"You cannot conceive, nor can I, of the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God."
----Graham Green, Brighton Rock
I never connected cigarettes with the gospel before. But everything became strange then. When someone is dying, there are mercies so odd you hardly know what to do or believe.
I am remembering my first visit to my father in his new nursing home. I hadn’t seen him for 8 years. I opened the door and winced at the olfactory cocktail of urine, chlorine, and Febreze. Survivors sat dazed and blank in their wheelchairs in the living room, but no one who lived here was at home here, I suspected.
I came because God had tied a noose around my heart and pulled it tight. I could no longer escape the words from Micah : “And what does the lord require of you but to love mercy, to do justice and to walk humbly with your God”?
I came wanting to love my father near the end of his life—for the first time. I came wanting him to love me—for the first time. And even more—I came wanting him to know the love of Christ. This above all.
The visit, five days long, did not go as I hoped. He proclaimed his atheism. I was defensive. I remembered why I had never liked him. I felt like a failure. But I began to see . . . He was so very alone. Did anyone love him? I knew, as I left, that I would be calling, writing, praying. I knew I would come again. Was that enough? How would he know about God’s love?
It was time now to leave. I inched toward the exit doors, my heart tight and heavy. A woman sat at a table near the door smiling at me. It was Sally. My father had introduced me to her that first day as she hobbled down the hall, her body twisted with arthritis.
I hesitated, then came over to her table. “Sally, I’ve got to go catch my plane. But I’m so thankful that my father has a friend here. “
It was strange to even say the word "friend" in relation to my father. He had had no friends. Ever.
“Oh yes,” she smiled back, her eyes on mine.
“Does my father talk to you?”
“He doesn’t say a lot, but yes, we talk. We talk mostly out in the smoking shed."
Ahhhh, my father still smoked. Of course he did. My lips tightened. He had smoked all of his life, hiding the cigarettes in his car, where he spent most of his days traveling around trying to sell things. He bought cigarettes, hiding them and lying about it, while we ate and lived on a skeleton budget, always hungry. Whenever the cigarettes were found, there was war. We hid, shaking, every time.
No wonder she was his friend, then. It was the cigarettes.
I sighed. "He's not supposed to be smoking. He has a weak heart, and I think emphysema too. The doctor said he couldn't live much longer."
Sally shrugged her shoulders. She wasn't supposed to be smoking, either, of course. Who was supposed to smoke?
I smiled ruefully, then was curious. “Are you back there every day? What do you talk about out there?”
“Yes, we're out there every day. We smoke and we talk about God. Your father says he doesn’t believe in God, but I’m not so sure.” She lifts her eyebrows and looks wise.
My eyes widened. “You talk about the Lord with my father?” I did not even know she was a believer.
“I sure do,” she said, smiling her beatific smile.
My vision changes. Now I see Sally with my father out back, leaning against the shed walls, sharing cigarettes and the gospel. I try to forget how much I hate cigarettes. The smoke curling over her head suddenly looks vaporous, almost beautiful.
I grabbed her hands, curled mine over her swollen, curled fingers. ‘You’re the answer to my prayers.” We talked for five more minutes, then hugged, promised to pray for one another. I walked out, my mind ablaze.
Are God’s mercies really this vast---and this strange? How have I not know this? Narrow is the gate that leads to heaven, and so shall it always be, but wide are God’s mercies, so much wider and vaster and more appalling than ever I knew. And this is how it went: Jesus, the hound of heaven, lovingly dogged my father’s heels all his days, even at the last. Even through his killing habit, a loving witness was constantly present with my reclusive, renegade father.
I don’t know if my father ever yielded to the God he was unsure of before he breathed his last lung of air. But he saw the gospel as Sally offered him a light, a smoke, a word.
I could so easily have missed it all, these staggering displays of God’s character and heart.
And so can we all, if we don't look beyond what seems ugly or small or hard or trivial or impossible.
Narrow is the gate, but wide, wide are His mercies---and, strangest of all, you and I are part of them! Believe it. Put on your shoes or take off your shoes. Go, with cigarette in hand, or with whatever gift speaks love and life to those who are waiting, dying.
Wide, wide are His mercies.