I’ve been interested in Mary Magdalene lately for some unknown reason. Hers is a fascinating story, and to be honest, everything we know about her would barely fill a small paragraph.
Here it is: Mary Magdalene was a Jewish woman from Magdala, a small town on the Sea of Galilee. She had seven demons cast from her by Jesus, hung out with Jesus’ disciples and spoke to the angel who showed up at Jesus’ empty tomb.
However, legends were created surrounding Mary that have come to be accepted as Gospel truth. In the early centuries of the church, it was decided that Mary was a prostitute. This does make sense. Jesus had a reputation for attracting the outcasts of the community. It also offers a suggestion for her loyalty and love for Jesus — he rescued her from a painful past.
My recent interest in the story of Mary stems from the conviction that I have not always responded well to people who are different. I prefer to be around people like me, or at least like the “me” I pretend to be.
One of my earliest failures sticks in my mind like glue on construction paper. It is one of those memories that still produces embarrassment, even though it happened more than 50 years ago. The incident transpired in a musty church basement, the home of our youth Sunday school class.
My friend Steve had arrived early, and we were discussing the activities from the previous week. Steve was a good friend, mainly because he and I always were at every church event. Steve and I had very little in common. We attended different schools and lived several miles apart. His father was a leader in the church where my father was the pastor.
Steve and I did share our music — we both loved to sing. We were allowed to join the adult choir, probably because they needed tenors. When we got warmed up, Steve and I could drown out the entire choir with our high-pitched resonant tones.
During the height of our singing career, Billy Graham brought his crusade to Denver. Steve and I went every night and sang in the massive revival choir. We stood on the front row of the stadium bleachers and sang as loud as our vocal cords would allow. They made one of those Billy Graham movies, using the Denver crusade as the background. If you look real close during one of the scenes of the movie, you can spot Steve and me in the choir. We were celebrities in our church when that film was released.
“Perhaps it was a shared tragedy that had united us.”
Steve and I did not share many common interests outside of choir, but we were still friends at church. Perhaps it was a shared tragedy that had united us. Steve was not much bigger than me, but one Sunday night, he was carrying me down the stairs at church. Three steps from the bottom, he tripped, and we both tumbled. The wall at the foot of the steps broke our fall and my collar bone. The broken bone was painful, but Steve suffered even more.
My bone mended, his spirits lifted, and we became closer friends. We both had the ability to overlook our differences and concentrate on our similarities. I did not condemn him for his lack of interest in baseball. I enjoyed visiting his house, even though he often ended up in a fistfight with one of his four brothers. We shared many good times, but few of them remain in my memory today.
The Sunday morning that sticks so firmly in my recollection involved Steve and a girl named Sandy. I do not recall much about Sandy other than what occurred on this fateful Sunday. She was one of those kids who just appeared at church without family or friends. Looking back from my adult perspective, I realize she probably was looking for someone to care for her.
“She was one of those kids who just appeared at church without family or friends.”
Sandy walked into the classroom before the majority of kids arrived. Steve and I were minding our own business, probably laughing about something mundane. Sandy walked over to us and spoke, but her attention seemed especially focused on me. I am not normally self-conscious, but for some reason, she made me uncomfortable.
After exchanging our meaningless greetings, she stretched out her arm, which had been tucked behind her back. In her grasp was a brightly wrapped gift which she stuck in my face. It was one of the few times in my life when I was nearly speechless, but I did manage to mumble something unrecognizable.
Sandy responded, “This is for you.”
It was summertime; therefore, I knew immediately it was not my birthday, so I stammered, “What for?”
Her words almost knocked me unconscious. “Just because I like you,” she said.
As she spoke these words, it seemed as if the entire church youth group walked through the door. Making quick decisions during a crisis always has been one of my strengths, and this was no exception. I immediately discerned that no one except my friend Steve had witnessed this transaction. Without even examining the present, I quickly handed it to Steve and said, “Here, you can have this!”
“Without even examining the present, I quickly handed it to Steve and said, ‘Here, you can have this!’”
Unaware of my discomfort, Steve was glad to get a present. He immediately tore away the wrapping paper and uncovered a bottle of cheap after-shave lotion. Neither of us was old enough to shave, but he splashed some on his face like an experienced barber.
My initial reaction was to breathe a sigh of relief because it seemed no one noticed my embarrassment. However, I then began to think about Sandy. By the time I looked up, she had walked away and taken a seat in the back of the room.
I do not remember ever feeling so shameful. For some reason, Sandy had come to believe I was someone who might care about her. Almost in desperation, she reached out for my friendship, only to be rejected again. Within a few weeks, Sandy quit coming to church, and I never saw her again.
Sandy was not repulsive in appearance. Neither did she have an overbearing personality nor any disgusting traits. The only thing unacceptable about Sandy was her dissimilarity. For some reason, she did not fit in with us “normal” kids. For a 15-year-old boy, this is an obstacle the size of Mount Everest.
She did not have what we considered a normal family life with a father and mother who participated in her life. Sandy obviously was from a lower social class than most of us, and she just did not meet our expectations. She was different.
If Sherry Clark or some other girl in the youth group had given me a gift, I would have carried it with pride. However, she and the other kids in our church could meet the group’s expectations. I treated Sandy differently because she was different.
What really makes me uncomfortable is that I realize my friend Steve also was different. Neither of us were counted among the popular kids, but I accepted him. What makes it possible to accept one person but reject another? How come we tolerate differences in some but not in others? The frightening reality is that, in most people’s opinion, I am the one who is very different.
If you put me in a different place, I become the one like Sandy. We’ve all been there and know how it feels. This feeling of rejection only makes me feel worse about the times I’ve been the one doing the rejecting.
I never will have another opportunity with Sandy. I pray she has found people who are more like Jesus than I was. If she has, I suspect she has clung to them as Mary Magdalene clung to Jesus.
I wish more people would cling to me. We should all pray that we can live lives that are more attractive to the outcast and rejected.
Terry Austin says from his first day of life he was taught to love the church. He has lived out that passion in various ways as a pastor, church consultant, author and critic. He is currently a full-time writer and book publisher and actively engaged with house churches.
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