Shane the Barber: Our Scars and God’s Mercy


This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on August 6, 2017.

Matthew 14:13-21, Genesis 32:22-31

In 2008 I had open heart surgery to repair a leaky valve. With no guarantees of whether I would live or die, entering that surgery was, hands down, the scariest time of my life. I lived, of course, but was left with a thick, red rope of a scar right down the middle of my breast bone. Though the scar has now faded considerably, for several years it served as a stark reminder of my vulnerability and fear.

I thought of my scar when I read this morning’s story about Jacob. I don’t have time to share Jacob’s entire back story, but in short, he was a scoundrel. First he manipulates his twin brother Esau into signing over the inheritance from their father, then Jacob tricks his father Isaac into blessing him instead of his brother. Understandably, Esau is enraged after twice being cheated by Jacob, causing Jacob to flee for his life. After living on the run for twenty years, Jacob finally decides to return home to face his brother. But still fearing for his life, he sends his wives, maids and children ahead without him and settles down for the night. There, the story says, he wrestled with a man until daybreak. Many scholars believe that this “man” represents God, but I would instead suggest that the man is a metaphor for Jacob’s failure and fear. As he anticipates seeing his brother 20 years after swindling him, Jacob is finally required to confront the suffering he has inflicted face to face. Though Jacob refuses to give in to his past failures, this “wrestler” strikes Jacob’s hip causing him to have a permanent limp.


The next morning, Jacob looks up to see Esau approaching. Esau runs to meet Jacob, embraces him, kisses him, and together they weep. But even after Jacob is forgiven by and reconciles with Esau, his limp will forever serve as a painful reminder of his former treachery. As my scar gives evidence of my once broken heart, so Jacob bears the mark of his brokenness.

Last Sunday, having just returned from our mission trip to Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Mississippi, one of our church youth Mason Thomsen shared his testimony about an encounter with a homeless barber named Shane. Like this morning’s story about Jacob, this is a story about the scars we carry, and the fear and failure they represent. Both Shane’s and Jacob’s story also point us beyond our brokenness to acceptance and reconciliation.

It was our second day in Biloxi and my small group was scheduled to work at the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen, preparing and serving a meal to Biloxi’s homeless. We pulled up in our minivan to park in a dirt lot across the street from Loaves and Fishes, and there, under a tree, just outside my driver’s side door, were two men. One was sitting on an upside down, five gallon paint bucket. The other, Shane, was standing behind him giving him a haircut, electric trimmers plugged into an electrical box on a lamppost. Shane was going about his business as if outside haircuts on paint buckets was the most normal thing in the world.

Those of you who heard me preach a sermon about my barber Elvis know that I take my haircuts seriously; and I know a good barber when I see one. The first thing I thought when I pulled up was that this guy knows what he’s doing. The second thing I thought was, I need a haircut. I had every intention of getting a haircut before I left Simsbury, but didn’t find the time, and was feeling a little shaggy. So, on impulse I asked, “Hey, can I get a haircut?”

Shane looked up from his work and it was then that I saw that he bears some terrible scars, big, thick and red like the one that once ran down the center of my chest. One side of his face was badly scarred, and one arm had extensive, deep, disfiguring scars. “Sure, he said, you’re next.”

His scars were jarring, but I was not deterred. I indicated to Shane that we would be across the street at Loaves and Fishes. Once there, we quickly got caught up chopping vegetables for salad and were soon serving lunch to a long line of hungry people. I hadn’t forgotten Shane and my promised haircut, but did begin to further analyze my impulsive request. In particular, I wondered how he cleaned his clippers and whether going from one homeless customer, to another, to me was a sure fire way to get head lice.

Just as I was pondering this very question, Shane came through the soup line and asked if I still wanted the haircut. “Um, sure, as soon as I’m done here,” I said, head lice be damned.

By the time we finished it was pouring rain outside, but there was Shane offering to cut my hair right in the entry way to Loaves and Fishes. I did ask him if he had a way to clean his clippers and he assured me that he did, and so began my haircut from Shane the Barber!

Mason and the other youth in my group soon gathered around to watch this odd spectacle, and Shane and I began to talk, the way you do with your barber. Shane said he wanted to be a barber all his life. When he was six years old he would go to a barber shop across the street from his Mom’s beauty parlor and help clean up, and he began learning the trade by watching the barbers there. As if it wasn’t already obvious, Shane soon confirmed that he had had what could politely be called a hard life. He had done hard-time in prison where he further honed his barbering skills by cutting other prisoners’ hair.

