Fools, Foolishness and Grace – by Greg Albrecht
Friend and Partner Letter From June 2015:
The left side of his body appeared to be paralyzed, so that his thin left arm dangled, looking as if it had atrophied. The right side of his body, with the aid of a cane held firmly by his muscular right arm, dragged his inert left side after it. He didn’t walk – he shuffled. Karen and I had just entered our local grocery store, and as we started down one of the aisles the crippled, grizzled man was ahead of us, hobbling along, in the company of a bigger and stronger companion.
As we stopped to select items to place in our cart, we heard him bellowing at his much larger friend and at other shoppers who passed by. He seemed angry at the world – confrontational, hostile and looking to pick a fight. In my younger, more foolish days I might have tried to “set him straight.” In those days I felt I had biblical justification – after all, Proverbs advises to answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes (Proverbs 26:5).
That said, I must admit my early efforts in life to “set straight” those I considered fools never turned out that well. Feeling “my oats” in my teenage years, my nose was broken several times (I now realize the fool during such “engagements” was me, myself and I). Later in life, I realized many of the immature behaviors and actions in my early life resembled the remarks made by Alexander Pope (1688-1744): “Fools walk in, where angels fear to tread….”
Sadly, my foolishness was not left behind when I graduated from the teenage years. My youthful foolish ways took another turn when, in my early 20s, I was ordained into the ministry. The badge of ordination served like quick-drying cement, solidifying my opinionated, dogmatic views in religious concrete.
In my early years in professional ministry, I felt deputized as a law-man setting the world straight for God. Upon handing me a “badge” of promotion, my ultimate ecclesiastical superior once told me that if I was unable to use my authority “to get the job done” he would “get someone else who could.”
Subsequently, while marching into hell for what I felt to be heavenly causes, I experienced many painful setbacks. In these cases, unlike the pain of my earlier nose “realignments,” the pain was emotional, rather than physical. Looking back, I believe the Lord was talking to me – but I have never been known to be a good listener and, as Karen will tell you, even when I listen, I am still a slow learner.
By God’s grace, I am now a grace-man – I’ve turned in the phony-baloney religious badge and the authoritarian six shooters. As a grace-man, there I was, just trying to buy a few groceries at the local supermarket, accompanied by my beautiful bride, minding my own business, when a Proverbs-like “fool” appeared! Not only because I want to be a grace-man, and avoid confrontations, but because my strength and physical agility is more a memory than a reality, I try to remember to follow the wisdom of the preceding verse in the same chapter of Proverbs – Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be just like him (Proverbs 26:4).
Thankful that I now realize I can’t fix all the world’s problems, Karen was only too happy to join me in moving to the opposite end of the store to continue our shopping in peace. Regretfully, she has seen the foolish side of me way too often! Peace prevailed until we made our way to the checkout line.
We initially joined a line, a few shoppers behind the angry, disabled man and his comrade. When the crippled and angry man continued his outbursts, discretion seemed to be the better part of valor. We moved to further distance ourselves from the fireworks that would surely erupt. The simmering volcano of emotion within this man exploded shortly after we moved to another checkout lane.
A young man who looked about the age of someone who had just graduated from high school was standing in front of the angry, crippled man. Wearing the same shirt that other employees of the store were wearing, he was quickly identifiable as an employee. The back of his employer-issued shirt extolled the glories of the grocery chain, proudly announcing the number of years it had been in business serving its customers.
The mad-at-the-world crippled man, ready and willing to provoke bystanders, nudged the back of the young store employee who was apparently purchasing a snack before going back to work. In an obvious attempt to embarrass the employee, the aggravated, partially impaired man demanded to know if the young employee knew the number of years his grocery store employer had been in business, as printed on the back of his shirt. The clean-cut, fresh-faced employee turned around with a look of confusion and bewilderment. His face was blank. He seemed lost, unable to give the answer demanded by the combative, belligerent man behind him. As the young grocery store employee quickly paid for his snack and started to walk to the back of the store and return to work, the bitter, hostile crippled man yelled at him, “Stupid!”
