I am going to tell you the story of 3 men who came into the midst of Gentle Spirit Christian Church who as it turns out were simply visitors sent to teach this congregation and I dare say me, some basic lessons of theology, life and the practice thereof.
Those lessons in the order of each man’s story: 1) “It’s about a relationship with God nothing more and nothing less”. 2) Crazy, Wild and Independent is cool with God” 3) Despite anger and severe pain you can love and serve God.
I will share these stories in 3 parts first because the total blog would be too long and second because I think each visit needs to stand on it’s own and cause us to ponder one story at a time.
Today, Charles Harris, Wednesday, Corey Matthew Hoblit and Saturday, the Reverend Warren B. Taylor.
Charles showed up at Candler Park as we were setting up for Sunday morning worship. He was cold, he was hungry and as it turned out homeless. He wanted to sample some of the sandwiches that would be served at the potluck picnic after worship.
Someone told him he was welcome to eat with the rest of us but he would have to wait till after service. His response? “I suppose I can endure the sermon.”
The sermon that day centered around the story of the “Prodigal son” and the climax of the story being the son returning home and God running to meet him and not caring about the confession of wrong doing, but calling for a celebration because the son had chosen to be in relationship with the Father. (Luke 15:11-24)
After service was over I went over to Charles, introduced myself and thanked him for staying for service. He said he enjoyed the service all the folks were cool. The sermon had done something to him and depending where he was he would come back the next week. What happen next would change his life and ours.
I asked him where he was staying. He pointed in a direction pass the golf course next to the park and in what appeared to be deep in the woods. “Pastor, I stay under a bridge.” “I got this problem…you see, ‘rock’ cost me my home, my family and job.” “I stay there cause the police don’t come back there and it is out of the weather.” “I got my ID stolen and I don’t have the money to replace it and nobody wants to talk to you without ID, so I am just trying to stay out of the way and get some food now and again.” “People are scared of me cause I don’t look so good and they think I’ll hurt them so they call the police if I try to get a little job here or there and now the ‘rock’ just gets me through the night, it’s not hard to find and others just share their stash.”
I stood in amazement at his honesty and directness. I asked him if he wanted something better, if he wanted to be off the street. He nodded. DUH! Of course he wanted something better! I felt so damn stupid and helpless because I also knew without ID and a crack problem there was going to be little the church could do.
He wasn’t gonna back to the big shelter in town because that’s where he got beat up and had his things stolen. We had given him a meal and would give him more if he came back…so…
Wanting to get out of the conversation, I said to him, “Charles, as long as you are using we can’t get you into a shelter that can really help you with getting permanent housing and a job.” We need to know you are serious about us helping, so tell you what; Come back next week having not used for the week and I will get you off the street.” “You gotta decide if you want to be the son from today’s message.”
Charles thank me for listening to him and thank us for the food and told us he would see us next week as he was scooping up the last of the sandwiches.
A member of the pastoral staff looked at me at said, “you sure didn’t try very hard to help.” I defensively said, “What are we suppose to do? He is using crack, by this time next week he will be somewhere else or in jail.”
Well the long and short of it was the next week came and who showed up for service? Yup, Charles, and he seemed to be in a good mood saying he wanted to “just praise God today”.
We got to Prayer and Praise time and Charles raised his hand to share praise. “I want to praise God cause today I am seven days clean and I know God just wants me to be with him.”
I sat there and listen to Charles talk about how the folks here in the park helped him make the choice to “come home” and how he “praised God cause the Pastor was gonna get me a place to live”.
Needless to say, I was now making a call on my cell phone to see if I could get Charles an interview at the “Clifton Sanctuary”. I explained the whole story to them and they agreed to meet him on Monday. By Monday evening Charles was a resident of the Clifton shelter and their program.
Within 3 weeks of getting into the shelter Charles had a job and had found a permanent place to live. Every Sunday for the next 52 weeks Charles was in church every Sunday without fail and come prayer and praise time would praise God for whatever number of weeks it was of his sobriety. He would tell everybody and anybody who would listen that knowing God loved him unconditionally was a break through. Knowing that God wanted to be in relationship with him was enough to stay sober, to keep working, to keep praising God.
He would explain he had been to church before but always came away with the feeling he wasn’t good enough. In order to be good enough he had to change who he was to what they thought he should be, confess how bad he is and follow the church rules or it wasn’t a real change.
He talked about how one church he went to wouldn’t give him “Holy Communion” because he was not legally married to the girl he was living with and because he had a drinking problem.
If you got into a deep conversation with him he would bring up a this quote from scripture:
“The son started his speech: ‘Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’
“But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, ‘Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him.”
Now he didn’t always quote it exact but he always made the point, “My life changed with those words saying God wanted me and I didn’t have to confess anything!”
Charles died this past spring. He was 47 years old and the years of drug and alcohol abuse took its lethal toll on his body.
Charles did not pass out of our lives here on earth before he taught us that what redeems us, what saves us, what strengthens us and what sustains us is the relationships we build and accept. It is about not letting life get in the way of our relationship with God and each other. The first and most important step for a people of faith is desire to be in relationship with God and by virtue of this relationship with each other.
It is with this desire in place the President of the United States seems to gets it:
“Know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.”
There is no building of anything if there are no relationships first…there are no relationships that will last if they are preoccupied with the past.
I thank God for this prophet, this man of God sent our way to remind us each and everyday “It’s about a relationship with God nothing more and nothing less”.