BY JOHN RYAN
Many years ago, I heard a very powerful Gospel story from the late Maurice Duffy, a famous priest of the diocese of Sandhurst. The story takes us back to a Saturday afternoon, and to the Australia Hotel in Shepparton.
Young Tom is back again drinking well, if not wisely, and very conscious that the demon drink which had played such havoc with other members of his family might be beginning to get a hold on him. It's just past 5 pm, and suddenly he begins to notice sounds of music, even the beat of a drum.
"Good God," he thinks "music already! Here it is this is what they talk about. Am I going mad, is the grog finally getting to me?"
Anxiously, with glass in hand, he makes his way towards where he thinks the sounds are coming from, and soon finds himself out on the street where the local branch of the Salvation Army have just begun their normal Saturday evening street service. Relieved like you could not imagine, he decides to stay awhile and listen.
Before long, Tom gets caught up in the spirit of it all. After first beginning to try to sing along, he then starts to conduct them with his free hand. Quickly he is well and truly at home, and begins addressing and encouraging them in language that is for him familiar, even friendly.
"Come on, he cries, sing up, sing up; come on, sing up.” As his enthusiasm rises, so does his volume and the colour of his language. He shouts louder: “Come on, come on you bastards, come on sing, sing you bastards, sing.”
It doesn't take long before the Captain is disturbed by Tom's language, and comes forward to express his disapproval.
"Excuse me sir", he says. "I need to tell you something. I am not illegitimate".
Tom looks dumbfounded, unsure what this is all about. The Captain goes on to explain further "I need you to know that I am not a bastard".
Now Tom understands and after a moment of silence, with a warm, if sad, note of compassion he says, "OK then, you needn't sing. You needn't sing.”
Why this story? Well there is a special wisdom there that belongs to the deprived, to children and to drunks.
Though in life we have a wish that we might live up to our ideals, none of us does and none of us is perfect. So we easily fall into the trap of constantly trying to be something other than what we really are as flawed human beings.
Sometimes the temptation is to portray ourselves as more than what we are, sometimes to present ourselves as less. Sometimes we present ourselves according to what we do or have done, sometimes according to our social status or as others judge us and describe us.
To put it in more precise language, we become alienated from our true selves, and so also from God, in our desire to make ourselves worthy, acceptable, loveable. Once on this endless treadmill we are distracted from the central fact of our faith, which is that we are embraced as sinners, unconditionally by our God, who himself has done whatever has to be done to save us and make us safe. All we need do is accept the truth of who we are and where we are and put ourselves into the hands of God.
If I might risk a little more irreverence. I imagine God in his heaven, reacting with sadness as he sees us coming before him trying to justify ourselves, worried about our mistakes and failures and our lack of perfection. Spending our lives always trying to get things right. I imagine him saying to us, as my nieces have sometimes said to me "For God's sake, get a life". Don't you know that all has been fixed and restored by the life and death of Jesus? Know that, whoever you are, wherever you are, there is a song for you to sing. So sing it, come on sing it!
In language that my friend Tom would use, we need to accept that there will always be a degree of illegitimacy about us. There will always be something of the bastard about us. However, the good news is that we don't have to be anywhere else, or anyone else, to be fully embraced by God. We need to be glad and rejoice that we have been saved and graced.
The challenge in life is to accept our reality, to learn to sing in gratitude for the gift of life, love and forgiveness. To sing in gratitude and to accept and love others as we are accepted and loved.
Fr John Ryan, a Sandhurst Diocese priest who lives in Canberra, has spent much of his 49 years of ministry working in renewal projects, especially with priests.
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