Following Jesus, Chapter 2
Fun at Cricket
Mike met me in the hall twenty minutes before our meeting and said, “I need to get into the kitchen. I made chicken and dumplings and need to heat it up.” I sent him off and got ready for the meeting in a new location, the church library. The main attraction in our library is a commercial coffee pot. Every time the doors of the church are open seven or eight pots of Folgers coffee are brewed in the machine. To the right of the coffee pot is a fifty year-old wooded table with wooden straight-backed chairs around it.
When I finally slowed down and sat down at the far end of the table, most of the spiritual friends were eating Mike’s chicken and dumplings out of Styrofoam’s bowls. They liked it enough that Mike gave a couple of the members the recipe for his creation. I was a bit distracted with something, but caught the tail end of Mike’s story. He had been at the Cricket phone store in Liberty earlier in the day. The store apparently had a promotion with a hula hoop and candy. If you were able to make three revolutions of the hula hoop, you received candy. Apparently, Mike took over hula hoop duties and started inviting patrons to try out the hula hoop. An old man using a walker came in and tried, failed and still received his box of candy. Somebody asked Mike, “Do you work here?”
He said, “No, I’m just out having some fun today.”
The store manager asked, “Are you coming back tomorrow?” My understanding was that the manager would have been pleased if Mike would have agreed on a return trip the next day.
Mike just said, “No. I’m just having fun today.”
I thought to myself about what a collection of interesting people I had seated around my table. I had read in my morning prayer time that day Jesus’ words in John 15. Jesus said, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15.11). No doubt, Mike was filled with the gift of Jesus’ joy. He traded thirty years of addiction for full life with Jesus Christ. Even the folks at the Cricket store got a taste of Mike’s crazy fun.
What is a witness?
I began the meeting by explaining that the word “witness” is a key theme in the Gospel of John. I said, “A witness tells what he or she knows.”
Johnny, Mike’s roommate and good friend immediately jumped into the conversation. He said, “I got a call from the District Attorney today. They want me to be a witness.” Last summer, Johnny was driving down Independence Avenue in the Northeast section of Kansas City. He saw a man severely beating another man, stopped his car and prevented the man from potentially killing the man who was helpless on the ground.
When Johnny told me this story earlier in the year, we both agreed that God had him at the right place and in the right time. Johnny is no stranger to fights and he has often been on the wrong side of the law. On this occasion, he was certainly right the man for the job.
Johnny was seated at the other end of the table between Roxanne and Ricky. He told us, “I broke up the fight, along with some other people on the Avenue. Now, I’m going to tell what I know.”
I said, “That is what a witness does.”
Peter was seated next to me on my right. He said, “I was working at a Pizza Hut several years ago. It was Halloween and two kids, fourteen and fifteen, came in a shot the place up. There was a huge church youth group in there at the time and it’s unbelievable that no one got hurt. The boys stole an empty cash register that didn’t work and ended up getting multiple attempted murder charges in the process. I was a witness to that and I did what Johnny said. I told what I knew.”
What are you looking for?
I said to the group, “We’re going to get to the theme of being a witness in a few minutes. But first, did you know that Jesus first words in the Gospel of John are, ‘What are you looking for?'” I discovered that profound truth while reading the Good News Translation of John 1.38 and marveled that Jesus asked such a searching question. I looked around the group and said, “If Jesus were to walk in here tonight and ask us what we are looking for, what would you say?”
Peter very quietly and almost unnoticed by the group said, “Serenity.”
There was a fair amount of chatter before Roxanne started speaking. Roxanne has recently completed treatment and is recovering from several years of addiction. She has a very winsome smile. She smiled before she spoke, but underneath the smile was a level of sadness. She said, “If Jesus asked me what I wanted, I would say I need help with my feelings. How do I have so many painful feelings and how can I cope with what I am feeling?” Roxanne continued speaking and the group was intent on understanding her. Some of us attempted to provide helpful advice, but I had the sense that it would have been better if we had just listened more. I wished that I hadn’t jumped in with some information from a book I had read.
