AN ANGRY YOUNG HOMELESS MAN in charge of cleaning up the makeshift shelter at our church caught my ear this winter when he raged at another homeless man volunteering to help for not following directions.
“This is my f_ _ _ _ing church!” the man, I’ll call him Ted, shouted to underscore his authority.
Ted dropped the F-bomb in front of a wooden communion table carved with “Do this in remembrance of me.”
When not in use at the front of the sanctuary, this table backs against a partition wall built of brick glass in the fellowship hall where the incident happened. Above it, our congregation mounted an ornately framed replica of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” — a closeup of God’s index finger extended to touch Adam’s index finger to awaken life in him.
To make matters worse, in the midst of this religious stuff there was a child with open ears.
My son, Andy, 7, and I stood just 20 feet away to hand snack packs assembled by the Sunday school kids to about a hundred homeless people leaving the church for the streets by 7 a.m.
For many reasons, Ted’s outburst offended me.
But as my boy and I moved on to spraying window cleaner on the bathroom mirrors and disinfectant on the toilets, I started coming to my senses.
Thank you, God, for bringing me to my senses.
I began to think about how much I care about the man, despite the sacrilege, and how much I appreciate Ted’s ownership, however roughshod, of sacred space.
He wanted to clean God’s house, after all, and had been up all night checking in latecomers and keeping watch on the slumbering group.
In the weeks following the incident, the word “offended” gradually lost its usefulness in helping me process the event.
It started sounding like a doily sort of word, one a great aunt might use to indulge a sense of self-righteousness while she cleaned already spotless glasses with an embroidered linen hankie.
How tempting to practice social grace at church instead of practicing the real thing.
Our church’s office and facilities manager made an impression on me in this area years ago when we first opened the church as an overnight homeless shelter.
Some church members complained to her that they had found tiny empty vodka bottles in the library stashed behind bibles and books about prayer, marriage restoration, worship, stewardship, and the like.
Debbie listened when some folks in our 100-member congregation reported yet another coffee or Kool-Aid stain on the new carpet after big snowstorms pushed 130-plus homeless people inside.
Ultimately, she said that if carpet stains closed our doors to this ministry, the carpet needed to go — not the needy men and women on it.
This is exactly what I hope my sons understand of the faith their Dad and I share.
I hope they can see how empty vodka bottles and carpet stains too easily can frustrate God’s grace moving between people, and why we all need to look up again and again.
Michelangelo likely painted his “Creation of Adam” fresco around 1512 in Vatican City on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling for that reason.
In the centuries since people of from all walks of life have entered that space and looked up at an image of God as a greying, muscular man full of purpose and energy reaching to invigorate Adam.
The two share great eye contact.
Our church’s framed replica of their fingertips has begun to bubble, to reveal that it is a cheap imitation in a pricey frame.
How much better to be an authentic work — a work in progress — in a modest or even damaged frame.
Andy himself had words for the concept after we visited a friend of mine recently.
“Mama? You know their house looks poor on the outside, but it is rich on the inside,” he said as we drove away.