As I write this, I’m studying in my favorite coffee shop – the one with electronic music blaring in the background and bumper stickers displaying nuggets of careful reasoning like “Eve was Framed” and “Republicans: Proof Against Evolution” plastering the walls. Behind me, a girl is shaking and muttering as she comes down off a drug high, while at the next table over, a lesbian couple flirts. The air is thick with cigarette smoke, and friendly calls of “F#$@ you” get bantered between the barristas.
This is, ironically enough, my favorite place to study. Sure, some of it is the ambiance. It tickles that part of my heart that still loves tattoos and eyebrow studs. There’s a deeper level to it than that, though. What I love about this place is how much it makes what I’m studying make sense.
I’m in the middle of translating Luke 4:16-21: “And [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.'”
I just looked up from the translation to see the girl who was coming off her high trying to write in her journal, hand shaking, unable to make her pen produce letters while it quavered like a seismograph needle. It’s tragic, but it’s the sort of tragedy that makes you look at your life and feel a surge of gratitude and wonder. The sort of tragedy that makes even someone as poor as I am at what better Christians call “spiritual disciplines” bow my head and pray that God would help her.
At the same time, this place is beautiful. People call each other by name. They laugh together. They come up once or twice an evening to ask you for a smoke, or tell you random stories about lives you never would have guessed existed. Once a week or so I bring cards and do a few magic tricks for the barristas and their friends, and it inevitably turns into a performance for a dozen customers. These people have joy and value and worth.
The problem with seminary – and with insular churches, self-righteousness, and every other manifestation of Christian isolationism – is that it never reads Luke 4 in this setting. It never sees the bondage of addiction, the blindness of unbelief, or the poverty of the truly poor on their own terms. Since we live in a world that is very good at pretending its problems are small, Isaiah’s promise ends up feeling pretty small too. Put another way, many Christians fail to see the transformative power of the gospel because the only sick people they know hide their cancer behind closed doors and strained smiles. Here, they wear it on their sleeves (sometimes literally – I’m guessing that rainbow on my favorite waitress’s t-shirt isn’t meant to be a Care Bears reference).
I love studying at my coffee shop because it lays the unbelief of my heart bare. God makes servants out of people like this. People who hate him, who want to have nothing to do with him, who misunderstand him, who are running (and in the case of the guy across the room, dancing) in the opposite direction. People like Paul or Peter.
People like me.
That’s the other side of the equation. Just as I realize that Luke 4 is for people like them, I also begin to grasp that it’s for people like me. I mean really like me – not like the masks I tie on or the lies my ego whispers, but lme as I know myself in moments of despair and weariness. The more I see broken people’s beauty, the more I realize that it’s just as resplendent as any beauty I could muster. These people are just as valuable and wonderful as I am, and that means that I can’t barter my worth to avoid my own broken condition. I am just as in need of deliverance and hope as they are, even if I can hide behind the lie of respectability a bit more fully (wow, I never thought I’d refer to myself as “respectable”).
I think about Jesus sitting in the tabernacle. He’s just read the glorious prophecy from Isaiah, and there’s this beautiful moment of tension. He hands back the scroll, pauses, looks over the crowd, sits down. Tension is thick in the air. People hold their breath. Will Jesus offer some intangible hope for the future? Will he spiritualize away Israel’s sorrows? Or might He, could He possibly, give them something more?
It is to people like the crowds in that tabernacle, living in a godless culture, beaten down by oppressive power, by self-righteous religion from their leaders and by bondage to their own sins, that Jesus says it. It is to the guy I know here who’s Baptist father beat him, and the girl whose artistic talent got lost somewhere in the shuffle of sex and meth. It is to the seminary student whose powerful show of the gospel is a few pre-prepared card tricks and a pack of cigarettes out in case someone needs one, and whose sanctification sometimes feels like an edifice taped together from bits of pride and fear. It is to people as desperate for hope as we are that Christ says those simple words:
“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”