From The Last Word, by William Willimon, pages 119-121.
In one of my congregations, we decided that we needed to grow. We voted to launch a program of evangelism. We studied a program from our denomination telling us how to get new members. Among other things, the church-growth program advocated a system of door-to-door visitation. So we organized ourselves into groups of two and, on an appointed Sunday afternoon, we set out to visit, to invite people to our church. The teams went out, armed with packets of pamphlets describing our congregation, pamphlets telling about our denomination, fliers portraying me, the smiling pastor, inviting people to our church. Each team was given a map with the teams assigned street.
Helen and Gladys were given a map. They were clearly told to go down Summit Drive and to turn right. That’s what they were told. I heard the team leader tell them, “You go down Summit Drive and turn right. Do you hear me, Helen? That’s down Summit Drive and turn right?”
But Helen and Gladys, both approaching eighty, after lifetimes of teaching elementary school, were better at giving than receiving directions. They turned left, venturing down into the housing projects to the west of Summit Drive. Which meant that Helen and Gladys proceeded to evangelize the wrong neighborhood and thereby ran the risk of evangelizing the wrong people.
Late that afternoon, each team returned to the church to make its report. Helen and Gladys had only one interested person to report to us, a woman named Verleen. Nobody on their spurious route was interested in visiting our church, nobody but Verleen. She lived with her two children in a three-room apartment in the projects, we were told. Although she had never been to a church in her life, Verleen wanted to visit ours.
This is what you get, I said to myself, when you don’t follow directions, when you won’t do what the pastor tells you to do; this is what you get, a woman from the projects named Verleen.
The next Sunday, Helen and Gladys proudly presented Verleen at the eleven o’clock service, Verleen along with 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, 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 on 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 had not 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 robbed 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 7-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 car, 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, but I think I can get a good crowd for this!”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But the church, by the grace of God, grew.
MORAL OF THE STORY: We usually think it is yielding to temptation that will make us feel good. What we want to do might be wrong, someone might get hurt, we might hurt ourselves in the long run– but at least it feels good for the moment. But Verleen, who had always given in to temptation, found out that resisting temptation made her feel great. It made her feel ‘like I was somebody;’ somebody who was strong enough and smart enough to say no.
Luke 4:1-2a — Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil…
James 1:12 — Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.
Luke 5:30-32 — …The Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to this new day: Preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
—Book of Common Prayer