Mike continued the group conversation with a level of sincere intensity. Mike had his award-winning smile plastered on his face this night. A week ago, that smile had been replaced by shame, despair and a fair amount of self-loathing. He gave us the short version of his experience. He said, “I thought I just had to have this chick. God told me to leave her alone many times. I didn’t listen to God and ended up with eighteen stitches in my hand. What was really bad is that I lost my feeling for God. I realized then that I didn’t need the chick. I needed God. I was miles away from God and desperately wanted to experience closeness to him again.”
During Mike’s very difficult week his spiritual friends surrounded him with needed support. Mike discovered Psalm 51, the prayer that King David prayed after his sin with Bathsheba. God did with Mike what he promises to do with all who confess their sins. He restored to him the joy of his salvation (Psalm 51.12).
Ricky had been quiet for much of the evening. He encouraged Mike and said, “God puts us through these situations.” Ricky was well acquainted with circumstances of pain and difficulty. He lost his leg and a quarter of a million dollars in a drug deal gone bad. Even more painful was that he lost his son to a heroin overdose. God has a way of revealing to Ricky his love through the number 13. A few times each week, Ricky sends me a text about how God has given him another “13.” It is God’s way of telling Ricky that he is looking after him.
Mike wasn’t quite finished with his story. He said, “I spent thirty years doing dope. I stored all of my feelings, all the wrong in my life, all of my hurts, all of the bad stuff I ever did, all of it in a closet inside of me. Johnny invited me to this church. At first it felt awkward. I didn’t know anybody and I didn’t know how things worked.”
Mike had the entire group listening and nodding signs of agreement with how it feels the first time you come to a church. He said, “First, somebody said ‘hi,’ then someone gave me a high-five, next I got a hug. Then the closet opened up. All of my feelings came pouring out. I don’t always know what to do with my feelings, but it is sure better than getting loaded.”
I have been in the ministry since 1968 and I am a so-called religious professional. However, I never fail to be amazed at the wisdom and honesty that is present in people. Roxanne and Mike gave to our group the gift of their transparency and openness, along with some pretty decent wisdom.
I wanted to make sure we didn’t leave anyone out, so I said once again, “If Jesus came in here tonight and asked you what you are looking for, what would you say?”
Mike was not finished. He smiled and said, “More. I want more.”
Johnny shot Mike a smile and said, “Greedy.”
Johnny’s comment was met with laughter in the group. Mike is a fun guy who can tease and receive teasing easily.
Ricky, who was one day away from having a bad cold, had been unusually quiet during the meeting quietly said, “Peace.”
Roxanne and Lena started listing some things they would ask from Jesus. They said, “Knowledge, peace and strength.”
Later I thought about Mike’s “more” answer. I once heard a man say that he wanted everything Jesus died on the cross for him to have. I can agree with Mike, “more” is a good request from the Lord.
Jesus asked his followers, “What are you looking for?”
I wonder if they were baffled by his question and didn’t know quite how to answer. Nevertheless, they said to him, “Teacher, where are you staying?”
Jesus gave them a response that is another central theme of John’s Gospel. He said to them, “Come and see” (John 1.35-39).
After I gave the group this explanation, I said, “A witness tells what he or she knows. Our witness is an invitation for people to “come and see” for themselves whether Jesus is who we say he is or not. That’s why I asked you to come tonight and tell the group what you know about Jesus from experience. Who wants to be first?”
Johnny was exceptionally fun and bright this night. He began his story and said, “God has always been with me. When he took my daughter, I cursed him. He didn’t curse me. Instead, he sent me rainbows. When I’d see a rainbow, I’d thank my guardian angel.”
I was considering what I knew about Johnny and thought, “Yeah, you’ve worked your guardian angel over time.”
