Real Voices on Tuesday’s, Chapter 1
I meet with eleven people on Tuesday nights, whom I have come to embrace as some of my best spiritual friends. This is an account of our lives and how we are relating to Jesus as we connect with him while reading the Gospel of John. I have taken some liberty with the dialogue. The truth is that the dialogue in our meetings is better than I can re-create with my imagination. Our desire is that this exercise with the Gospel of John draws all of us into a deeper and more fulfilling relationship with Jesus Christ.
Tuesday Night – Meeting at Maywood
Tuesday is usually my day off. My routine is to take my autistic grandson to his school in Overland Park, Kansas. After that, it is “leg day” in the weight room at the church. Calling our weight room, “primitive,” is a compliment. There is no heat in the winter and no air conditioning in the summer. We have crammed a small fitness center into three very narrow rooms in the basement of the church. Our garage-sale weights are scattered within the narrow and poorly lit confines of these rooms. However, at my age I am happy to get to work out either alone or with the few friendly “gym rats” who exercise at the church.
Tuesday is the perfect “leg day.” I can work my legs, go to lunch with my wife and take a nap. That is the plan for Tuesdays and I am pretty happy when it actually takes place. This Tuesday, the customary day off was broken by an early evening community meeting. As I sat through the meeting, I thought to myself, “Why didn’t they just email all of this material instead of having a meeting?” As the meeting droned on and on, I started worrying somewhat angrily that I wasn’t going to make it to our Tuesday night Bible study on time. Mercifully, the meeting ended and I was able to get to Maywood a few minutes before seven. Most of my spiritual friends were already on the front steps of the church, talking with each other and waiting for me. I opened my office and turned on the heat in a nearby room where the thermostat was located. By the time the heat was running, the entire group was present.
My office was painted a light mustard yellow two years ago. I shared the office with Josh Monk, who tragically died from brain cancer in 2015. Josh decorated the office and we have left it just as he wanted it to look. On the walls hang some inspirational sayings and paintings by his brother, John, and Whispering Danny. These two men may be the best known and respected tattoo artists in the entire Kansas City area. Not long before Josh died, one of his friend’s, Joe Calhoon, presented him with an autographed and framed Stan Musial uniform. Josh was a St. Louis Cardinal’s fan and Musial was one of their most famous players of all time. Musial’s uniform was one of Josh’s prized possessions.
The spiritual friends sit, somewhat cramped, in a circle in front of an old counter that had been turned into a desk. Some balance coffee on their laps and others have Quick Trip drinks and chips. Joking and chatting among the members is expected and certainly practiced.
To my right is Ricky. He is a fifty-eight year old man with a full head of gray hair, a gray goatee, and a red Kansas City Chief’s ball cap. If you looked under Ricky’s right pant leg, you would see a prosthetic limb attached at the knee. Johnny is seated to the right of Ricky. He and his friend, Mike share an apartment in Northeast Kansas City. Mike and Johnny have partied together in the drug world, and now are trying to serve Jesus as friends and accountability partners. Johnny is in his late forties and Mike is in his early fifties. Johnny is a carpenter and Mike describes himself as a flooring mechanic.
Mike is seated to the left of Lena. Lena is a fifty-something grandmother. Her hands reveal a life of hard work. She has a fun and honest personality. She is a favorite among the children she serves on Wednesday nights, giving them pictures that she colors with pencils. Beside Mike is Miranda, one of the rare women who works as a electrician in the low-voltage field. Miranda, who wears her hair short, looks mid-20s but is actually 35, is a little shy and has a very disarming smile.
Katie sits beside Miranda. Katie works as a security guard on Independence Avenue in Northeast Kansas City. Everyone who is familiar with Kansas City knows that she has a tough job in one of the most crime ridden portions of the city. I have known Katie longer than anyone in the group, because she and her mother provided loving care to one of our favorite members who suffered from debilitating arthritis.
Roxanne is the newest member of our spiritual friends group. She is the youngest in the group and is the only member who has the distinction of leading the Independence police on a car chase that ended at the border of Kansas. Roxanne has a cute and self-effacing smile.
Peter is squeezed in the circle and seated by the filing cabinets at the rear of the room. Peter served in the Army and was injured prior to being deployed to Afghanistan. He often wears fatigues, is a career cook, knows the AA program very well, and currently works making upscale rifle stocks. He is in his forties and is a new grandfather of a beautiful baby girl.
