Yesterday I spent the morning with an angry man as we waited in a lengthy queue for him to apply for a new Identity Document. His previous one had been stolen when he was sleeping under a bridge.
He spoke with a quiet rage that emanated from a heart so deeply wounded that it cut me to the core.
Desmond’s earliest memories are of trying to defend his mother, brothers and sisters from the kicks and blows of a drunken father. When his father came roaring and reeling into the house, his brothers and sisters ran to hide. But Desmond tried to defend his mother, fighting with all his six- year old, then seven year old, eight, nine and ten year old strength to ward off the blows directed at his mother and himself.
When he was twelve, his mother became ill and required an operation. After the surgery she developed a clot in her leg. She was sent home with a warning to the family that she should be kept very quiet and not moved too much, for fear that the clot could move to her heart and lungs.
Desmond was with her when his father came home drunk, ready to let fly with fists and boots.
“Come, Mamma. We have to get you to a room where we can lock the door. Get up Mamma, quickly, before Pa comes in.”
He coaxed his mother out of bed and into another room. It seems the clot dislodged and tangled in her heart, for she died that night. Desmond’s father disowned him.
“You killed your mother. You worthless little scum.” His brothers and sisters agreed.
I was not surprised to learn that Desmond followed his father’s footsteps into the bars and brawls of a life in the murky gutters of society. His brother did better and had a good job, a house in an upmarket suburb, and the financial freedom to indulge his passion for parties and motorbikes. As he grew up, he came to a better understanding of Desmond and they became close.
“If something ever happens to me, I want you to have my bikes, my boet (brother). I know you’d enjoy them.”
Perhaps it was premonition that made his brother say that, or maybe it was because he knew that riding big bikes fast carried a risk. Whatever caused the remark, it was hugely significant to Desmond — a rare sign of affection from his family.
Not long after that, his brother was roaring over a bridge when a truck lost control and forced his bike against the guard rails. It threw him off the bridge onto the highway below and killed him, while the bike went hurtling, riderless, along the road.
Desmond grieved with the family, but they would not acknowledge him. Though they knew he was living on the streets, they divided all his brother’s possessions between them, excluding him.
His father took the bikes.
He never hears from his family, though he quit drinking 5 years ago and is trusting Jesus to put his life together again.
As I listened to the liturgy of rejection, belittling, desperation and despair, part of me was crying out to God, “Lord, how does he come out of the tangle of pain and rage?” It felt far too trite to say “You need to forgive.” Yet I knew in my heart that unless he manages that he will never be free.
It was then that the reality of the wisdom of God’s salvation plan came fully into focus. God’s plan involves not only a commitment to Him — entrusting Him with our lives; it involves immersion in His body. It includes a loving, caring, community showing His nature to those in the family who have not seen it in their own blood families, empowering them to think differently (repent). Six weeks ago, Desmond would not have shared his story with anyone. Today he feels confident enough of our love for him that he can confide. Tomorrow he might be ready to release his family to a God of justice and forgive them for his own sake.
There is an alarming number of Christians who are deciding to “go it alone”, with the popular phrase, “I love Jesus, but hate the church.”
The tendency, when one is hurt, is to retreat into isolation, but nothing could be further from God’s way. Jesus warns us that in the last days the hearts of many will grow cold (Matt 24:12). The quickest way to grow cold is to leave the warmth of the body. The old example of a coal that is removed from the fire slowly dying is still valid.
While the church has often failed to show the love and grace that is part of God’s plan, to think that one can go it alone is to bow to the lies of the Deceiver. The church is part of God’s plan and He will present it to Himself purified in His time. In the meantime, let’s use it to learn how to give and receive grace; giving it by extending forgiveness to those who have hurt us, as an example to those like Desmond who so desperately need to see how it’s done, and receiving the grace of others when we ourselves fall.