Johnny continued his story and said, “I almost lost my life two times. One time, I ran my arm through a plate glass window at a motel. I knew I was really hurt when I saw blood spurting out of my arm. I took off my belt and made a tourniquet. I yelled at the girl I was with to take me to the hospital. When I got there, I was banging on the door for someone to let me in. A woman came to the hospital door and was going to turn me away. I guess I was at the wrong door. I took my shirt off of my arm and showed it to her. She just fainted right on the spot. I ended up at K. U. Med where they did micro-surgery on my arm. God was really with me, because I could have died or at least have lost my arm.”
Johnny has pictures on his cell phone of what his arm looked like before surgery. I didn’t want him to begin showing those pictures to the group and especially to me since I have a weak stomach.
Johnny ended his story of how he knows Jesus by experience. He said, “Jesus has been after me all my life. God’s purpose for my life is not to be a drug addict. I’ve been to the “boat” and lost every time. God’s purpose for me is to help other people come and see what Jesus is like.”
Roxanne turned to her left and looked Johnny in the eye. She said, “Johnny, you’ve been doing this for me like no one else has ever done in my life.”
“I was seven years sober,” began Peter in his melodic voice. “I joined the Army and was the old man at forty years-old. People told me I couldn’t make it, but I proved them wrong. I became a squad leader and was getting ready to be deployed to Afghanistan. Instead, I was run over by a forklift. I stayed in the Army and was assigned to the burial detail. I had forty-six funerals in eight months.”
It is my feeling that Peter has both survivor’s guilt and PTSD. I am a “quack” psychologist, but I may be right on this point. Peter has clearly been traumatized by burying men with whom he served. He is a great man with a very sensitive heart.
While I was thinking, Peter was talking. He said, “Since so many funerals took place in church or a chapel, church wore me out. One day, I was totally exhausted with all of the death and sadness. I told God, ‘I’m done with you.’ I began drinking and nearly died.”
There were several murmurs of support for Peter at this point of his story. For his part Peter was engaged and actually light-hearted as he hit the high point of the story. He said, “I couldn’t understand why God let me go through all of this. One day, I was at the VA Hospital so they could examine my knee. A young man sat down beside me and began talking in a manic sort of way. He told me that he was going crazy, that he was going to tell me everything, and then go kill himself. My story was so similar to his that his spirits lifted and I was assured that he wasn’t going to kill himself.”
Peter took a breath in his story as the whole group listen intently. He said, “It dawned on me right there. I got on my knees right in the hallway at the VA and said to God, ‘Now, I get it!'”
“So, you understood why you went through all of your stuff, right then and there?” This was said by Mike, who had turned to his left and was looking at Peter with a heartening look.
Johnny was cheering Peter’s story. He said, “Making peace with God is the key to getting sober.”
To my immediate left, Lena spoke and said, “Lot’s of people get sober when they find peace with some problem they’ve been having with God.”
The group was clearly energized and I was sitting on the sidelines watching the interchanges of encouragement and information. It was either Johnny or Mike who turned to the ever quiet but very insightful Vivian. Looking straight ahead, a little straight faced, she said, “How absolutely crappy my life would have been without Jesus in it. My childhood was horrible, with the exception of my grandma. Grandma wanted me to know Jesus and had me reading Bible stories when I was five. This is what I personally know about Jesus. God is with me and I am content and full of peace.”
Johnny, Mike and Roxanne turned their gaze on Miranda. “Miranda told us she had something to say,” they said.
“No I don’t,” replied Miranda with a face nearly as red as her uniform polo shirt. The group seemed to enjoy teasing the shy Miranda.
With some fun coaxing from the group, Miranda finally said, “OK. I am a very quiet person and I don’t like to speak about my feelings, but here goes. A few years ago I had a break up. It was a very abusive relationship. To top it all off, my dad got really sick. I tried to drink my pain away and ended up getting two DUIs in three weeks. This went on for way too long. I started getting better, you know, going to those wonderful SATOP and all that. My friend, Katie, took me to Louise Douglas’ funeral and I began coming to Maywood the next Sunday. This was the first time for me to go to church in years. I kept on coming with Katie.”
