I know William Willimon as an outstanding preacher as well as a professor and chaplain at Duke University. In this vignette, he gives an account of two elderly women who made a wrong turn into a sketchy part of town and proceeded to invite a most unlikely guest to their suburban church service. Verleen lived with her children in the projects and had never been to a church in her life, but she accepted the invitation of the two women, Helen and Gladys.

The next Sunday, Helen and Gladys proudly presented Verleen at the eleven o’clock service, along with her two feral-looking children. Verleen liked the service so much she said that she wanted to attend the Women’s Thursday Morning Bible Study. Helen and Gladys said they would pick her up on Thursday.

On Thursday, Verleen appeared, proudly clutching her new Bible, a gift of Helen’s circle, the first Bible Verleen had ever seen, much less owned.

I was leading the study that morning, a study on the lection for the coming Sunday, Luke 4, the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. “Have any of you ever been faced with temptation and, with Jesus’ help, resisted?” I asked the group after presenting my material. “Have any of you refused some temptation because of your Christian commitment?”

One of the women told about how, just the week before, there was some confusion in the supermarket checkout line, and before she knew it, she was standing in the supermarket parking lot with a loaf of bread that she hadn’t paid for.

“At first I thought,” she confessed, “why should I pay for it? They have enough money here as it is. But then I thought, ‘No, you are a Christian.’ So I went back in the store and paid them for that loaf of bread.”

I made some approving comment.

It was then that Verleen spoke. “A couple of years ago, I was into cocaine really big. You know what that’s like! You know how that stuff makes you crazy. Well, anyway, my boyfriend, not the one I’ve got now, the one who was the daddy of my first child, that one, well, we knocked over a gas station one night—got two hundred dollars out of it. It was as simple as taking candy from a baby. Well, my boyfriend, he says to me, ‘Let’s knock off that Seven-eleven down on the corner.’ And something in me, it says, ‘No, I’ve held up that gas station with you, but I ain’t going to hold up no convenience store.’ He beat the hell out of me, but I still said No. It felt great to say No, ‘cause that’s the only time in my life I ever said No to anything. Made me feel like I was somebody.”

Through the stunned silence I managed to mutter, “Well, er, uh, that’s resisting temptation. That’s sort of what this text is about. And now it’s time for our closing prayer.”

After I stumbled out of the church parlor and was standing out in the parking lot, helping Helen into her Plymouth, she said to me, “You know, I can’t wait to get home and get on the phone and invite people to come next Thursday! Your Bible studies used to be dull. I think I can get a good crowd for this!”

(Adapted from William H. Willimon, The Intrusive Word: Preaching to the Unbaptized (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1994)

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17 responses to “You Gotta Start Somewhere”

  1. D says:

    If you were my Bible Study teacher, I would test your logic to see if you could help me understand Ananias and Sapphira better and would try to see if I could get you to toss a note to Joseph Prince and tell him that I think he is wrong and see if Chuck Missler could help, because he has a pretty logical mind, but doesn’t read his emails.

    That is the section of the Bible that is the one that brings the broken community to its knees and sends them to the inner healing ministry. (The truly mentally ill are in the institutions saying to people, “I blasphemed the Holy Spirit and cannot ever be forgiven, because that sentence explains everything to them and tells them what they did wrong to deserve to be there.” is what I have seen when I have visited people there and I had a pastor say that when he was a chaplain (?) to a mental institution, person after person after person was afraid that they had blasphemed the Holy Spirit and I laugh, because I remember thinking while I was breaking down mentally, that if there is something other than not receiving Jesus that can get us on the unforgiven for eternity side of the equation, you would think God would explain better what it is, but I immediately had the thought of the biblical principle that if He actually explained it, people have a rebelliousness inside that they are more tempted to do it and wouldn’t have even thought to do it, so God had better not tell us what it is.

    But if it really was something like denying something miraculous was from God, then whole denominations would be in the could never be forgiven for eternity line, and we better not ever try to discern anything, is the logic I came up with, except that it didn’t make sense to have that logic.

    Any bully could get a child or a mentally ill person to actually call the Holy Spirit an unclean spirit and these people are so tormented by how we teach topics like that and I want to see if we can help that community even a little bit, but I think it was Jesus telling those men, “Hey, you can pick on me, the Son of Man and call me the carpenters son and say what kind of good thing comes out of Nazareth, and all the other ignorant sentences you are saying about me and you will be forgiven, but the Holy Spirit is giving revelation that I am Messiah and you choosing against that revelation is the one thing you can’t be forgiven for” – ish

    Ananias and Sapphira is the one that brings me to my knees. My young pastor preached that they went to Hell, because they didn’t have time to repent and said that it would be hard, but he would step down as a pastor if he ever did anything like what they did and I laughed inside, because they lied to the Holy Spirit when they lied about money seems like something that people might do every week and I was fascinated that he was so confident that he would not even be capable of that type of sin and I read it and wonder why God hasn’t killed me for not being perfect by now. I want an announcement before offering that if anyone has lied about their salary or how much they are giving to the missions offering, please do not come up this week, because it will be very upsetting for the children if you end up getting thunked in front of them.