Time stood still – 15-20 people, shoppers and employees, froze as they watched this pathetic drama play out. Suddenly, the young lady who was the cashier in the checkout line we had joined came to the defense of her fellow employee. Bellowing at the irritable man she said, “Why didn’t you just leave him alone? You didn’t need to bully him. He didn’t understand your question. He is a wonderful young man with special needs – and I am proud to be one of his friends. His life is hard, and sad, and he deserves our care and love.”
By this time, the aggressive, crippled man and his larger, buffed-out friend were in the process of paying for their selections – so he and the young lady cashier for our parallel line were only separated by a few feet and a partition. He looked at her, and as Karen and I and other shoppers watched, his facial expressions illustrated his struggle to process the ugliness of his behavior. Attempting to downplay the repugnant reality that he had just bullied a special-needs person, the bitter belligerent looked at the female employee and the first word out of his mouth rhymed with “witch” (think female dog).
Then, after addressing her with his scornful, belittling one word mockery he said, “I’ll tell you about deserving love and care. Look at what life has done to me. I’m a combat veteran!” He had paid his dues, he said – and he wanted a little respect too. At that point, several young male employees, including someone who looked like a supervisor or manager started to gather around the self-described combat veteran. Accompanied by his quiet and muscular sidekick, muttering a final condemnation of the young female clerk over his shoulder, the disgruntled man shuffled his way out of the store.
As we paid our bill, Karen and I gave our verbal support to the young lady who had the courage to stand up for her friend who didn’t fully comprehend that he was being bullied and belittled. And as we collected our groceries, leaving the store, I brooded over this ugly and vicious encounter we had just witnessed.
The emotionally scarred and physically crippled man was obviously acting out his anger and rage, as he attacked anyone and everyone who stood in his path. But more than that – the tension-filled confrontation we had just observed served as a horrible, miserable metaphor of humanity at its worst. Like wounded animals, without regard for the needs of others, fears, failures and anxieties often drive hurting people to lash out at others. This brief cameo we had witnessed, of humanity at its worst, is just one of many examples of the polar opposite behavior of loving one’s neighbor as oneself.
It’s been well said, and bears repeating: there but for the grace of God go all of us. We are all crippled. We all have special needs. We all have had horrific experiences that form the story of our lives – some of the nightmares we have endured were the consequences of our foolishness, while we were the victims of other experiences we didn’t ask for.
Whatever the reason may be for our wounds and shame, our past is now part of who we are. None of us are righteous and pure and whole and decent and loving – no not one of us. We are all tempted to use our own grievances and pains to lash out at others. Apart from the grace of God, our actions and habits are often horrible and our lives miserable.
When Jesus appeared to his disciples after what they could only comprehend as his crushing and humiliating defeat on his cross, he said “Peace be with you” (John 20:19). He showed them the nail marks in his hands and invited them to touch his body, enabling them to identify their own scars with his own.
Jesus’ message was clear: no matter what we have endured, no matter how intense our pain, no matter how horrible and miserable our life has been, our scars need not be obstacles to our relationship to and with God. Jesus had just endured the ultimate torture and shameful execution, without the support of his disciples who abandoned and betrayed him, yet here was the risen Lord encouraging them.
Here Jesus is now, encouraging you and me. Because of Jesus, no matter how horrible and miserable the days of our lives may have been, and still may be, we can be healed from our fear, our shame and our guilt. Wherever that bitter, crippled combat veteran is right now, as he continues to drag his atrophied body through life, Jesus is opening his arms in a welcome embrace, “Peace be unto you.”
By God’s grace, may each of us contribute our part to help in collective efforts to help a bitter, fearful and miserable world know that the embrace of Jesus is for everyone. Because of God’s grace,