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Wrong Place, Right Time

Not long ago, I spent an afternoon smoking a cigarette with a convicted drug dealer and thief. Well, I wasn’t smoking the cigarette, but I was there nonetheless, enjoying the second-hand smoke and conversation. Well, enjoying the conversation and avoiding the second-hand smoke.

Our choice of setting? The no-smoking area of a hospital courtyard, large ‘Fresh Air Area’ signs over our heads.

As much as I enjoyed catching up with my friend - we’ll call him Mike - and offering what little I could by way of emotional support during his hospitalization, I couldn’t help but think that I was not supposed to be sitting there. “I am in the wrong place”, I would think as yet another healthcare professional glared at us on their coffee break.

“I am in the wrong place”, I would think as yet another healthcare professional glared at us on their coffee break.

From the perspective of the signs above our heads, of course, I was in the wrong place. But from another perspective, I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

My friend was receiving treatment for double pneumonia, a lingering consequence of the Hep B and TB he’d contracted during one of his four federal prison sentences. His particular expertise was robbing pharmacies and medical suppliers of their supply while in the grip of his addiction. Now in his late 50’s, long tired of his life of crime, and sober and drug-free for years, he still lives with the physical echoes of his previous life and often ends up in the hospital. He left behind many of his old friends and acquaintances when he decided to start a new crime-free chapter in his life, so he’s often eager to catch up, hear about my family, and regale me with stories when I visit him.

Joining Mike during his smoke break underneath the ‘Fresh Air Zone’ signs offended my deeply ingrained rule-following sensibilities, and the disapproving looks of passing nurses made me feel awkward, but I knew this was the right place to be. Mike’s history of trauma, drug use, homelessness, and incarceration often made him feel disposable, demonized, an outsider, along with the many others in our communities who are pushed to the margins for one reason or another. He often senses that he does not belong, or has been told as much. Sitting with Mike is just one practical way I can widen my community’s circle of welcome.

Of course, that makes it sound as if my friendship with Mike is a chore, something that I offer and he receives. Not true. I get much more from my time with Mike than he does from me, I am sure. But it still seems to me that Jesus is inviting me to share space and time with Mike when I can - even if it feels like I’m in the wrong place.

We are invited now and then to cross some lines, get in some awkward situations, for the sake of Jesus’ kingdom.

We are invited now and then to cross some lines, get in some awkward situations, be in the wrong place and the wrong time, for the sake of Jesus’ kingdom of welcome, justice, and reconciliation. Or, said a little differently: in the light of Jesus’ upside-down kingdom, the wrong place can become the right place - a place where the kingdom of ‘justice and peace, and joy in the holy spirit’ (as the apostle Paul puts it) breaks in, even if just for a moment.

Biking home from my smoke break with Mike, I was thinking of the many I know or have read about who were willing to risk much more than awkward glances to spend time with the wrong people, to be in the wrong place, for the sake of Jesus’ kingdom.

Sara Miles, inviting the unruly and the unkempt into her upper-middle class church’s sanctuary and transforming it into The Food Pantry, with free food for anyone who asks.

My friends and teachers at The King’s University, befriending a child accused of terrorism in one of North America’s darkest prisons, helping Omar Khadr re-write his story from one of despair to one of hope.

Will Campbell, advocating for the civil rights of African-Americans in the 1960’s American South while ministering to both poor blacks and KluKluxKlan members, insisting both that ‘anyone who is not as concerned with the immortal soul of the dispossessor as he is with the suffering of the dispossessed is being something less than Christian’ and that ‘Jesus died for the bigots as well’.

These people have not always been popular in the press, or at their local church picnic or family reunion.

These people, and the many others who’ve acted with similar conviction, have not always been popular in the press, or at their local church picnic or family reunion. But they were after something more than popularity. They were after faithfulness to Jesus and his strange approach to changing the world.

Gregory Boyle, another person who has dedicated his life to the upside-down kingdom through 40 years of solidarity with gang members in Los Angeles, describes Jesus' strategy this way:

“Jesus stands with the demonized, so that the demonizing stops.

He stands with the disposable, so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.

He stands with those who are outside, precisely so that the circle will widen.

You don’t erase the margins except by standing at them. Then you can look under your feet and realizing they are being erased.”

Reason enough for us to be a little more open to spending time in the ‘wrong’ place, with the ‘wrong’ people - for our sake, and for the world’s. 

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