Mike C. and Vivian round out the group. Mike C. is a construction worker who is currently working in one of the most affluent areas of the metro area. The pictures he shows the group reveals great skill and artistry in his work. Vivian is in her mid-thirties. She is a professional who works for the county. Vivian is a tall, slender lady with straight, shoulder-length brown hair. She has a very gentle spirit. When she speaks or prays, her words are well received by the group.
I found my seat in a folding chair between Lena and Ricky. Everyone was laughing and catching up on each others week. I interrupted the talk and said, “Let’s get started.” The group quieted down with only a couple finishing up what seemed to be interesting stories. Turning to Mike on my left, I pointed to an empty five gallon bucket in the corner that I’d brought in. I said, “Mike, to start our meeting would you please take that bucket and go to the closet in the hall? When you get there, please fill the bucket with all the darkness it will hold and get rid of it.”
“Sure Bob,” Mike said with a comical smile. “I’ll get right on it.”
I said, “Thanks Mike. We’re going to sit right here and see how much of the darkness you can take out of the room. Why don’t you take ten minutes and see how much you can accomplish?”
The whole group started laughing and Roxanne said, “Yeah, Mike. Let’s see what you can do? Go for it!” Roxanne was in her third week of recovery and currently lived at a women’s treatment center.
Mike remained seated with a silly grin on his face, so I said to him after the laughter died down, “If you don’t want to haul out the darkness with the bucket, why don’t you go turn on the light?”
Mike said, “That’s more like it.” Pushing back his chair, he got to his feet, went to the closet, opened the door and flipped the switch that was connected to a bare bulb in the ceiling. A light went on in the room.
I said, “Thanks Mike for playing along with my goofy object lesson. Now, let’s turn to the Gospel of John and see what Jesus had to say about all of this. Vivian, please read the first four verses of John for us?”
Vivian was wearing her customary blue windbreaker with a logo that identified her place of employment. She put her coffee cup on the floor and picked up her Bible. She looked down and began reading the verses, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
I scanned the group and said, “Thanks Vivian. Now, somebody tell me what is Jesus’ solution to the darkness?”
Lena had arrived from work, just as the meeting had begun. She had worked long hours in a warehouse and, in addition, was having difficulties at work. She was still wearing her work clothes and appeared to be very tired. Even though she was tired, she wasn’t content to just sit and listen. She said with a bit of weariness in her voice, “Bob, you just showed us. Jesus conquers the darkness by turning on the light.”
I put down my coffee cup, rested my elbows on my knees, looked casually at the group and said, “That’s right. When Jesus shines his light, the darkness has to go.” I looked at Miranda and said, “Miranda, we know this is true, but I want to ask you this. How do people usually try to get rid of the darkness in your world?”
Like the others, Miranda had worked hard all day and had come to the meeting straight from work. She was tired and not ready for a question, so she took a sip of water from a plastic bottle she was holding and didn’t say anything for a beat or two.
Katie, who was Miranda’s friend, said, “My job is to take care of the darkness with my uniform and sometimes even with my weapon.”
Mike broke in, looking directly at Katie, and asked with his award winning smile, “So, how’s that working Katie? Are you keeping the darkness out of Northeast?”
Katie snorted and replied, “You know the answer to that. I have about as much success as you would have had getting rid of the darkness back there, five gallons at a time.”
I was enjoying the dialogue of the group and I didn’t want to end the discussion, so I said: “Have you ever thought about how society tries to get rid of the darkness? Do you think they are trying to use one form or another of a bucket?”
Johnny’s face lit up with a bit of understanding that had just dawned on him and he said, “When they locked me up, they may have thought they were taking the darkness out of the world, but they never took the darkness out of me.”
“I know that’s right,” exclaimed Mike C. who was seated by Vivian. He looked at Johnny and others in the group and quickly said with strong emotion, “I’ve been in some sort of institution since I was eleven and the darkness has never left me. Jesus has helped me some, but the truth is I’m still a mess.”
The entire group was buzzing with side conversations about the failure of institutions to get the darkness out of the world. Miranda spoke up, seeming to come alive from her tiredness. She said with a renewed brightness in her eyes, “It just hit me. We all know that we have big troubles in our country. That’s all we’ve heard about this election year. It just occurred to me that what the Republicans and Democrats are fighting over is which party has the best bucket to use to get rid of the darkness of our world. Neither one has an answer, because we just saw that the only way to beat the darkness is with the light.”
