Rhoda the Sinner, and a Lesson in Salvation

One day I’m going to write a book about Rhoda.

No, scratch that–I can’t possibly write a book about Rhoda.  Only she can write that… but one day I will write a book about what Rhoda taught me about faith and salvation.  And trust me, volumes could be filled with what I learned from her.

When I first met Rhoda she was drunk.  In all honesty, I could probably count on one hand the number of times in our four years of friendship that I saw Rhoda and she wasn’t drunk.

But she was at that barely functioning level of drunkenness; she was staggering up the aisle, demanding in a loud, slurring voice that she needed prayer.  Something yellowish had been spilled down the front of her dirty sweatshirt.  Or maybe it was vomit.  Or maybe it was a touch of both.  It was hard to tell.

I was fresh out of seminary and I had been warned about Rhoda–but I was eager for this moment.  I was going to save this woman.  (Of course, I would tell you, it would be Jesus doing the saving… but let’s face the facts:  I was young and excited and enthusiastic and Rhoda would be the perfect first fruits of what I was hoping would be a long and glorious ministry.)

Rhoda was a woman who knew she was sinning.  She had no problem confessing it.  She was a drinker.  She was a bad person.  She did bad things.  And she came to the altar every Sunday seeking salvation.

I have never known anyone aside from Rhoda who was so convinced of her need for salvation, so aware of her own helplessness, and so quick to ask for all the help in the universe to overcome those things that were keeping her from Christ.

At first, our relationship was a paternalistic one.  I thought I could just tell her what she needed to hear.  I hadn’t taken into consideration that this was a woman in her forties (who looked to be in her sixties), who had been told her whole life through what she needed.

But as time went on, as we had a few difficult moments in which heated words were exchanged and my heart was broken, watching this woman fall over and over again on her faith journey, our relationship morphed.

I’ll never forget the day I realized Rhoda was a human and not an object to prove my own faith.  I had picked her up to take her to lunch, but I had forgotten to turn off the radio when I pulled into the parking lot.  When I cranked the engine, Billy Joel’s She’s Always A Woman To Me blared.

Rhoda began singing along in her raspy, over-smoked, under-cared-for voice.

“You like Billy Joel?” I asked, a little shocked.

“Yeah,” Rhoda smiled, toothless and full of joy.  “Yeah, yeah.  I used to listen to this in high school.”

For the first time it hit me that Rhoda had gone to high school.  I don’t know why I had just assumed this state she was in was the state she had always been in–that who she was at 45 was who she had been at 18.

Shame swept across my heart and I told her that Billy Joel is my all-time favorite musician and asked her who she liked most.

“Michael,” she said without a second thought and with a hearty life, “Michael Jackson!  That sonuvab**** can move!”

I laughed at her excitement–not at her, but along with here, with her happiness and her joy.  I loved Michael Jackson, too.  In my car, at that precise moment, I had Michael Jackson’s greatest hits.   Every time over the preceding few months that Rhoda had been in my car I had that CD with me!  Why had I not known how happy MJ made Rhoda?  I could’ve been offering her a moment of joy every time we drove across town to the Pizza Hut for our weekly lunch.

So I fished out the CD, removed my Billy Joel CD, and watched as Rhoda laughed one of those wonderful full-body laughs.  She moved her feet erratically to demonstrate how he could move.  She told me she used to be able to dance like him.

I asked if she could moonwalk.  She said she used to.  I said I used to as well.

And from that moment, we were friends.  Rhoda was a human being, full of hope and flaws like the rest of us–like me.  She was no longer an object.  She was no longer a goal for me to reach…

But the problem is, once Rhoda was a friend, the circumstances of her life became far more intertwined with mine.  I cared more that I ever did before.  Watching her fall over and over again meant I fell with her.  I began to feel her pain when she suffered.  I began to cry her tears for her.

There is a lot about Rhoda that complicates the salvation story.  As people of faith we like those happy black-and-white stories of faith.  We enjoy hearing about someone who was an addict finding Jesus and suddenly becoming a tee-totalling disciple.

But it doesn’t always happen that way and it would never happen that way for Rhoda.

Rhoda suffered from an Axis 2 disorder–her cognition skills were not on par with her peers and she demonstrated tendencies toward paranoia which often left her relationships fractured at best, destroyed at worst.  On top of that, Rhoda had been an alcoholic for a very long time–her liver was shot, her brain was severely affected by the effects of alcohol.   Her short-term memory was almost non-existent and she often had difficulty distinguishing reality from fiction.  She was a loving woman who often confused her empathy for other people’s hardship with her own suffering, and would often become convinced that she was the one suffering from the problems other people had expressed to her.

Rhoda was never going to become one of those wonderful witness stories we enjoy talking about in our churches.  It just wasn’t going to happen.  I had to deal with that–and it wasn’t easy for me to accept.

But at the same time, I believe in a God of healing and of life… and I couldn’t just relegate Rhoda to the margins and leave her there.  I couldn’t just write her off and assume she would never find salvation because she wouldn’t fit neatly into those categories we use to prove salvation.

And then one day an elderly woman who had just given Rhoda a lift from the grocery store back to her apartment building asked me if I thought Rhoda would ever be able to give up the drinking.

Without hesitation a knowledge rose up from me that wasn’t my own, “Of course I believe she will know sobriety and total healing in her life.”

The woman looked at me, not disagreeing, but I could see the doubt on her face.  She was struggling with the same things I had been struggling with… and once again that knowledge that wasn’t mine spoke again:

“Rhoda has had a hard life and a lot of things that are beyond her control have caused her harm.  But God won’t let her perish in misery.  I believe–I have to believe that Rhoda will know a day of sobriety and wholeness whether it is in this life or the next.”

And I do believe that.

But I also know that even if healing doesn’t come in that fantastic way that we like to report in morning worship, healing is still available to her in this life.  I saw it with my own two eyes.

I saw it in the way her eyes lit up and her feet moved to the music of Michael Jackson.  I saw it in the way she told me about her favorite movies over lunches.  I saw it in the way she stopped being an object and became a human in my eyes and in my life.  I saw it in how special she became to me.

Sure, I would’ve liked for Rhoda to be healed of a disorder with which she’d been born and I would’ve liked to see her lay the bottle aside and never pick it up again.  I would’ve like to have seen those paranoid delusions expelled and her often frazzled and frenzied mind to be given rest and peace…

And although those miracles didn’t happen, what happened was no less a miracle:  Rhoda was restored to her full humanity before my very eyes.  And in the end, wasn’t that what Jesus was doing when he healed the sick and the outcast?

Maybe the healing that needed to happen all along needed to be in my soul and not so much in Rhoda’s, who seemed to know all along that she needed Jesus to help her.

Since then I’ve been a lot less worried about trying to convince people of their sins and more worried about trying to find their humanity–to build them up, to make them whole in my life and in the lives of others.

I guess you could say Rhoda lead me to salvation.

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