    I laugh, because I really would like Philip Yancey’s brain to work on it with me. Because Billy Graham invited my friend to come up just as she was and gave her the Gospel of John, and she heard, “God loves you. When you come to Christ, He sees you through the Blood of the Lamb and doesn’t remember your sins anymore and you come to the mercy seat of God and God isn’t going to thunk you.” Then, she got to the book of Acts and He seemed to notice their sins and they definitely got thunked for not being quite perfect enough and that is what the broken community talks about after service.

    I have heard it taught that God is angry at sin, which tells me that He aimed at the sin, but hit the Christian standing behind it, maybe, because He couldn’t see them through the blood of the Lamb is my heretical in every way logic testing sentence gone amuck in ways that whole denominations might shun me for the process I am using trying to figure it out.

    I have heard it preached, “When the glory comes down the standard goes up….” and have the pastors use the words “strange fire” like with Aaron’s son and I am asking, “Does it go up above the standard of the cross? I thought strange fire was replaced with Jesus is on the mercy seat and we get to come to the throne of grace?”

    Joseph Prince has tried to do it in a grace way and says that the answer is that they are not Christians, that God is protecting the Christian community from the evil exaggerators (who sold their possessions to give to the Christian poor) and my thought is that God protected them by killing the lost, but didn’t show up and kill Nero doesn’t make sense either.

    And because I have had glory experiences, I need to know whether the standard that goes up is the leadership standard or the standard of the lost, because I need to know who not to invite to church if the glory comes down.

    This is all my sense of humor and my logic process.

    But I am not kidding that most of the broken people end up on the not perfect enough side of the equation and are already getting blackballed and get picked on for being afraid God is going to thunk them, then have the same preacher who picks on them for that ends up preaching a message to make that fear even more terrifying.

    I think I found an answer over in the “Why did people die if they took communion wrong” section of the Bible and the broken community struggles with that, too. I have walked to the altar to take communion and have people giving me hugs and saying, “Hello” and have ended up saying to God, “I think I just took communion without remembering Jesus, I hope you don’t thunk me, but I pretty much know I would deserve it if you did it, but my atheist family already might not come to Jesus, so if you could help me not blow some of these issues, I would appreciate it.”

    There is a “because” listed in communion is something I wanted to ask Chuck Missler, because the Bible Study notes don’t give any real information and the never quite good enough vulnerable community is getting skewered by the nearly perfect pastors.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      One of the few sermons I’ve heard on Ananias and Sapphira came from John Claypool. He made the point that the story is not about the money, as it clearly states. Rather it’s about “misrepresenting yourself to God.” God can handle any kind of behavior, as the Bible shows, except when we misrepresent the truth and pretend to look better than we are–to God and to others. That interpretation makes sense to me, and follows Step One of the Twelve Step program. Like you, I know people who torment themselves over whether they’ve committed the Unpardonable Sin. Here’s my rule of thumb: If you’re sensitive enough to worry about whether you’ve committed it, then you haven’t. –Philip

  2. Midge Avril says:

    I have literally read moat all your books, except vanishing grace, and many of the authors you ascribe to. I need some direction . My faith has been shaken to the core. Though raised as a Christian and on his fb site listed that way, my son was not in a good place and died suddenly and in bad circumstance I cannot go into.. I am wracked with the question I have never grappled with. Does this same Jesus I have come to know and trust in , the Amazing full of grace and perfect love, , who is also the same God who does in fact say depart from me, and go to the place of gnashing of teeth ? I t has been 3 months and I cannot reconcile the two. Holding onto my Jesus, how do I know my son who was not actively walking with the Lord is with Him and even more, how does the Lord I love send mere broken failed mortals , who Born in sin,left to themselves will only sin , so if it it is not freely accounted by Jesus sacrifice to ALL men everywhere for all time then it is not by one man Jesus, the same way it was by one man Adam. I am desperate as my whole premise in faith as my 24/7 anguish as to my son’s eternal state is with me every minute and I am undone and though I know, like Job, who am I to question God, I fear I at not be able to recover without some help here. If you have any scriptural direction or further reading….

    • Philip Yancey says:

      I am so sorry for you. I have family members with somewhat similar experience. One, who became an insistent atheist after a childhood in the faith, was comatose, in ICU. As I leaned down and whispered a prayer in his ear, every time a single tear would appear in his left eye and trickle down his faith–this even though he showed no reflex activity at all. I’m convinced that God sees us through the lens of our moment of greatest faith. That seems true of those Jesus contacted. Except for his hometown, which showed no faith, he responded to the smallest glimmer of those who believed in him, or wanted to. “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” My advice: read the gospels, and follow Jesus from person to person, seeing how he treats the lost, confused, and wandering. Bless you, Midge. The pain is like no other, I know. Whatever grace, mercy, and forgiveness we can muster as human beings, God exceeds beyond imagining. –Philip

