Harry attends a large church in North London. He used to work in marketing but now he’s a copy-writer for an advertising company. He leads a home-group and loves his family. He and his wife have two children aged two and four. His aspirations are few, his dreams limited to European football for his local team, Tottenham, who have lost their last two games. So much money, so little return.
It is Sunday and the service is over. People congregate in the church hall, chatting over weak coffee and biscuits past their sell-by date. The capacity for Christians to tolerate poor catering is legendary and Harry’s church is no different to many others. On Tuesday afternoon – he has been given flexi-time – he takes three hours off to serve lunch at church to people deemed ‘less fortunate.’ To some, the phrase is riven with middle-class superiority, but not to Harry. ‘Less fortunate’ simply expresses the brutal reality that life isn’t fair. It never has been and never will be. Some are born into privilege and others are not. Get over it.
Harry is standing in the church hall when he notices a man who has been attending the lunches on Tuesdays. He is sitting alone; no one has come to say hello. This isn’t usual in his church – it is, after all, quite a friendly place – but sometimes people slip through the cracks. If their bearing is . . . what is the word? . . . challenging, then many will avoid those who come on Tuesdays. Sometimes they smell of drink and almost all of them smoke; the odours are off-putting to say the least. Harry approaches the man whose name is Tom. He is also in his early forties. Tom smiles when he sees Harry; he remembers him from the Tuesday lunches.
The conversation which ensues is so simple, it hardly bears repeating. Harry enquires after Tom’s employment prospects and is soon reminded that Tom lost his job as a kitchen porter over a year ago. He took a sick day and was spotted out and about by someone from the company. They shopped him and the following day, he was fired. Do you have any qualifications? asks Harry. No O levels, GCSEs and certainly no A levels. No NVQs. In fact, nothing at all. Tom has nothing to offer an employer in the way of credentials. It strikes Harry at this point that had they been living in the nineteenth century, Tom would probably have been called ‘a simpleton.’ This is not a reflection of his lack of intelligence. In many ways, it is hard to ascertain how intelligent Tom is.
It is just that he comes across as a child.
He nods a lot and tries to make eye contact, but he cannot. He cannot meet Harry’s eyes, glancing away as he nods his head and smiles. He has a pleasant smile and an open demeanour but he retreats from another person’s gaze. Has he ever been married? No, never. Are his parents still alive? No, they have both passed away. Brothers or sisters? Yes, he has a brother and two sisters. The sisters he no longer sees while his brother also lives alone. Rather ominously, he is also unemployed, single and in his forties.
Tom’s teeth are cracked, some are missing and others are stained dark brown. Harry tries to make eye contact again but fails. Then, for some reason beyond him, his questions become quite personal. Did you grow up in a happy home, Tom? Yes, thank you. A little while later, was life difficult growing up? Yes, it was. His answer covers a multitude of painful truths. Later on there is mention of his granddad, who used to look after him. In fact, he still lives with her. Was he quite strict? Yes, he was, replies Tom, glancing away.
And there it is. Harry suspects, no he doesn’t suspect, he knows absolutely and for certain, that Tom has been . . . harshly treated. He hardly dare use the word ‘abused.’ He doesn’t know what has happened to Tom, but he feels it inside. He feels it so strongly that he turns away, unable to continue the conversation. He is internally wrecked. In fact, he must excuse himself for a while to weep alone outside the church building. He tries to calm his sobs, quelling them so that he cries silently yet without shame.
When he returns, he buys Tom a Bible from the book table. It is a children’s Bible, written in language which is accessible without being patronising. Tom has been attending church. He’s been learning . . . his words – about forgiveness of sins. Harry himself is struggling to make ends meet but he feels as though his purchase of the Bible is worth every penny of worldly wealth he possesses. In that moment, he would have sold his house to help Tom. But it is only a feeling and he knows that it will pass. Yet, right then, in the church hall, it swamps him.
And there’s the rub. Perhaps this is why he weeps. For he cannot save Tom. No, he cannot. He rages against the injustice which marches tall throughout the world. It is a world in which a boy is tormented by his granddad. Who knows what he did? Did he beat him? Did he humiliate him? Harry does not know. What he knows is that Tom faces a brutal future, with no qualifications and not much to offer an employer. He is alone with little family to speak of. And this is not right. It’s just not right and Harry is tortured by his own impotence before a suffering world. If he cannot do much to alter the life of one man in front of him, then at least there must be something to learn. But what? That he is a speck on an ocean of misery or well, what? Where is the value . . . what can be learned from someone like Tom?
