Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Grace of the Boorish

Anawim is all my wife’s fault.

Look, I grew up in a normal middle class life. I had no thought or experience in having strangers in my home, or sharing meals with them. It wasn’t MY idea. Even when I listened to Keith Green, the prophetic musician who encouraged us to take strangers in our home, I didn’t understand really what he was saying there. My idea was to be a missionary—a relatively safe, but radical, undertaking suitable for a young, fanatical follower of Jesus. Although this involved much sacrifice, the sacrifice of one’s private space was not one I was ready to make.

Diane, however, had grown up in poverty. Not extreme poverty, mind you, but poor enough that pancakes was as much as they could eat a number of nights a week. Diane was often in charge of the smaller kids, making sure they got fed and put to bed at night as her mom worked hard every evening to provide for them as a waitress at a local bar. Certainly they didn’t take strangers in during those lean years. But poverty is the source of dreams for many, and so it was with Diane.

She had two heroes, or, dare I say, heroines, that inspired her. One was Florence Nightingale, who sacrificed her life and well-being for the sake of the sick and needy in a country far from her own, and so created an approach to health care that was compassionate and successful. The other was Jo, from the book Little Women. Jo was a teen tomboy when introduced, but she later ran an orphanage, welcoming the homeless and helpless. Some combination of this was Diane’s secret ambition for her life. But she knew it wouldn’t really happen. Such projects required a lot of money, which she did not have. But, again, the poor often have dreams that become reality in ways we would never expect. Without such dreams, Dickens wouldn’t have had anything to write about.

When we married, I did not know about these secret dreams. Early in our relationship, I was the talker, the dreamer, the visionary. My dream was to orchestrate a team to do compassion and spiritual ministry in Bangladesh. It was to love the impoverished in word and deed in one of the poorest countries in the world. We would sacrifice our lives, our middle class values and give ourselves to the poor in some far off space. That was all in the future, mind you, but I wanted us to prepare for the future now.

Diane was with me. She was ready to do this ministry as well. But the future didn’t excite her so much as the people who were around us right now. So only a couple weeks after we were married, we took in our first homeless man. His name was Roger, he had a slight developmental disability, and he had just gotten out of prison. Oh, and he was irritating. Really annoying. I mean, he didn’t have any idea of acceptable boundaries and proper communication. I mean, he was nice and all, but just not the kind of guy I’d want to hang around for long. Like two minutes.

So, of course, Diane invited him home to stay with us.

I tried to tell her all the reasons why this wasn’t a good idea. After all, our apartment was small. And we were just figuring out how the two of us were going to live together, let alone having another person with us. And Roger was just so… well, just… so like… Roger. I wasn’t sure I could live with him.

I explained all my reasons logically and succinctly. She understood and agreed with all of my excuses. But in her eyes, I could see her silent accusation, “Yeah, but what would Jesus do with Roger? Would He throw Roger out on the street, when all he needs is a week and he would be on his own? What about all of your ideals about sacrifice for God’s ministry? Hasn’t God put Roger in our laps so we could help him? Where is your compassion?” Mind you, she would deny saying any of this. She didn’t say any of this. But I know it was what she was thinking. So, against my better judgment, I agreed.

That experience was as miserable as I thought it would be. Roger was boorish and invasive. I couldn’t wait for him to leave. And soon, he did. That was a relief. We could put that part of our lives behind us.

And so we did. Until we and our Bangladesh team rented a house together for ministry purposes. We intended to have guests stay with us who were in need. And we did—a Nigerian woman who was waiting for housing stayed with us for a while. We also had a Vietnamese family live with us. Those were good experiences. But living with each other was something else.

The biggest clash in the house was between the two Alpha Males of the group—myself and Randy. Randy had some pretty strict moral ideals that were hard to live with—strict accounting of the team money and getting up early, waking me up a full ten minutes before I was ready to awake. Why, I wondered, couldn’t he be more thoughtful, more considerate of those in the house?

I really liked Randy, actually, despite his many insensitivities. And so I would show how I liked him. I used to tease him terribly with jokes that he found it hard not to take personally. I would laugh at his embarrassments and make fun of him before others. Of course, I would never think of myself as insensitive—not like him. After all, I was only bugging one member of the household, while he was irritating us all. Eventually, he left us without giving us much reason. I could never really figure out why.

Flash forward again. Diane and I were getting final preparations ready for Bangladesh, which meant, getting the support required. We had a team leader, a Bangladeshi with our missions group fully behind him. And we were staying in our churches “mission house” which housed missionaries temporarily while they were in the States. One of our missions board called us up and said that she had a friend coming to Portland and wondered if we could put her up for a few days. Sure, we told Karin, we’ve got an extra room right now.

And thus did Merilyn come into our lives. For a number of years. To this day, actually.

Merilyn always did the right thing. You could just ask her, she’ll tell you. In every circumstance, no matter how many personal boundaries she had to cross, she could always show you how her motivation was right.

When she invited our children to do that which we told them not to, it was because she disagreed with our values.
When she stayed later than we asked her to it was because we didn’t ask her to leave.
When we asked her to leave she was offended because we were being rude.
When she was rude, it was because she was telling the truth.
When we told her the truth, she was offended because it wasn’t a truth she accepted.

I asked the Lord to allow me to tell Merilyn to leave and not come back. He politely ignored me.
I begged the Lord to let me yell at Merilyn, to tell her all the negative things I thought of her and to invite her to stop calling. The Lord told me “No.”
That was frustrating. Doesn’t the Lord understand, I argued to myself, how miserable she was making us? How frustrating she was? How difficult she made our lives? How impossible she sometimes was?

It was at this point that I had the realization: Of course God knew. Not only did he know, but he planned it. That sneaky, divine Jerk! (I say this with all respect). He had every intention to make me miserable. It was His desire, from the foundation of creation to put in my path people who would irritate, confound and frustrate me.

Frankly, this became my primary ministry.

I have to say that I truly love Merilyn now. Yes, she is still irritating to me, but there is some consolation to that, because I irritate her just as much. And yet we talk and we try to get along and though our different values have sometimes rubbed each other raw, we have grown because of each other. She calls me her “annoying brother who I still talk to.”

And she is the sister without whom I would not be what I am. Without Merilyn, without Randy, without Roger I would not have been able to accept or appreciate Byron or Bryan or Will or Randy or Gary. Without Merilyn, I would have thrown out of my house the man who would preach at the top of his voice across the living and dining room. Without Roger, I would have found the man who stripped himself nude in the middle of my house unacceptable for my household. Without Randy, phone calls or knocks on the door in the middle of the night would infuriate me.

I deeply regret my attitudes toward Roger, towards Randy, toward Merilyn. And I deeply appreciate their input in my life. Without them, I wouldn’t have understood that dealing lovingly with irritation is a part of my share in Christ. Without them, I wouldn’t have understood that Jesus’ most difficult command is probably better translated, “Love those who annoy you.”

Without my acceptance of them, without my joy in all those who break the rules of polite society, especially the rules I hold fast and dear, I would be a much poorer man. I would be flat, the hollow man, my chest filled with straw instead of a heart.

Praise God for the annoying. May we all receive the understanding of what a blessing they truly are.

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