritual lives from our outer, communal material lives. When we try, we actually separate what we say we believe from how we live day to day. We do violence to both ourselves and our society.
Have you ever had a real encounter with God? I bet you have. Maybe several—such encounters are encouragingly common. But not many of those encounters seem to take place when we are sitting in a church service. They tend to happen when we are out in the world, involved in real life.
I’d known both Darren and Robyn for years. He had been an important figure in Sanctuary’s early days, and even a kind of prophetic voice from the streets. For some time, he’d been unable to be present in our community without becoming violent; although this required us “barring” him for the safety of others, several of us still made efforts to stay connected with him on the streets.
I’m sure Robyn didn’t think of herself as a member of the Sanctuary church. She had often chatted with our outreach teams and other community members on the street, and received help with social service conflicts, support when she wanted to visit her parents out of town, and warm clothing in cold weather. Practical things which, added up, were the currency of simple human friendship.
It turned out Darren had already broken her wrist before she wrenched free of him and ran blindly, instinctively to the only safe place she knew. Someone in our gathering had called the cops; they responded with commendable alacrity.
I made sure that Robyn was safe with the officer and a couple of other women, then returned to our worshipping community, who had been waiting patiently and prayerfully throughout. We’re used to interruption. Our group, though small, is amazingly diverse, including homeless men and women, university and seminary students, people whose addictions are still active and others who are in recovery, young professionals and social workers, a mix of ethnicities and even a handful of “normal” folks. On any given Sunday, we’re likely to have someone hijack our time together with a psychotic rant, drunken jokes or anger, inappropriate song requests or the uncensored expression of a soul made raw by anguish.
Sometimes the interruption proves to be the action and even voice of the Spirit of God.
How would you describe the gospel? Would it be something like this?
“Jesus of Nazareth was and is God incarnate. He died and rose again to save us, and all who put their trust in him can be sure of forgiveness, cleansing, and eternal life with God.”
I believe all of that. It’s my only hope, and it fills me with gratitude. If I didn’t believe this, I doubt I’d be much interested in God—my energies would go into pleasing myself as much as possible. I do believe.
But it’s only one shoe.
Most of us go to church as consumers, not communers, receive the service being provided, and leave. We have little sense of living out the gospel together, day by day, in the world. A gospel that is only about the salvation of individuals minimizes the greater truth that Christ was crucified and resurrected to reconcile all things to himself, and to defeat all forms of sin and death.
The gospel that Jesus announced and lived was not only about rescuing and healing individuals. It was also about reconciling to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross.
What this means is that, when Jesus said He had been “anointed … to proclaim good news to the poor,” He meant just that: Setting people free from from systems and conditions that keep them poor is just as much gospel as setting them free from sin.
“I don’t think there’s much point in going on with our usual teaching time,” I said to the group once things had calmed down. “I think it’s pretty clear that God has already spoken to us.”
A financially poor, physically and emotionally abused woman—the very icon of an oppressed person—had fled her oppressor and run directly into the arms of “the church.” It could hardly have been more literal.
Later, I wondered, how do we also hold Darren? Because he, too, was clearly one of the “prisoners” to whom Jesus had come to proclaim freedom. I realized that we had instinctively been trying to do that, too. Far from perfectly, but certainly consistently, over almost twenty years. And despite his performance that day, I’m pretty sure he knew that.
Real faith and true religion. A living body, opening its arms.
Adapted from Resurrecting Religion by Greg Paul. Copyright © 2018. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Greg Paul is a member and the founding pastor of Sanctuary Toronto, a ministry and faith community serving some of the most marginalized people in Canada’s largest city, including those struggling with addiction, mental illness, prostitution, and homelessness. Greg is the author of several previous, award-winning books: Close Enough to Hear God Breathe; The Twenty-Piece Shuffle; God in the Alley; and Simply Open. He is the father of four children and married to Maggie, who has three children of her own.