Harry has read much about encountering Christ in the lives of the poor. He knows this truth through and through. That is why he volunteers at the Tuesday lunches. He knows full well that to care for Tom is to care for Christ on earth. But the contrasts are too much to take in. He struggles to understand what is plainly in front of him. Every service, he sings worship songs to a God of power and might. He is the Creator; he makes huge covenants and fulfils prophecy with dazzling efficiency. He is big and strong and well, he is nothing like Tom, that’s for sure. Christ was never abused by his granddad. He was beyond intelligent and whatever kind of dentistry they had back then, his teeth were surely in better shape than Tom’s. But most of all, he was powerful. He cast out demons and healed the sick. Effortlessly. At least, that is how it seems to Harry. And he’s been told in church countless times, that those with faith can live bold, powerful lives if they only exercise their faith. Victory is available for people who are like Jesus, who lamented his disciples’ lack of faith.
This is a world away from sitting with Tom.
It’s a billion light years from Tom himself, who can’t look people in the eye. Not only Tom, but Harry himself will always be failures in a world in which large acts of faith define the value of man. So what does Harry see when he looks at Tom? First, he sees himself. And then when he tarries long enough, he does begin to see the Lord Jesus. Slowly but surely. He sees first that but for the grace of God, he is sitting where Tom is. By an accident of fate, he has received an education and a better chance at life than the dishevelled man by his side. It is not fair but it is reality. He has not been humiliated by his granddad and who knows? Possibly much worse. He doesn’t give thanks as the Jews used to (in their case, the men gave thanks that they weren’t born a woman or a Gentile), no, he doesn’t do that. He thanks God for the opportunity to give a Bible to a man seeking a new life of faith. Parting of the Red Sea, feeding the five thousand, raising the dead, God appears to like the spectacular, but it is not so. He feels it. He knows it inside. In giving the Bible, he makes his own step of faith, small and soon forgotten, but then nothing is insignificant in God’s economy. Harry is sure of it.
And finally, he does see further in. He sees the Lord Jesus in Tom’s eyes, though the eyes dart away so very quickly. He doesn’t understand Paul’s words about being strong when we are weak. He cannot seem to make weakness feel like strength and his faith isn’t strong enough to hold onto the powerful God who is worshipped on Sundays. He is too far away and Harry won’t play word tricks on himself to convince himself that he is strong in weakness as though by saying it, it might just happen. And perhaps this is why in Tom, he finds a connection to the Lord Jesus. For he sees finally and for certain, that God is truly there in Tom. He is a man without qualifications, he is abused and forgotten and he smells. He knows that his Lord is all of these things to narrow the gap between human and divine. He is not far away and distant, powerful and remote. Not right now anyway. He is right there next to him. Weak and vulnerable and failing miserably at hiding his pain. Even when he smiles nervously, there is sadness.
When Harry sits with Tom, he understands that God didn’t just give up everything to come to earth in the body of the Lord Jesus. He did that, for sure, but that was a very long time ago. He understands that every encounter with another suffering person is a chance to be changed. To learn compassion, of course. That is easy to see. But much more. God is at once both transcendent – beyond us – and immanent, here with us. He is nearby in every act of generosity and every selfless move towards the ones who are so broken, just sitting with them hurts. Harry weeps not only because of his powerlessness, but also because he is being changed.
And change hurts. It is good but it hurts.
A few days later, he is in reflective mood. He doesn’t describe his encounter with Tom as ‘humbling,’ though that is tempting; it has been done many times before. For a moment, he doubts himself. He knows that vulnerability triggers sympathy and for a moment, he wonders if perhaps he is simply a victim of his own inability to control his emotions. But then he stops himself. Here, he senses, is an opportunity for faith. He is not strong enough to believe in large things, like healing or jobs. He simply prays for the opportunity to grow; he prays for Tom, whose needs are too great to contemplate.
And he prays for more chances to see Jesus in the every-day encounters with people deemed ‘less fortunate.’
© Richard Collins 2014
Discovering the Gift
...the One who formed you says, "Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are Mine."
Comment, comedy and capers for the faithful, faithless and fallible
Comment, comedy and capers for the faithful, faithless and fallible
The Bible, suffering, and the messy edges of life