A few more comments were made and then the room got quiet. Miranda spurred some thoughts that were rumbling in my mind. Once again, looking at the members of the group I said, “I’d like to spend some time with the idea Miranda suggested to us. We could use several examples, but let’s talk about the war on drugs. Do you think it has solved the problem of the darkness of the drug culture?”
The entire group shook their heads “no.” Mike C. spoke what seemed to be the consensus of the group. He said, “Part of the time I spent in prison was for drug violations. I did my prison time and they sent me to the “honor center.” Let me tell you there is no honor in that place. Men were smoking crack in my room every night. Right? How’s that for getting the darkness out? I relapsed, went to prison, returned to the honor center. Three times. You hear that? Three times! Right? When I met with the Parole Board, I begged them to send me somewhere else. Where’d they send me? Right? Back to the honor center.”
“Looks to me like the bucket’s broken,” said Ricky. Ricky began talking about a restraining chair. He said, “They put me in the restraining chair three times.”
I had never heard of a restraining chair. I didn’t ask anyone to elaborate what it was, but I assume it is a way for an unruly prisoner to be kept seated in a chair. I imagined handcuffs and a chair that was bolted to the floor. What surprised me was that several of my spiritual friends had all experienced the restraining chair at one time or another.
Mike C. told us of a time when he was in jail in Detroit. He said, “They had me in the chair. There was this bodybuilder kind of guard who looked like he was on steroids. He had a neck as big as my leg and massive arms. I kept on talking and he’d had enough of me. He called to the other guards and asked if they wanted to play football. They said ‘yes.’ I didn’t know what this ‘football’ stuff was, but this bodybuilder guard came in and put something like a football helmet on my head. The rest of the night, as the guards were making the rounds, one would come by me and hit me with something like a club in the back of the head. No sleep. Right? Lots of pain. Right? All night long. Right? And nobody knew about it. Right?”
I have stopped being shocked when hearing jail and prison stories. However, I thought a comment was in order. I quoted one of my favorite spiritual leaders and I said, “You know Rufus Moseley said that if you try to beat the devil with the devil’s tools, then you have to become a worse devil than the devil.”
Roxanne lit up with her pert smile and said drawing out her first word, “Soooo, that means the bucket doesn’t work.”
“You’re right,” I said. “Did you know that there were less than 400,000 people in prison when I graduated from seminary in the early 1970s? Now, there are over two and a half million people in prison. You’re right, Roxanne. The bucket is not getting rid of the darkness.”
Katie looked pained by the discussion. She wasn’t a police officer, but she trained alongside of the Kansas City police. She raised her hand, just like she was back in school. I said, “Katie, what are you thinking?”
The customary smile had left Katie’s face. She paused, collecting her thoughts, and said, “I don’t know exactly what to say, but do you all know what people in law enforcement have to put up with.” Her words picked up speed just as the tension in the room increased. She said, “I deal with crazies, and people who are always trying to get over on the system, and sometimes just plain evil people. My job is to protect all of the people who go to the business where I work. It’s just hard.” Katie’s words trailed off as she tried to assimilate the previous conversations with the reality of her job.
Equally thoughtful was Vivian. In her very quiet manner, she said, “I know what you mean, Katie. When I was in grade school, there was a boy who got tied to a chair and was beaten by his step-father – not just once, but over and over. That man was evil and he needed to be stopped. Sometimes evil people just need to be stopped. Period!”
Miranda entered the conversation and said, “Bob, I remember something you said a few months ago. You quoted President Lyndon Johnson and said that anybody can sit on the sidelines and talk about what is wrong. What’s really hard is to come up with a solution. Do you remember saying that?”
I hung my head a bit and admitted, “I remember saying that and I’m sorry for getting a little unbalanced in what I’ve been saying. I just get worked up at a system that is supposed to be designed to help people, but it ends up hurting them.”
Mike gave the group one of his famous grins and said, “When are we going to get back to talking about the light? Didn’t we already decide that Jesus’ light is the only way out of darkness, or did I just walk across the hall just to work off some of the Mexican food Johnny and I just ate before we got here?”
Roxanne had a rare serious expression on her face. Her eyebrows drew together and she said, “If you’re talking ‘church’ talk, I’ll tell you something. If we’re going to be the light, we can’t be like most of the church people I’ve met in my life. I’m only here because of Johnny and Mike. They told me that this group was different.” She looked at the group and her face returned to the hint of a playful smile and said, “You’d all better be, or I’m outta here.”
