I thought I was going to throw up. Room 9 was ratty, but it was a smell, a specific odor that had me gagging. I hate that smell. There were three of them. Tricia**, pretty and wobbly, was usually mildly drunk. Gene** and she were once an item, just friends now. Bobby** was her current “husband”.

Shoe-horned together into this small space, a tiny sitting area, a bed tucked behind a wall, a minuscule kitchen. I wondered how that worked–living with an ex-lover and current husband.Most encounters were good–Bobby and Tricia quickly called me “their pastor”. One night was different. We were grilling at their motel when Tricia wobbled out and asked for prayer. No wonder; all hell broke loose among them. She brought Gene for prayer. Drunk, he launched into a meandering speech followed by an incoherent prayer. Gene on booze was violent; Tricia’s leg bruise was proof. Bobby kept his distance. The night deteriorated–amidst burgers and dogs, the police were called and I ended up functioning as a mediator and also moved Bobby and Tricia to a different room. Standing between these two guys, bizarrely bound by this woman, I worried what might happen.

The night ended, very late, and I only saw Tricia once more. She and Bobby walked by us on the sidewalk in front of the Ranger. Bobby said, “Hey it’s our pastor”. We talked; the three of them had made up and were back together in Room 9. Tricia died last Sunday. Long story short, she went septic and the infection killed her. I expect her alcohol-battered body lacked strength to resist. Now, I sit with Gene and Bobby, listening, hearing shock and grief and trying to show love. All while fighting the odor and my gagging. You see, Tricia had a cat—Festus**—her real love. Her gone, the guys bond by caring for Festus. That hadn’t extended to the litter box. I smelled cat stench–poop and pee. Maybe my imagination, but the longer I sat, the stronger the smell; tough to be loving while you are gagging.

A memory emerges: My Mom’s heart for the poor had led us to Ray, an eccentric bachelor living with many cats in a shack in the woods. The whole shack was a litter box and cat stench was horrific. Sundays, we kids went with Dad to bring Ray a hot meal. That specific smell is a potent reminder of childhood.Periodically, Mom decided that loving Jesus meant shack-cleaning; we kids were conscripted to help. One problem: Mom couldn’t handle cat stench. She tried, but eventually ran for the door, gagging as a she ran. I see her even now, racing out, bending over, hands on knees, gagging, vomiting, gasping in clean country air. I know it now as a picture of costly love.

In Room 9, my brain knows this stench is less than Ray’s, but my stomach doesn’t care and I become my Mom. Trying to love, but wanting only to run outside, there to bend, gag, vomit and gasp in fresh air.Jesus was blunt: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” He calls us to costly discipleship, to the willing embrace of what is hard.How odd. Our life here has discipleship costs. At times, we are at risk. We are regularly in and out of ratty motels, even living in one. We hug the smelly,  stare down drug-dealers and befriend prostitutes. We get yelled at by the high and mentally ill. I have been hand-cuffed, and tossed into a cruiser. Our income and lifestyle have shrunk. But just now, those costs don’t seem so high. Cat stench however, well, that’s a different story. It seems a price too high. Did I mention? I hate that smell!

Where will we let love lead us? When Jesus leads where we hate to go, will we follow? Will we follow him to the margins, to places hard for us, there to practice costly love? Does our discipleship demand something difficult of us? OR – Will we stay comfortable and play it safe?It is our choice.I tough out Room 9 and eventually step into fresh night air. I’m grateful I didn’t vomit. I go hold the manager’s five-week old grandson, breathing in sweet baby smell, my kind of discipleship.Back in our own room, I keep smelling cat stench. I ask Diane if she smells it and check my shoes. She just laughs. My cross, I guess, not hers. Pray we all have the courage to follow where love leads.

**Names changed to protect identity.