Guest commentary by Donald McCall
It happened on a Sunday Morning. I was sitting in our usual pew in church next to my wife and alongside the grandchildren when all of a sudden everything went blank. Before I knew what was happening, an usher brought a wheelchair down the aisle, several people lifted me onto the chair and I was quickly ushered out of the sanctuary and into the narthex until an ambulance arrived to take me to the emergency room at the hospital. In my mind, I didn’t want to go to the hospital. I wanted to stay in the sanctuary with my family. I thought: What a wonderful way for a retired minister to die. I could just envision the next morning’s newspaper headline: Local minister’s sermon puts church member to sleep… eternally.
What surprised me more than the minor stroke that I had undergone was the great number of phone calls and emails and cards that I received after I left the hospital. It concerned me, however, that so many friends began their phone conversations with the words, “I don’t mean to intrude.” There were expressed concerns about intruding upon my privacy… or intruding on my home life… or intruding on my recovery time. It all began to sound to me like an old refrain of that popular Paul Simon hit song, “Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover” that begins with the line, “It’s not my habit to intrude, I hope my meaning won’t be misconstrued.” It occurred to me that my friends probably thought that there was some politically correct degree of intrusion into another person’s privacy or space that one ought not cross over. But to tell you the truth, I was thrilled that people did intrude into my life at such a time of physical anxiety, and I very much appreciated their expressed concern for me. It also reminded me of how important it is to intrude into each other’s lives. Intruding into other people’s lives is at the very heart of the Gospels.
When Jesus was sitting and resting by the well in Samaria, he entered into conversation with a Samaritan woman, which was an intrusive violation of all the social and religious protocols. Then, little by little, Jesus began to intrude into her past life, revealing more of her life story than she really wanted to tell. It was a painfully intrusive conversation, but it so transformed her life that she went back to her village praising Jesus for caring enough about her to give her “living water” to share with others.
The one thing that Jesus did more than anything else was to intrude into the lives of those whom he met. Again and again, we see him boldly intrude lovingly into the human scene. In Luke’s Gospel, we read that when asked if he was the expected Messiah who was to come into the world, Jesus responded positively and added that proof of his divinity was in his intruding into the lives of others through his healing of the sick and the blind and the lame and the deaf. That intrusion into our daily lives was at the heart of God’s loving compassion and the reason for sending Jesus into the world. Luke then concludes his brief discourse with Jesus saying, “Blessed are those who take no offense at me” (Luke 7:23). Loosely translated one could say, “Blessed are those who take no offense at my intrusion into their lives.” Or, more positively stated it could be added to those Beatitudes recorded in the fifth chapter of Matthews’s Gospel. As the penultimate Beatitude it would read: “Blessed are those who dare to intrude.”
Discipleship today calls for us to be willing to lovingly intrude into the lives of others. I learned that lesson anew almost every day when I was serving as chairman of the Nebraska State Board of Parole. Our main task was to intrusively examine every inmate’s criminal and prison record to determine whether or not they were ready for parole. Consequently, the questions that I asked at reviews and hearings were often not only intrusive but also very embarrassing. Like Jesus at the well with the Samaritan woman who was a sinner, it bothered me to ask questions that I knew would be hurtful and sometimes emotionally painful for an offender to answer. When I asked such probing questions of the criminal offender at a parole hearing, I was always surprised at the fact that prisoners were often more appreciative than humiliated. I was often thanked for intruding into the dark places of an offender’s life inasmuch as they knew that honestly facing their problems was the first step in getting their lives back in order again.
During those intrusive parole hearings I came to realize that we as pastors are often too negligent in intruding into the lives of our parishioners. During our ordination service, we vowed to “admonish and feed” those whom we were called to serve. It is my greatest regret to only realize now (after almost 60 years of ministry) that I was so infused with a desire to feed my flock that I often ignored the need to intrude into the dark places of their lives and to admonish and comfort them and guide them back into the light.
That fear of intruding was etched forever in my memory when my brother died. More than a brother, he was my best friend. We grew up together on the Presbyterian mission field in Syria-Lebanon. When the World War II broke out, we came as young teenagers to America and bonded even more closely than most siblings because, like the disciples, “there was no one else to whom we could go.”
I flew out west to conduct his funeral service. I knew that I was still in a state of denial that was morphing into a state of anger. I couldn’t help but think of all the plans and dreams we had shared of spending our retirement years together. I was totally devastated by his premature demise. I prayed earnestly that someone would intervene and help me work through my grief. No one did. My memory of that funeral service is a blank to this day. My mind refused to accept what was happening.
I couldn’t wait to leave and return home. In my heart I knew that at home I would be comforted by my ministry colleagues and my close friends. Unfortunately, when I did return home, my friends and colleagues were all too hesitant to intrude into my profound grief and sorrow. They asked me how the trip went; what the weather was like; if there were many flowers. All questions of avoidance rather than daring to intrude into my deepest feelings. I felt very much like Jesus must have felt when he was surrounded by his disciples, but yet alone in the Garden of Gethsemane. So I kept my feelings to myself. Bottled up.
About a week later while I was on parole board business in the penitentiary, I stopped for some reason on death row and in the course of a conversation there I heard one of the inmates, whom I knew quite well, call out to me saying, “Hey, Doc, have you got a minute?”
Recognizing his voice I answered, “Sure, Willy, I’ll be right there.” As I walked to his cell I tried to think of something helpful and comforting to say to him, knowing that he was within weeks of his execution date. As his cell door opened up, I walked in and he greeted me by reaching out and putting his hand on my forearm. He was an African-American man taller than my 6-foot frame. Then he looked at me straight in the eye and in a lowered voice said, “I hear your brother died.” I responded, “Yes, Willy… that’s true. How did you know?” He smiled and said, “Word gets around.” Then, stepping an inch or two closer, he asked me, “Do you want to talk about it?” My eyes instantly welled up with tears that I couldn’t hold back. He put his arms around me and embraced me with comfort and understanding that only a man who has embraced his own death can share. He had intruded into my life where none other had dared to go. I cried until I had no more tears to shed. When I walked out of his cell it was as if the burden and the fear and the sorrow of death had been lifted from me. He had intruded into my life and absorbed my sorrow.
In the following days I realized again and again that he had ministered to me as I should have ministered to my parishioners in all the years past. I kept remembering the lessons that I taught the students in my homiletics classes. Lessons that I had obviously forgotten myself. Lessons such as my favorite quote of Richard Baxter, that prominent English clergyman of the 1600s who challenged his students saying: “You are to preach as a dying man to dying men.” That’s what Jesus did. He violated all the politically correct rules of the establishment. Jews shouldn’t speak to Samaritans; women shouldn’t be speaking to men; the meaning of worship, the meaning of marriage. It takes great love to dare to intrude that deeply into another person’s life to “admonish and feed.”
I regret now that I didn’t intrude more into the life of my parishioners throughout all the years of my parish ministry. I know now what a blessed relief it is to have someone who will sit down at the well with you and dare to intrude into your life and to whom you can pour out your soul and absorb your grief.
Truly this text from Luke’s Gospel needs to be added to the list of The Beatitudes in Chapter 5 of Matthew’s Gospel: Blessed are those who dare to intrude.
DONALD McCALL is a retired Presbyterian minister living in Madison, Wisconsin.