This past Friday I preached down at the gospel mission. (Once a month my church puts on a service for the guys and I do my best to attend regularly.) I really enjoy visiting the gospel mission. The service is refreshingly informal and the guys applaud everything, the preaching, the music, everything. (While the congregants of suburban churches also frequently applaud at the offeratory or special music, it is more in the role of an audience that has been entertained. At the gospel mission the applause seems more reflective of a spontaneous overflowing “We’re just glad you’re here” gratitude.)
Things always get interesting after the service when we break into groups to have prayer with the guys. Alcoholics, drug addicts (or, more often, both and) with a lot of baggage and personal history, they always have much to share. But what is most interesting is how I often see myself (and the whole human condition) in their stories.
Case in point. During our prayer session on Friday one fellow, I’ll call him “Dave”, shared a story of how God had been working in his life. Here was the story.
Dave was a drug addict who came to Edmonton looking for work. He had just had an interview a couple days before, but the manager had told him he’d need to pass a drug test before he’d be hired (standard policy). Dave panicked, as he had just smoked some crack and weed a week before. (While Dave was confident the crack would have passed through his system, he knew the weed would still be detectable. Hence, no job.) But just as Dave was about to despair, the manager came back and informed him the urine test would have to be delayed until the following day. Dave saw that as a sign that God was looking out for him.
With nothing more to do that day Dave decided to wander over to a homeless shelter for a free meal. (However, along the way he got sidetracked and took a couple drags off somebody else’s doobie. Doh! Back to square one!)
Once he arrived at the shelter he discovered that they were handing out bottled yogurts. With a sense of excitement a scheme began to come into focus. If Dave could get a clean donor to pee into the perfectly sized little bottle, he could smuggle the urine into the test. (That revelation provided another God moment!) So he asked a few guys if they were clean and (if so) whether one of them would pee into the bottle for him. One agreed (yet another God moment!). But then after “helping out,” the fellow confessed to Dave that he had smoked some drugs a few days before. Agghh!
However, Dave was undaunted. He began asking around again and soon found somebody willing to provide a clean sample. Now, finally, with the warm bottle in hand, the plan was at last falling into place. Dave was sure it would all work out. The next day he would come for the test and smuggle in the bottle of urine which he would transfer to the test sample so that he could get the job, get an apartment, and get his life back on track.
Unfortunately a further complication then occurred. The next morning the manager called and informed Dave that the test would have to be postponed yet again until the following week. This finally provided the set up for Dave’s question to the prayer group: He wanted to know, in light of this new setback, whether the urine would “keep” for a week or whether he would need to dump it and get a new clean sample in a few days.
As he looked at us keenly awaiting our input, I am not sure how much Dave appreciated the irony of his situation: asking for advice on how to beat a drug test from a couple visitors from a suburban middle class church! However, for all the absurdities of Dave’s story, he had inadvertently provided a window on the human condition.
To begin with, there was the obvious issue of addiction. Dave was unlucky enough to be addicted to illegal drugs, something which employers do not tolerate and for which there are tests readily available (unless Dave can find some clean, fresh urine). But there are countless other addicts who slip through, and actually are rewarded by, the system. For example, the cartoon Fried Society (published online for a couple years in the mid-nineties) has a poignant cartoon about a character named “Ross” who is an affirmation junkie: He lives off the affirmation of others. He needs their compliments to have self worth. There are no tests to screen Ross out. In fact, employers like that kind of junkie since the search for a fix often spurs on productivity. The same goes for materialistic junkies who work seventy hours a week to pay off the new Mercedes. In fact, we’re all addicts to one sin or another. Dave’s unfortunate addiction is thus a reminder of the struggles we all face.
In addition, Dave vividly illustrates the human penchant to spin things to favor our own interests and to interpret God’s will accordingly. “God wants me to leave my husband beause he wants me to be happy.” “God wants me to buy that new Mercedes because I’m his beloved child.” “God wants me to plagiarize, oops, I meant ‘use artistic license’, in appropriating the sermon illustrations of others as if they are my own.” The list is endless. Finding God’s hand in pawning off somebody else’s urine as your own is thus just one more in a seemingly endless list of justifications we have for our self-destructive, sinful behavior. Dave’s blind spot is not really any different than mine (or yours). Nor is it really any more ridiculous. If the angels chuckle as Dave finds God’s hand in his warm bottle of pee, they chuckle equally at the way that a seminary professor like myself interprets God’s will to justify my own sinful predilections. And that’s a sobering thought.
The best thing about the gospel mission is the way every service ends: with a rousing rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Okay, I know it sounds cliched. But how else could you end a service at the gospel mission? In that dingy room, with the grime stained windows and flourescent lights, the song is claimed with a sense of ownership that shames suburban congregations even as it makes the angels sing.