He soon volunteered the story behind his scars. He had been driving in his van with his girlfriend and they were having a terrible fight. He said he pulled his van over to the side of the road to “take five.” I took that to be something he had learned in an anger management class, meaning to step away from a volatile situation. Unfortunately, when he stepped away from his van, his girlfriend got behind the wheel and ran him over with it. He described getting pulled up into and through the wheel well before being dragged down the street under the van.

All the while, Shane continued to cut my hair, telling these dreadful stories the way my barber Elvis might talk about a Red Sox losing streak. But I could tell from the feel of the clippers on my head that I was in good hands.

“You’re lucky to be alive,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

“I don’t feel lucky,” he said. His implication was clear. He would have rather died that night than forever carry these scars as a constant reminder of his fear and failure.

Then the conversation turned.

“You guys are from a church.” Shane volunteered. “I used to lead my church choir. What songs do you know? How ‘bout this one.” And he began to sing.

He’s an on time God, yes he is.
He’s an on time God, yes he is.
He may not come when you want him,
But he’ll be there right on time
He’s an on time God, yes he is.

And that’s when I began to cry. Something about Shane, bearing the scars of all he had been through, singing about an on time God, really touched me.

So, this was the scene. Me, surrounded by five of our youth, getting my haircut in the entryway of a soup kitchen, hearing stories of unimaginable brutality told in the first person, Shane singing of a God that doesn’t come when you want him, but will be there right on time, and me weeping.

Saying that he hadn’t sung since his accident, Shane continued to sing songs we might know, encouraging us to join in. We knew a couple, like Lord Prepare Me to be a Sanctuary, and finally, my haircut done, Shane led Mason, Veronica, Justin, Julia and Thomas in singing a couple spirited verses of Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, When I Lay My Burden Down.

Think about those words in Shane’s mouth, Lord Prepare Me to be a Sanctuary, Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, When I Lay My Burden Down. With each new song I would shed more tears.

I paid Shane the price of a haircut, exchanged a bro hug, then the youth and I piled into the van and off we went.

Shane’s is the Jacob story retold. Shane has wrestled with his fear and failure and bears the marks of his brokenness. Though he has not yet experienced the face to face acceptance and reconciliation that Jacob did, he experiences these from God through his music. Jacob wept with Esau in response to the forgiveness he experienced, and I wept as a witness to that same experience of God’s mercy.

Our experiences of fear and failure don’t all leave visible marks. Some of us carry our scars on the inside and disguise our limp. But, I dare say, we’ve all got them, whether from encounters with loss, betrayal, condemnation, trauma or abuse, by the time we have lived to a certain age we will be required to wrestle with our shadow in the dark, and will leave these encounters with indelible evidence of our brokenness. And this isn’t a bad thing. Our scars and limps serve as a necessary reminder of our need for God’s grace and mercy.

And that mercy awaits each of us. Because we serve a God who doesn’t always come when we want him, but is always right on time. Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, When I Lay My Burdens Down. Amen.



Of Church, Bikers and Beer!

This ad for Carlsberg Beer has received over eight million hits on Youtube! After you finish laughing, think about how this might reflect someone’s experience walking into a church for the first time. Will we appear as a room filled with intimidating bikers? Will we welcome the brave souls who squeeze into a pew warmly, if not raucously? If not a cold beer, what do we have to offer that lets people know that they are just one of the gang? Turn it around? How would a couple tough looking bikers feel walking into our church on a Sunday morning?

Published in: on November 11, 2011 at 7:12 pm  Comments (2)  
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Peace Elmo Joins South Church Community Clean-up!

“No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome at South Church!”

Published in: on October 16, 2011 at 11:43 am  Leave a Comment  
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My Imagined (Not Imaginary) Friend

I am about half way through Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoir, Infidel. Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia in 1969 to Muslim parents.  Her father was a leader of revolutionary forces opposing Somalia’s dictator, Siad Barre in the 70s and 80s, requiring her family to move to Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Kenya before she reached adolescence.  Having experienced first hand, the brutality of Islamist beliefs toward women (including the mutilation of her genitals at the age of five), Hirsi Ali has become a strong and articulate critic of those Muslim beliefs and practices that lead to the subjugation, oppression and abuse of women.

