Sunday, October 5, 2014

Tales From the River #2: The Thief

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!" But the other criminal rebuked him. "Don't you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." Luke 23:39-43

This morning as I came into my office prior to church, I noticed that the answering machine was flashing.  Typically if it is flashing on Sunday morning, it is one of my elderly members letting me know that they won't be able to make it to church.  This wasn't typical.  When the message began to play I instantly recognized the voice.

"Uh yes, Pastor Corey this is "Dismas", I am the one who took the hot dogs without asking and you gave me your card.  I was wanting to know if I could come to church there.  Again, this is "Dismas", the man that took the hot dogs without asking and I would like to come to church.  Please call me."

I immediately called him back and didn't get an answer.  I called later in the afternoon and I didn't get an answer.  I called him again this evening.

"Oh thank God.  Pastor, this is "Dismas", the one who took the hot dogs without asking and I was wanting to come to church to give my testimony and to repent.  You took me in the sanctuary and you prayed with me.  I want to come there, would that be okay?"

"Absolutely; you are welcome here."

We made arrangements to meet tomorrow.

"You forgave me and I love you for it."

"I love you too man."

*****

We have been robbed twice during my tenure.  Twice the thieves were forgiven.  Twice we fed the thieves.  Twice the thieves have reached back out to the church.  Never have they asked us for a thing.  One attends regularly and will chase my vehicle through the neighborhood on his bike (50 something year old man) just to say hi.  The other?  We'll find out tomorrow.

Welcome to Grace.



Saturday, October 4, 2014

Tales from the River #1

"Jesus answered, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." John 4:13-14

"There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells."  Psalm 46:4

Building upon yesterday's post, I've decided to chronicle some of the encounters that take place in, around, and through Grace.  These probably won't be especially long posts (after this one), but I want a venue to be able to share.  I keep telling people, "There's something crazy going on here!"  Supernatural, Biblical kind of crazy lol.  No, seriously.  My usual response to these events is, "I have no idea what God is doing; I'm just glad to be along for the ride."  I realized this morning that this is no longer true and probably never was.  I do know what God is doing.  God is being God.  We have flung open our doors and our hearts; crying out, "Come what may!"  We meant it and God has been faithful.

Early on at Grace, I spoke of Grace being a light in the dark, of being a beacon in the darkness.  As things have progressed, as we've pushed the darkness back from our doors, I've found myself speaking and praying more of God pouring from Grace, seeping into the neighborhood, into the city.  Living water.  I can be pretty dense sometimes :)  It's funny how writing the piece yesterday seemed to bring all of this imagery together in my mind and heart.

*****

I'd be lying if I said I don't go to the office on Saturdays.  I try not to, but it happens.  There's no discernible pattern to my appearances; I just show up, if I show up, as needed.  This morning was no different.  I had actually promised my team last night that I would spend today in bed.  I've got herniated discs in my lower back that have had me hobbling around like a really old man the past few days.  However, my wife was scheduled to "shoot" at Keeneland today.  We haven't gotten to see each other much this week and I miss her, so I decided I'd drive her so we could at least have some time together in the car.  While she's at the track, I decided I'd go hang out at my Alma mater and catch up on some work.  However, to do that, I needed to run by Grace before leaving town to get the song list for the bulletins.

We weren't in there more than five minutes and when we came back out, I flung the door open and nearly scared some poor soul to death out in the street.  He stood frozen staring at me, like he wanted to say something, but didn't know how.  I spoke, "How's it going?"  He looked down at my right hand which carried the Bible I nearly wore out at the aforementioned Alma mater.  His eyes instantly moistened.

"I wish I had one of those in my hand." He said quietly.

"You want a Bible?"

He nodded.

"Come with me."

I took him back in the church where I have a small stash for moments such as this and handed him a Bible.  He said nothing, but upon his face was written some sort of deep despair.  A noise caught in his throat as he fought to keep tears in.

"You okay?"

Nod.

I led him back outside when he began to speak, his voice cracking.

"It's been a rough couple of weeks."  I listened; usually in these situations those words are followed by tales of lost jobs, lost money, drugs, alcohol, etc, which usually precedes a request for financial or material help.  Never do they look me in the eyes; until today.  He looked me square in the eye,  "I lost my family.....my wife.....my kids.  I work every day, but I drink too much.  They couldn't take it anymore.  I need that man in there (nodding at the church); I need my family."  He spoke in little more than a whisper.

I continued to walk with him to the alley, talking with him.  This was not a long encounter.  He turned down the alley and I returned to my vehicle where my wife awaited, as teary eyed as my new friend.

"I couldn't hear what he said, but there was so much pain in his face."

Random, brief, unexpected trip to the church.  Chance encounter with a man walking down the street.....who needed a Bible.....who needed someone to talk to.....who needed to know that someone cared.

Welcome to Grace.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Gone Fishing

"As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. "Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men." At once they left their nets and followed him." Matthew 4:18-20

Growing up on the Mississippi River, I absolutely love fishing; especially river fishing.  Rarely does river fishing prove unfruitful; you almost always catch something.  However, what I really love about river fishing is that if you are fishing with a nightcrawler (everything eats nightcrawlers), you never know what you're going to pull from the muddy waters.  I've caught all manner of catfish, carp, perch, hackleback , bass, walleye, bluegill, crappie, gar, turtles, and even eels.  Sometimes you catch all or most of the above on an active afternoon.  A big chunk of the excitement of this kind of fishing is finally seeing what's at the other end of the line.

