We were out visiting for the church, Brother Tommy and I, two Baptists prepared to “win the lost for Christ,” on a steamy summer Sunday afternoon in Fort Worth. Brother Tommy was church deacon and I was a high school student, filled to the brim with evangelical zeal and adolescent idealism, both of which can kill you. We grabbed some “prospect cards” and set out, arriving at a little house on Fort Worth’s south side. Brother Tommy knocked and a young man answered the door. We said we were from the church and he invited us in, padding across the linoleum floor in his sock feet. The house smelled of cigarettes, the heat inside alleviated only slightly by a circulating fan.
Small talk ended and, television still blaring, Brother Tommy asked the big question: Did the young man “know Jesus as his personal savior?” The answer was negative and Brother Tommy began that evangelical litany we called the “plan of salvation.” The young man, like the entire human race, was lost, Brother Tommy said, and unless he put his faith in Jesus, right then, he could be lost forever, separated from God in this world and the next. Would he be willing to pray a simple prayer and invite Jesus into his heart? “No,” the young man replied, he was not ready, not yet anyway. “Well,” Brother Tommy remarked, looking him straight in the eye, “I guess you’ll just have to go to hell, won’t you?” And out the door we marched, the Texas heat reminding us all of the wrath that was to come.
He was lost, we said, and because he rejected our invitation he might just as well stay lost, unless a miracle struck some gospel sense into his totally depraved soul. He was lost, and in a way, perhaps we were right. There’s lostness in all of us. So we were a little lost too, Brother Tommy and I. We had the zeal to tell another human about Jesus, but lacked the compassion to bear with him, wait on him, even for a moment. Ours was the lostness of Christian self-righteousness and insensitivity. Though we claimed to be “saved” by Christ, something of the good news of grace had not overtaken us, either.
If Jesus himself is any indication, we’d best beware about labeling as lost too glibly. In so many of his stories, the people considered lost get found and drawn close; while the people who think they’re “found” often aren’t. Dubbing people “the lost” can become another way of categorizing those different from ourselves, or caricaturing those who do not respond to our version of religion on demand. Lostness has many faces; creates many detours in our lives. Some people choose to get lost; others don’t realize just how lost they are until it’s almost too late.
These days, I’ve taken to rethinking the idea of lostness, after years of ambivalence about the term. Two recent events shaped this reconsideration. The first came last week in a New York Times story detailing the response of authorities in New Haven to the drug crisis gripping Connecticut and their specific community. In just one week, some 20 people in or near New Haven suffered accidental drug overdoses; three of them died. The state medical examiner reports 208 drug-related deaths between January and March this year, and estimates the annual drug-casualty rate for 2016 will reach at least 832, 100 more fatalities than last year’s shocking total of 729.
Right now, men and women across the U.S. are lost in a terrible heroin and opioid epidemic. A headline from New London’s local paper, The Day, (February 2016) sums up the situation in another Connecticut town: “Clergy ‘cry out for the children of this town’ in opioid crisis,” describing interfaith efforts to stem the tide of drug abuse and the lostness for which it is a symptom. At a young addict’s funeral, her pastor addressed the difficulty of forgiving the “dealer” who exploited the dead woman, commenting: “I think scripture tells us when we harm children, that is the greatest sin of all. Better you had a millstone around your neck.” Another New London minister recounted the loss of his own son due to opioid misuse, the postmodern plague.
Another kind of lostness became evident in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Orlando, when certain so-called “Independent Baptist” preachers spewed out reprehensible statements that missed the gospel mark completely. One California “pastor” declared that, “the tragedy is that more of them [LGBT-oriented folk] didn’t die.” Gay people are “abusers,” the man claims, and thus deserve to die. A Texas “Baptist minister” labeled all gays as pedophiles, expressing hope that even the wounded would die, concluding of the massacre: “I pray to God that God will finish the job that that man [the shooter] started.” Those two guys aren’t just lost, their “plan of salvation” is a long, long way from grace.
There’s a little or a lot of lostness in all of us. For those lost in opioid-heroin addiction, escape is long and hard. But when you claim to “know” Jesus, and pray for God to kill people, you may be addicted to a lostness from which there is no escape.