  3. Julio noble says:

    I have a passion for reading but this had been dwindling due to my present location. That not withstanding, I have got to learn that no matter where you are and what you do, what you are will always present itself. I was reading a mail from “memory delight” a site I subscribed to. Then I read a definition of grace gas defined by you “”Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more–no amount of spiritual calisthenics and renunciations, no amount of knowledge gained from seminaries, no amount of crusading on behalf of righteous causes.
    And grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less–no amount of racism or pride or pornography or adultery or even murder.
    Grace means that God already loves us as much an infinite God can possibly love.” I was moved coupled with what my pastor has been telling me about grace as an unmerited favor. Honestly speaking it was my first time of hearing about you and from this one definition, I had to search your name on google. Please I wish to be more inspired by your books but don’t know how to get them.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      What country do you live in, Julio?

    • Temitope says:

      Dear Mr Yancey,
      I’m a Nigerian and after reading your book ‘Where is God when it hurt?’ in 2005, (the Red Cross edition), it took me seven years to get some of your other books. Even the ones I got (What’s so amazing about grace?, Prayer: Does it makes a difference?, The Jesus I never knew, Soul survivor and I was just wondering) were used ones. Since then, I’ve been trying to get your other books. You introduced me to C. S. Lewis, Leo Tolstoy, G. K. Chesterton, and other writers you mentioned in your books; getting their books here in Nigeria has been difficult. But because most of their books are now in public domain, I’ve been able to download the pdf versions on-line.
      You are a great influence in my Christian journey. Hoping to see you at the feet of the Lord. Till then, keep the good work going.

      • Philip Yancey says:

        The US now sends all books internationally by airmail, which means the postage costs more than the books! So it’s very difficult to send books from here. You’re better off reading the people I quote anyway!


  4. Diana says:

    Mr. Yancey,

    I’m romanian, involved in prison ministry.
    Learning more and more about the inmates’ painful stories, I’m realizing that the need of God’s grace here is just tremendous.

    Recently I brought your book “What’s so amazing about grace” (translated in Romanian) to some of the girls in prison.
    The feedback was, as one of the girls puts it, “this book it kinda shook my grounds. I’d like to know more about grace”. (This particular girl is struggling with forgiving herself for what she has done.)
    It filled me with joy to hear that, knowing from experience that His grace, it’s the only one that can heal broken hearts/lives even when all else fails.

    Just a quick note: generally speaking, our culture, as a post-communist country it’s rather legalistic-oriented. And somehow even Christians here, very few get the concept of God’s grace.

    I’m very grateful for your books and wanted you to know that His comforting light got to shine a bit brighter in a dark place and in wounded hearts, thanks to your writings.


    • Philip Yancey says:

      This warms my heart, Diana. I have a special fondness for Romania after a visit to Cluj a few years ago. Prison is a great place to learn about grace, and I’m so glad to hear you are there dispensing it. –Philip

      • Diana says:

        Thank you for your reply, Mr. Yancey !

        I do live in Cluj. 🙂
        And so is the prison that I visit located.

        Just the past week I’ve learned that you’ve been here few years ago and that your conference was a hit.
        I’m sorry I did not get to attend it. Maybe one day I’ll have the privilege to hear you live.

        Up until, I’ll just get your next book.

        May you find inspiration and strength to write many more !
        Your writings are needed and are very helpful to so many of us that struggle on this faith journey.

        Thank you !


  5. Judy Birt says:

    I just finished reading `Vanishing Grace’ by Philip Yancey, and it is one of my favorite books by him. I feel the need to step out of my comfort zone and be more loving to others that are unbelievers and differ from me in their lifestyle, after reading this book. It is a way to show others what a Christian faith is about and why it is a worthwhile path to follow. Thank you Mr. Yancey for your insightful and `tell it like it is’ writing.

  6. This story illustrates so clearly our discomfort with the world outside the Christian bubble. The problem we Christians have is that we don’t realize the bubble really doesn’t exist….we’re Verleen, but we don’t want to admit it.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Your comment pulls together both sides of what others are expressing. Very insightful. –Philip

      • marcelo says:

        hello dear Philip,
        just finishing readind whats so amazing about grace..

        am i late? well,my comments are just to think… a litlle more..

        how would be your book, after reading Mattew 16. 13-18 and specially Mattew 16.24.27

        who is the church? A, B, C……D…F…..? Where is the church? Does the Bibble belongs to a selected group? or is it the Gods words… simple like that…
        Mattew 8.11

        God bless you Bro.

  7. Michelle says:

    I recognize the humour in the story but to be honest, the church people’s reaction annoyed the hell outa me. It likely touched the root of the reason that I find it very hard to go to church anymore. It’s not so much an indictment of the church as it is my own baggage to work out with regard to my experiences of church, life and everything. Oh well…

  8. Avenel Grace says:

    Hahahaha… I love it.
    I think God loves to put you on a spot. What could you say but yes !!
    Jesus died for the petrol station knockers as well as the well heeled and sedate.

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