As Miranda was speaking, I thought about Louise Douglas. Louise was a quiet, powerful praying woman, whose body was ravaged by rheumatoid arthritis. I wondered if Miranda was not one more of the answers to Louise’s persistent prayers.
What Miranda said next interrupted my thoughts. She said, “One year later, my mom attempted suicide. That night, mom spoke with Katie and the situation sounded really bad. We tried to call back and didn’t get an answer. Later, we got a call that mom had shot herself. We drove all the way to Maryville and the thought, ‘This is the day the Lord has made,’ kept running through my mind. I had God’s peace all the way through.”
I remembered Miranda’s comment from an earlier meeting of our group in the fall. We were all attempting to take a daily prayer walk with Jesus, so we could have some “alone time” with him. Miranda told the group that her mother, who survived a gun shot wound to the chest, was taking a daily walk with the Lord, even when it rained.
“Does God give you any extra?” shot out Roxanne, after Miranda had finished telling her story. Roxanne had been a cheerleader and looked like the girl who would be the “flier” in a cheer routine. She also has the personality of a cheerleader. She is full of life, all smiles and energy. At the same time, I sense there is some sadness that is hidden beneath her engaging smile. She has been on her own since she was sixteen and has accumulated several suspended offenses.
When she was locked up in the county system, an African American woman started her reading the Bible. She told Roxanne, “I’m gonna make you a sista today.”
Roxanne told the group, “On that day I read in the Bible, ‘Free from all.'” Before I actually got free, I went through hell. I found myself bawling on the concrete floor of my cell. Somewhere in my pain, I felt something like a hand lifting my head up and cradling me in loving strong hands. Sure enough, before the night had ended, I was released from jail. I was actually free.”
Lena, who seemed to have a very good connection with Roxanne, said, “That was God meeting with you.”
“Here’s the trouble,” said Roxanne. “Ever since then, I can really feel other people’s feelings. Sometimes it is so strong that I don’t know what to do with it. I hurt so much with other people and I don’t know what to do with it. I’ve always been the strong one, but now I often feel like breaking down. I don’t know how to work through this.”
Miranda turned to Roxanne, who was seated to her right. She quietly said with a very understanding smile, “You can’t take everybody’s problem.”
Lena radiated the kind of empathy that comes from experience and said very quietly, “I went through it too. You’re going to make it.”
I was still thinking of Louise Douglas and I said, “Roxanne, you remember our talk about Louise Douglas? She felt deeply, too. In fact, she felt so profoundly that she had times of depression. What she learned to do was to bring the issue to Jesus.”
I told the group that we are to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6.2). Attempting to encourage Roxanne and looking directly at her, I said, “Don’t run away from feeling deeply. It may be a gift from God both to you and to other people. The Bible tells us something else. It says to cast all of our cares on God, because he cares for us (1 Peter 5.7). Once you have brought a burden into your heart, then turn it over to God in prayer. God has given you this gift and I pray that you use it fully.”
I had spoken more during the meeting than needed. Lena must have known that I was going to talk too long and she slipped me a piece of yellow notepaper. The note told of going to the doctor when she was 30. The doctor diagnosed her with an urinary tract infection and told her to come back if she didn’t get better. It didn’t get better, things turned very bad for Lena. She wrote, “When I came back to the clinic, I fainted. The doctor discovered that I was losing blood, lots of it. He rushed me to surgery and I was told that I died on the table, but was revived.”
Lena was convinced that God was with her. She wrote, “I know that Jesus and my guardian angel were there because I wasn’t meant to go to heaven yet. God still has a purpose for me. I forgave the first doctor who misdiagnosed me. I have an ability to be empathetic and forgive people. It’s a gift from our Lord and Jesus Christ.”