While attending a local Independent Fundamental Baptist Church, my husband and I participated in what the church called the bus ministry. For those of you are unfamiliar with that concept, some of us would canvas the surrounding area for kids interested in coming to church in the hopes they would put their faith in Jesus and then be taught in the church or at least that was the goal.
One Saturday we were making our rounds to visit the families that sent their children to our church on the bus. We were rarely able to get into good or long conversations with the parents of these children. They pretty much tried to avoid us when we came to visit, but had no problem with us talking to the kids or picking them up for church. On this particular Saturday my husband and I were able to engage this dad in a good conversation. His English was a bit broken, but kind and welcoming to us. His family lived in squalor in this broken down trailer with makeshift rooms built on either side. It really was a sad sight to see the family living this way.
The kids would come running out of what seemed like a place trapped somewhere in a third world country. In fact, the DCF had been contacted and there was an ongoing case for the squalor the children were enduring. The kids were happy to see us and ready to go to church, but it was only Saturday. We assured them we would see them tomorrow. We stepped into the home and their mother sat in a battered, rose-colored recliner, cigarette dangling from her mouth, face glued to the TV screen and her back hovered intently over her the controls. She was a shadow of a woman with sunken eyes, the kind of eyes that come from years of drug use. She grunted when we came in and never looked up. She had four little kids. They ran around, beautiful, dirty kids, neglected kids, but they seemed to be loved strongly by the dad. He was a gentle man it seemed that had a lot on his mind, including his own addictions, I believe.
We chatted in this place where it seemed it couldn't get any worse than this for these kids, these people. These parents, these sinners. After some persuasion, the dad agreed to come with the mother and the kids to church. And that was so promising to me and my husband at the time. We, in our ignorance, thought if we could just get them to church then things will get better for their family. They will come to know Jesus, they will learn, they will see God's love here at our church and things will just get better. My husband and I left that place, that dreadful place, hopeful. Hopeful for this family. Hopeful that there is a loving God and that His people are loving.
It was the next day. It was Sunday and they were coming to church. We waited out front for them to come. They were late and we thought they wouldn't come after all and then just before church began, there they were. Ragged, worn, but there, standing in front of us. The kids scampered off out back to where the building for Sunday School was and they looked so happy...mom and dad were with them for the first time, coming to church and it seemed so wonderful. We greeted them warmly...we were so glad...then we brought them in and the stares began. Hardly a hello from anyone to these worn, tattooed, ugly, sunken faced sinners. They didn't go well with the suits, ties and dresses. It felt like we walked into a prison of male murderers wearing bright, white robes. There was a forced turn and smile or two. These desperate people needed more than that.
Then the preaching began and it was pretty okay until the preacher began to rant and rave about how long hair was shameful on a man and how horrible it was. The dad had long, flowing hair. The dad shifted in his seat and looked so embarrassed. I was thinking in my mind, really? Yeah, even back then I thought to myself, are you kidding me? Where was love and grace for this dad...this couldn't go any lower in life family? Come, sinners, come? Really?
What? After they get cleaned up to keep from offending eyes that have been so tainted by empty religion...sinners get cleaned up before you ever enter our church. Get your hair cut, get you best clothes on...clean the outside of the cup...do it, before. Before what?
The service was over. The family left before we could even come and say good-bye to them. I was completely blown away in my mind and even sad. After that service we couldn't persuade them to come again and shortly after that the kids were taken away from the family. We visited them again after the kids were gone and they seemed to get worse, especially the mother. She went to jail for fighting a police officer and seemed to be steeped further into her drug habits. The father seemed totally broken and trying to get his home fixed so it would be acceptable enough for him to get his kids back. He loved his kids. I could see it in his eyes. All in all, our church left him unaffected. Unaffected by the grace of God, the love of Jesus, the sweeping fulfillment of the Holy Spirit in an ever-entwining depth of joy in Him. Because it didn't exist. Not fully in me and not in the people at my church.
Those people needed to be saved from some of Jesus' followers at that point. Who are any of us? Are we too good for these sinners?
We sing that song, Come Sinners, Come. Really?
I say, yes, the real Jesus says come sinner, come. He is here, love is here, grace and forgiveness is here for you now, knock, take, eat, receive...right where you at, no cleaning up or getting "better" or "doing" better before you come to Him. No scrubbing your filthy nails first, no clothes shopping, no making yourself new.
He will make you new in every way and in His own good time and at His pace and in the way that He sees fit.
And I see it now, we didn't have to bring those parents to a church or that church, we needed to pour out the love of Jesus in every way we could upon them in that moment, in that desperate moment of life being so low. We needed to be the body of Christ and let them come into our home and into our private life and pour out grace, help and love, not subject them to scrutiny of their outward appearances. And what does that bring anyway? A false conversion and a false idea that one can clean up enough for God. Insults, scrutiny, obligatory persuasion, human control, threats, demands, oppression, will not help sinners come to Christ.
Love will. Love for the saints and love for the sinners and above all, our love for Christ and our emulation of Him in our own life. If He is lifted up He will draw all men to Himself.
Come, sinners, come? I say, yes. Come to the real Jesus. He is waiting for you with loving and open and forgiving arms just as you are. Just. As. You. Are.
Run to Him.