Hirsi Ali’s biography is as riveting as it is hard to read.  In addition to describing the suffering and brutality she has experienced, she provides a compelling account of her faith journey.   As a child she studies the Quran in a series of schools and works hard to submit to its teachings.  Submission, Hirsi Ali explains, is the central tenet of Islam, complete submission.  But young Hirsi Ali also loves to read, and she devours everything from Western literature to romance novels.  The values that are communicated in these stories contrast with the messages she hears from the imam and the harsh realities of her life leading her to question her faith.

I never do this, but I was so curious that I flipped to the back of the book to find out how Hirsi Ali resolves these conflicts and answers these questions.  She becomes an atheist.  “Before reading four pages (of The Atheist Manifesto),” writes Hirsi Ali, “I already knew my answer.  I had left God behind years ago.  I was an atheist.  It felt right.  There was no pain, but a real clarity.”

I confess that I felt sad when I read this.  I hope this doesn’t sound patronizing.  Hirsi Ali makes it clear that her decision to be an atheist is liberating for her, freeing her from an oppressive and violent God.  Her choice is rational and understandable in the context of her life.  I admire her courage and strength.  Nonetheless, I was very disappointed.  To me, the choice to be an atheist represents the ultimate failure of imagination and therefore, the death of hope.

This probably requires explanation.  First, I am not saying that God is imaginary.  God is not like Santa Claus or the imaginary friend, Kala, that my daughter Abigail used to have.  I believe that God is more “real” than the physical world we live in.  But just as imagination is necessary to write poetry, to make music, to play, to invent and to create, so also imagination is necessary to conceive of and live in relationship with God.  Hirsi Ali writes, “God, Satan, angels:  these were all figments of the human imagination,” as if this is a bad thing!  Of course they are.  Faith is humanity’s greatest creative act.  Faith is sacred imagination!  If we can, against all reason and experience, conceive of a good, just, loving, forgiving God, maybe we can also imagine, then live into, a world without war, racism, homophobia, hunger and poverty.  But if we give up on God, on the possibility of God, if we say our broken down, crappy humanity is all we’ve got, what, then, do we aspire to?  What do we reach for?  What do we live for?

Published in: on March 16, 2010 at 2:14 am  Comments (2)  
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Holy Mandaeism: A New Old Thing

I confess that I have been in a bit of a rut.  Not much has surprised or impressed me recently.  I try to find new music, but it sounds like the same old stuff.  I haven’t read a book that really made me sit up and take notice in over a year.  Even Bible commentaries that I read in preparing for sermons seem tried and tired.  Well, in just two weeks I seem to have hit the jackpot of things new and interesting.   I have already written about the first of these, Whittier’s poem, The Brewing of Soma.  The second was an interesting perspective on Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth that draws from rabbinic midrash (I’ll post the link to the resulting sermon).  The third, and perhaps most astonishing, “new thing” happened today.

I met a lovely family of recent immigrants from Iraq .  In the course of our conversation I learned that they are followers of John the Baptist.  Really?!  Really!  In the course of my seminary studies I learned that John the Baptist had his own followers that believed that he was a more important prophet than Jesus.  Some thought John might be the promised Messiah.  The gospel writers sought to lay this perspective to rest, having John himself pronounce Jesus’ divinity.  Luke writes: “As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming ; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.'”  I knew this much.  But I had no idea that there were still followers of John the Baptist walking the earth.

“We are cousins,” said one of these Iraqi gentlemen, “like Elizabeth and Mary!”  Again, Wow!  Here is someone from Iraq who is reaching out as long lost family, recalling the connection we share through Elizabeth (John the Baptist’s mother) and Mary (Jesus’ mother).  That’s  just crazy cool.  The circumstances didn’t allow a full exploration of the history or beliefs of these good people, but as soon as the conversation ended I went straight to Google and entered “Iraq followers of John the Baptist.”  And there they were (in Wikipedia, of course) Mandaeans!  Having just provided the link, I won’t repeat everything I learned, but in short, Mandaesim is a monotheistic religion with a strongly dualistic world view that reveres Adam, Abel, Noah and especially John the Baptist.  The Mandaens “may be the only sect from late Antiquity to identify themselves explicitly as Gnostics.”  There were about 70,000 Mandaens in Iraq before the U.S. invasion, but all but about 7,000 if those have fled to Jordan and Syria to escape persecution.  A very few have been able to immigrate to the U.S.  Fascinating.  I can only hope that I will have the opportunity to deepen my relationship with these, my cousins, and their ancient faith.

Lest I ever doubt, it is just as the UCC proclaims – God is Still Speaking in new old ways!

Published in: on February 16, 2010 at 2:07 am  Comments (1)  
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