*****

Grace/Heathen Church provides such an array of experiences, challenges, and characters.  We truly never know what the next phone call, knock at the door, or conversation on the street will hold...and we certainly never know where these adventures will lead.  We have started to refer to this simply as "river fishing".

*****

I've had a very interesting past couple of weeks in my ministry.  Dealing with drug dealers, addicts, alcoholics, the occasional prostitute, and the depths of the human condition are nothing new in my ministry.  However, there are occasionally events that break from my norm, which is hardly normal to begin with.  Two weeks ago I witnessed a mugging while in the course of doing ministry.  A woman was shoved down and into a busy street while her assailant took off with her belongings.  As she started to rise from the street, screaming, the assailant doubled-back and shoved her down again.  This was in an especially bad part of the city and the assailant rather than running off, just kept walking down the street as if this was the most normal thing in the world.

I followed him in my vehicle while guiding the police via 911 to our location.  It took over twenty minutes for the police to arrive and to apprehend the man.  In that twenty minutes, the man charged my vehicle twice and made some very imaginative, impressive threats.  The 911 operator asked me at one point, "Are you actually talking to him!?"  My response, "Well, he came up to the window."  Each time I spoke to him, I gave him the opportunity to return what he had stolen and I would quit following him.  Needless to say, he didn't take advantage of my offer.

*****

Last week in the darkened basement of the church I encountered a large man attempting to rob us.  Here are the excerpts from Facebook describing the encounter...

"We were robbed at Grace tonight and I came face to face with the robber in a darkened basement; he got way more than he bargained for. He got a heaping, helping of grace, the stuff that he robbed us of, and prayer time with the pastor."

 When asked what he was trying to steal...

"Two large packages of hot dogs from Sam's. He could have taken a whole lot more and this is what he chose. I thought grace was in order."

And finally a little more detail...

"He had quite the story. He started by trying to tell me he went to church there and I played along. He said he came every Sunday and attended church at 1pm in the basement and that he and the pastor were good friends. I asked what the pastor looked like and he said, "A big, fat white guy." And I was all like, "Drats!" And I asked, "Does he look kinda like me?" He replied, "No, much older." When I identified myself, he began to cry (this guy was bigger than me; big dude). I made him clear out the back pack and he pulled out a package of pictures; it was of his home that burned down and of his wife in a nursing home on life support (badly burned). The house is actually on the same block as Grace and burned down in the Spring."

*****
When my wife and I were first married we lived way out in the country and had access to a handful of farm ponds to fish from.  Three of the ponds were out in the open, easy to get to, and heavily fished.  The fish rarely, if ever, bit in those ponds.  However, there was one that was a good distance into a cornfield.  It was hard to get to and if you've ever ventured deeply into a Iowa or Illinois cornfield, you know that it can be very disorienting and dangerous.  This is the pond that we liked to fish.  As quickly as you could cast and reel in, you'd have a nice sized channel catfish, the perfect size for eating.  These fish weren't used to seeing fisherman and they acted as if they were half starving, or perhaps they were just a little more aggressive.  (On an aside, if you threw bucket of dog food on the surface, the whole pond would boil with catfish attacking the surface...very cool to watch.)

*****

I have been accused of being an adrenaline junkie and I can certainly understand why people might think that.  However, I don't think that is accurate.  I don't get a "rush" from from these events and I certainly don't go looking for trouble for the sake of trouble.  In those situations, I'm very calm, which is probably why they haven't gone "bad" yet; and hopefully never do.  I will admit though that part of why I love this appointment so much is that it is never boring and I never have to wonder what to do next even if I rarely ever know how things are going to play out.

*****

A real part of the beauty of this place is that on a daily basis I get to do ministry in contexts that most pastors/churches will never have (or will take) an opportunity to minister in.  We spend so much wondering how to get people to our church without ever, you know, actually stepping outside of our walls to see what is out there.  We keep trying to do ministry in the same old, tired, and consumer driven models; and then we wonder why it doesn't work.  We refuse to go, to walk where the ministry is needed; we don't take the Gospel where it was intended to go.  To take the Gospel where it was intended to go is to invite a lifetime of "river fishing".

*****

I woke up this morning thinking about "river fishing" and the idea of both going where the fish are and where the fish are hungry.  Or in other words, daring to traverse the road less traveled, the places where the Church has little or no real presence in our own backyards. 

My mind then drifted to a picture of fishing in a pristine swimming pool.  Fish cannot survive in the pristine, chemically treated waters of a swimming pool; but swimming pools are safe, clean, comfortable and appealing.  Here's the thing about fishing in swimming pools; you can cast a line with the biggest, fattest, juicest nightcrawler you can find into a pool and all you're going to do is to expedite the death of your bait, as well as bleaching it out.  But goodness, do we ever love fishing in swimming pools in the hopes that a fish will simply appear because of our bait.  We're also really fond of fishing those heavily trafficked ponds with an ever changing array of baits that rarely result in a bite.

The flip side of course is that if you dare to take that same worm through a cornfield to a pond that no one bothers with...
*****

To take the Gospel, to take Jesus; or rather, to follow Jesus where Jesus wants to go, it is an invitation to the stories like the two I shared above.  Doing ministry where ministry needs to be done, in the places that Jesus would have been hanging out, is messy, it is dirty, and yes, at times dangerous.  But above all that, it is wonderful.  
I love river fishing.