I spent tonight at a bar... I don't get drunk. Actually I've never tasted alcohol. Not that I'm too good for it, just never seemed that cool to me. And I don't like bars. I hate the smell of smoke, I hate the noise, admittedly I had until tonight, for the most part hated the people. I hated the attitude. I hated the impulse to get drunk. I hated the way people use alcohol as a way to cover their discomfort in their own skin. I hated the way they fish for love, when their inhibitions have been dropped. And I loath watching them leave to consummate their temporal and unholy unions. I hated them, and I avoided them so I wouldn't have to show any one that hated them.
Don't get me wrong, it isn't that I went around town standing on a soap box outside of bars, screaming hell and damnation. I went to a secular college and spent a lot of time around these very same people in classes. Most of them probably never knew of my disdain. Knowing what I know now, I hope they never saw it. I see the photos on facebook. I don't post on them declaring their errant ways. I have people I count as friends among these people, but I avoided that part of their lives at all cost, and when those times came up, I had to work hard not to show my disappointment. You might be thinking “Jamin you're not a half bad guy. Hate the sin Love the sinner, that's what God does right? You seem to be pretty ok” That at least is what I told myself, till tonight.
In truth I now believe that my heart was far from God in these matters. Instead I think my heart was very similar to a certain pharisee Christ spoke of in Luke 18.
10"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee stood up and prayed about[a] himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'
13"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'
14"I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
I was like him because I spoke like him, nearly exactly like him. I said things to myself, even things out loud to certain people. Things like “you know I'm so blessed that I wasn't brought up like that. God has been so gracious that I don't struggle with that kind of debauchery”. These are nice words, spiritual words, in my case junk words.
We may be tempted to minimize the offense, cite my penitence in other areas of life perhaps, but Christ words are hauntingly harsh. To invert – That man went home unjustified. To think when I use those words, bear that attitude, God won't forgive my sin. That thought should be spiritually terrifying.
Back to the bar. I braved the bar for a blues concert. I love blues by the way. Funk, Jazz, Big band. Hated the book “blue like Jazz” but that was just because of the “Bunny” illustrations and it's cult status. Where was I? Blues.
I love the blues. It has a certain personality element. It's a music that is almost always enjoyed in more intimate settings than stadiums, it comes with an understanding that you clap when you want, cheer when you like it, groove when you feel it, and move with it. Almost anyone can learn to play it to some degree. It's simple, elemental, pardon the pun of a word. Groovy.
So I braved the crowds and smoke to watch Hamilton Loomis. The man is an amazing guitarist in his own right. If you're a blues fan he's well worth a look. So I went out to enjoy the concert, and got mostly what I expected, good music, bad people.
As I sat and listened I started letting myself go, enjoying the music. I sang, I moved, I smiled, I laughed, and then I looked. As I glanced around I observed something I had not expected in the slightest. I was surrounded by people who were much more similar than I expected. These people I had conditioned myself to despise were for that moment, my compatriots. We were sharing an experience, sharing our joys, sharing our laughter. As I gazed around the room, that before had been an annoyingly smoky haze, I started to see eyes, faces, persons with souls. The obnoxious man with too many cigarettes, became a person who's stress I pitied. The woman who's clothing had made me speak questionably of her moral, became a creation of God, a master piece of my father, searching desperately for his loving arms. The bartender, who before had been the parishioner of this lowest of congregations, became a tender if errant friend to the regulars. These were people, not ideas, and in that moment they deified my simplistic classifications.
Perhaps this is part of Gods common grace. “Common grace” is the name theologians have given to the truth of God's benevolence toward sinners. This is not “saving grace”, meaning there is still a matter of Justice to be resolved by the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ, but never the less God's posture is one of good will, even towards those from whom his justice with demand account. This is most easily seen in Matthew 5.
43"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor[h] and hate your enemy.' 44But I tell you: Love your enemies[i] and pray for those who persecute you, 45that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
God sees fit to give common grace to even those who live as his enemies. What is common grace? Common grace is a good cup of coffee, common grace is rain on our crops, common grace is a faithful pet, common grace is a stupid pun, common grace is a fragrant flower, common grace is an inside joke, common grace is a great blues concert. Common grace is God so loving the world, even those who reject his son.
As I looked around the room I began to see God's grace in every face, on every life. These people were enjoying life, laughing, living. Each one had been given one more day. One more day, one more breath, that is common grace.
Am I saying that God is right with each one I saw, or that this was evidence of their passage to heaven? No, many if not most are living in open rebellion toward him. I solidly believe that Christ and his particular saving grace, offered freely to all, is the only way to reconciliation with God. However as I looked around I realized something profound about God.
I believe the world is in open rebellion towards God. In our sins we aren't victims, we are disgusting guerilla warriors against a loving God. We propagate our own sins, we are thieves, adulterers, and rebellious miscreants, who are a shame to the very imago dei we bear, making us the worst of the fallen. Our desecration of God's image on our own beings, in a way makes us more disgusting than the devil himself, who has no ability to commit such an offense. Yet...
Yet in light of this, God still chooses to give us Joy, life, love, coffee, rain storms, sunsets, friendships, and blues concerts. God so loved. His common grace would itself be unavoidably large were it not overshadowed by the immensity of his offer of saving grace.
It is not sufficient for me to say that God loves those people. He is actively loving them, even as they ignore and reject them. He is infusing their lives with joy, even as they twist and maim it. Such was I before he found me.
If God loves them so actively, persistently, and tangibly, how can I do any other. How can I degrade them to illustration, and archetype. They are people, souls brought into existence by the hand of God and sustained by his very hand. May God deal with us ever so severely if we see them as any less.
C. S. Lewis said “you will never meet a mere mortal” everyone is an eternal soul, the question is, in which kingdom? This evidences of common grace, should drive us to be the light of the world, bringing them the message of saving grace. God has confirmed their eligibility by his common favor.
What does this mean for our lives ahead. Well each of us should press forward in prayer, council, and wisdom. Going into the world is tough, and dangerous, but it must be done. I am not recommending or approving of any course of action, but I think perhaps, I may just spend some more time this year in a bar.