One of the more amazing men I ever met was a drunk. I am sorry I only knew him for a moment. The brief time we shared together was a hurried prayer as he lay on an Emergency Room gurney. Minutes later he was unconscious, and two days later he was gone. Still, I have never forgotten him. Obviously, it’s not what he said or what he did for me that made him so memorable. It was what I learned about him in those hours as we – his friends and at the time, me the hospital chaplain – kept vigil at his bedside. It was who he was as a person.
For more than thirty years this man had kept sober after throwing away most of his teenage years and young adulthood on a half-dozen legal and illegal substances. And once sober, he climbed on the wagon with ferocity; not as some kind of tee-totaling moralist, but as a friend, ally, AA sponsor, and last resort for every drunk, coke-head, meth-addict, and pill-pusher he could find.
The once-smashed-but-now-made-well lined up at this man’s bedside until his death and even after. They were mechanics, lawyers, cooks, contractors, teachers; their diversity and visits seemed to never end. And each one came to say “thank you,” weeping in gratitude over this man who had quite literally saved their lives. It was later that I learned this hero of so many had never made more than a few thousand dollars a year. He had been a day laborer and handy man whose home had been a dilapidated old house trailer, one hair’s breath away from being condemned. And his aged truck was a wonder of persevering rust and duct-taped magic.
He may have had nothing, but he sure was something, a man who let God use his weaknesses to display true greatness. But isn’t this just like God? God uses imperfect people – dubious, questionable, flawed people – to do good for others. He does not always pick the wise, noble, talented or the capable. He opts to use and empower the broken, weak, lowly, and despised.
When and where our lives are broken, either because of life’s circumstances, because of what someone else has done to us, or because of what we have done to ourselves, those broken places are exactly where the unexpected and extraordinary acts of God’s power take place. This does not mean that our defects magically disappear, our sicknesses suddenly heal, our addictions miraculously relent, or our past scars fade into nothingness. It simply means that we are not disqualified by God. He can do something with us even when everyone else has given up.
Here is the short of it: God loves the Dumbos of the world. You know the story. Ms. Jumbo finally gets her little baby tusker from the stork and he is utterly perfect – except – for those enormous, hulking ears. He is immediately made fun of by the others in the circus and named “Dumbo.” His mother loses her cool over all the name-calling and goes crackers and has to be locked away. Then poor Dumbo can’t perform the stunts assigned to him, stepping all over his ears, and he brings the big top and sprawling elephants crashing to the ground. Dumbo is demoted to the role of a silly clown, and he hates it.
But finally there comes this recognition for little Dumbo: His defect, those very ears that caused all his trouble from the beginning, is his greatest asset. Dumbo can fly! The little elephant is finally vindicated, flies around the big top like a bird, vanquishes his enemies, and frees his mother. And yes, they live happily ever after. That’s God’s kind of elephant; God’s kind of people.
No, not all the great stories God writes end with “happily ever after.” Let’s not be ridiculous. But every great story he writes certainly begins with a person who is somehow and someway flawed, damaged, and defective by most standards. But grace has a way of turning the defective into the magnificent.