Vivian was normally a very quiet member of the group and only spoke when called on. For the second time in the meeting she interjected a comment and said, “I’ve been in church most of my life. I’m a church girl, but I’ve got to agree with Roxanne. This year, my dad received a Christmas card from a prominent Christian leader. The man looked perfect in his expensive suit and red tie. His wife was dressed in a perfect church-appropriate dress. Their kids and even the dog were perfect. Perfect smiles, perfect hair, perfect clothes – even the Christmas tree, the fireplace and the house was perfect. The first thing I thought was that none of us in this group would ever be in that the picture. The minute I saw the card I felt like a loser.”
Mike C. lit up, once again. He seemed to be enjoying venting some of his negative experiences. He said, “Here’s a bullet point. A few year I was in Atlanta and attended a wedding. I had on my best khaki pants and a button up shirt. Right. You know what? They all looked down on me, because I didn’t have on a tie. How’s that for acceptance?”
“I know exactly what you feel,” said Katie, losing some of the fire of her earlier talk. “It seems that whenever big-time church leaders make the news, they are telling people like us that we are wrong and that they wish we weren’t part of their neat, clean world.”
Peter had remained quiet during the entire discussion. Peter sat up straight and began talking about his spiritual friends in the room. He said, “The reason why I am in this group is because you are different. Well, really, you’re a lot like me, but you’re still different.” He kept on talking, putting together words, expressions and phrases that were attempts to convey his thoughts. He said, “Between the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and this group, I am getting it together. I need both. I need the structure of the Big Book and daily AA meetings. I need the acceptance that I get in here. God is using both to shine light in my darkness and it is making a difference.”
Ricky had been silent during much of the group. He spoke with his gravelly voice and said, “Sounds like it is easier to talk about the problems than it is to come up with a solution. I think Peter’s on to something. How can we help each other experience Jesus better?”
Group members began shooting answers around the room like popcorn going off in the microwave. Johnny, a personal friend of Josh Monk, used one of Josh’s favorite sayings. He said, “Josh said it best, ‘Don’t talk about it, be about it.'”
Katie, happier now that the group was talking about solutions, said. “I think we need to impress on people that they don’t have to get “fixed” before they come to Jesus. Just have them come to Jesus and he will do the rest of the work.”
Johnny jumped back in the conversation. He said, “We’ve got to watch how we talk. You can’t use the F-bomb and have people want to know the Jesus we know.”
I said, “One of my friends who has been known to use the F-bomb in every sentence told me, ‘I’ve got to stop using the F-word. After all, I cant’ say this such a F’ing great church to my friends.”
The whole group laughed at this statement, relaxing from the tension of some of the previous exchanges among the group.
Miranda mentioned one of the senior adult ladies at the church who had welcomed her. She said, “After my childhood experiences in church, I wasn’t ever going back to church. This was my last chance I was giving church. I came with Katie and this lady really welcomed me. She and Katie are the reason why I’m here.”
Ricky was unconsciously taking his artificial leg on and off under his trousers and massaging his leg. He joined the conversation again and said, “Humility is very important. If we come off knowing it all, we will turn people off. Jesus came for the weak and the underdog. If we act superior, they will know it in an instant.”
I knew that Ricky often visited homeless camps. He had been homeless for a period of time, while living in Texas. One of my favorite expressions is that evangelism is best described as one beggar telling another beggar where the bread is. I was often humbled by Ricky and others in my group. They truly seemed to have much more grace and a willingness to deal with people than me.
While I was thinking about Ricky and his work with homeless men and addicts, Mike C. spoke up. He was leaned back in his chair beside Vivian, still wearing the coveralls that he had worked in throughout the day. He said in his customary direct fashion, “Meek isn’t weak. Right?”
One of the best things about guys like Mike C. and the other men in my group and in our church is that they are not weak. They are real men, who happen to be doing their best (most of the time) to follow Jesus. There is a poster in my office from a festival that is held annually. Josh Monk’s picture is on it with the heading. “Josh Monk, born again to preach hard. Saved but not soft.” Mike had just summed up one major aspect of Josh’s impact with us when he reminded us that being meek does not imply weakness.
I pulled out my cell phone and glanced at the time. I said to the group, “Thanks for all of your thoughts tonight. The next big section in the Gospel of John is the end of the chapter when people begin to follow Jesus. I’d like to talk with one of you this week and learn how you became a follower of Jesus. This will fit in nicely with the structure of John’s Gospel.”
We ended the meeting and several of the group went to the front steps to visit with members of a Narcotic Anonymous meeting that was held upstairs in the church.
Stay tuned for the next installment of Real Voices on Tuesday’s coming next week!