For years Mary had abused drugs. It began with alcohol. Then she began smoking marijuana. In no time she was smoking crack cocaine. But her drug of choice was heroin. After being scared of the needle that first time, she lived for it. Eventually, she would die for it. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Mary and I sat in my office talking about life. I shared some of my struggles. She shared hers. As we sat and talked about life, she eventually opened up about what was really on her mind. She recounted the years of shooting heroin. She recounted weeks living in a “shooting gallery” where addicts gathered to satisfy their cravings. She told details about her first time to sell her body for a fix, and mentioned the hundreds of times that followed.
Mary wiped tears from her eyes as she told me she had HIV/AIDS. Since she was dying, she needed to talk to someone about her soul. She needed someone to listen. So she sat in my office and she talked.
She talked, and I listened, trying to be fully present in the moment. She talked some more, and I listened, trying to care about her as a person rather than be entertained by the lurid details of her story.
She talked and I listened. But I confess, at some point I was ready for her to finish dumping her feelings so I could tell her of God’s love. I had good news for her. Good news of God’s grace.
And that’s when the conversation took an unexpected turn.
Mary surprised me by telling me of her desire to repent. Unfortunately, her idea of repentance–of coming back to God–seemed warped. She did not talk of God’s love. She never mentioned God’s grace. She didn’t say a word about God’s desire to forgive.
“It gots to be the Church of Christ!” Mary said with conviction.
“It gots to be!” she repeated twice for emphasis.
Sadness filled my heart as I processed her words. Here was a woman who desperately needed God’s grace, but instead trusted in her membership in the right church. In that conversation and dozens that followed, I tried to tell her of God’s grace. She always responded, “It gots to be!”
I would love to tell you how she finally came to the end of herself and reached out to God, trusting in God’s grace. But, honestly, that’s not how the story ends.
Mary’s “repentance” consisted of renewed acknowledgement of her identity in “the one true church,” as she said. She never stopped shooting heroin. I frequently saw fresh needle tracks on her arms. I always suspected the prostitution continued, though she never did admit it. Her repentance was never expressed in a broken heart or behavior change.
Her idea of “repentance” was simply to say, “It gots to be the Church of Christ!”
Mary died a very proud member of the Church of Christ.
Mary was not the first person to ever have this misunderstanding of repentance. She won’t be the last. But I still think of her every time I read John the Baptist’s call to repentance in Luke 3:7-14.
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”
Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
Have you ever confused repentance with being “children of Abraham?” Have you ever cried out, “It gots to be the Church of Christ!” like Mary? Perhaps we need to ponder the words of John. If God can raise children of Abraham out of stones, I think God can raise “the Church of Christ” out of stones, too.
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart,
O God, you will not despise.”