Did I tell you about Justin (not his real name) the kid who taught me a lesson in love? Okay, well, if so, I’m gonna tell it again because it’s freakin’ awesome!
About sixteen years ago, I worked for Youth in Need, a wonderful organization that helps teens, usually wobbling vicariously between their broken world and the road to juvenile detention. This was often the last best hope to help them.
I was basically a house mom and often worked the night shift in the house they lived in. It was a time in my life when I was also a broken mess, not long before my husband and I separated for a year (another God story). So I’m not really sure how I ended up there, thinking I had anything to offer them. It would be much later before I could see God’s hand in it.
The police often brought the kids to us. Sometimes they were runaways, or castaways by their parents or guardians. Justin came to us, a little guy (for a twelve-year-old) with a huge chip on his shoulder. He was always angry and struck out at anyone who looked at him wrong.
Easter Sunday was my day off but I decided that I would buy a ham and ask some of my neighbors to make some covered dishes. How nice of me! Look out Saint Mother Teresa…Linda’s vying for your spot in heaven! I can see the headlines now:
LINDA RUSSELL CANNONIZED BY POPE FRANCIS: THE PARTON SAINT OF MISFITS…
But, I digress…
The evening went unusually well. That is until we discovered that one of the Easter baskets went missing. That evening, I found it under Justin’s bed. When I called him out on it he went ballistic! He started pounding on the walls and yelling obscenities. When I started down the steps to contact our on-call therapist, he followed me. Still yelling! And then he spit on me. Okay, now I was mad! I began thinking of how very generous I was to come in on my day off. I muttered under my breath, “Kid you’re outta here!” And I meant it. I was determined to send him away and I had the power to do it. When I shut the office door and picked up the phone I knew he was listening.
I explained to the therapist what had happened. She asked me if I felt threatened. If I would have said yes, the police would have been called. But, then, in that moment God grabbed my heart…this was Easter Sunday! On Good Friday, Jesus was spat on and mocked and crucified. Justin was just a child; a hurting, suffering child. I assured the therapist that I did not feel threatened and would handle it.
When I opened the door, Justin fell into me – still angry, “YOU GONNA CALL THE POLICE?! GO AHEAD CALL THE POLICE I DON’T CARE. CALL MY DAD, I DON’T CARE!” I calmly (which surprised me) said to him, “No Justin I’m not calling anyone. Just go upstairs, get your shower, and go to bed. Oh, and, if you need a hug I have one for you.” I think that offer surprised both of us, but his response didn’t. He uttered, “Yeah right!” just before he knocked the chair up against the wall and stormed out of the room.
Yeah right. What was I thinking? And now I had to fill out an incident report! Oh joy. “I’m taking my ham back! You hear me buddy???”
Ten minutes later, report finished, I headed upstairs just in time to encounter Justin coming out of the bathroom. There was something different about him when he looked at me. He was calmer and then asked something that, to this day, when I retell this story I still get teary eyed thinking about it. “Can I have that hug now?” I can’t even describe the emotions that filled my heart as I hugged that little boy. I have no idea if he had ever been hugged before or since then. I hope that’s not the case, but I never saw him again.
When I consider that for just one moment I had the power to influence a little boy’s life – for good or bad – it’s mind-blowing! I know this for sure, if I would have followed through and had him sent away, that would have certainly been my own narcissistic doing. But, the ultimate outcome of that incident was totally God’s doing and took place even in the midst of my own brokenness (that’s a very important fact). It wasn’t by my own strength or even care for Justin. I was not some amazing spiritual giant responding as would have been expected of the likes of Saint Mother Teresa, BUT, and this is huge, I was able to hear Jesus speak into the depth of my otherwise hardened heart, which in turn allowed him to speak love into the soul of another broken heart. He used me in all my messiness. Unbelievable.
When I look back on my life it is simply astounding to me to consider what God is able accomplish when he has so little to work with. If such incredible acts of love, mercy, and healing can take place even when we are so resistant to him, I have to wonder what America would be like today, if 137 million Christians would stop resisting God’s call. It is breathtaking to consider the possibilities. When we turn on the morning news only to hear of another tragedy we tend to blame God for not doing something! What kind of God would just sit back and allow these things to happen?
Sadly, so many of us who confess to be Christian are believers in name only. That reminds me of a family in our church years ago. They proudly displayed a “pro-life” bumper sticker on their car that mysteriously disappeared when their daughter got pregnant. I suppose it would have been a bit awkward to have it plastered on their car in the parking lot of the abortion clinic her mother took her to. How can we be so content simply getting our card punched on Sunday morning when God does not mince words about that kind of faith?
Here’s a verse we really hate: Revelations 3:16-17: “I know you inside and out, and find little to my liking. You’re not cold, you’re not hot—far better to be either cold or hot! You’re stale. You’re stagnant. You make me want to vomit. You brag, ‘I’m rich, I’ve got it made, I need nothing from anyone, oblivious that in fact you’re a pitiful, blind beggar, threadbare and homeless.” (The Message)
But do we hate it enough? – because we don’t act like it. I don’t know if it’s as much a matter of indifference as fear.
What ARE we so afraid of? Trust? Possibly.
Are we afraid of what God will require of us if we come out of hiding? Perhaps.
Fear of the unknown? Absolutely.
Let’s go back a ways. There are many people in the Old and New Testament that were afraid to trust God; afraid of the unknown, “You want me to do what?” They came up with some pretty lame excuses considering they were arguing with God himself, and then Jesus in the flesh. So, fear of coming out of our comfort zones and believing we have gifts to be used for God’s kingdom is just too hard to get our heads around. But, it’s true. When I have the opportunity to share my story, I have heard so many people tell me they can’t imagine God working in their lives like that. I have to remind them of the heathen I was before God caught my attention. And when that did happen it wasn’t a sudden thrust into a world I knew nothing about…
God isn’t in the business of scaring us to death to get his point across. He knows each one of us intimately and how to gently encourage our trust in him and the fact that our lives have a purpose. For me that growth to spiritual maturity started long ago (still in progress), but has grown exponentially over the years, especially during the year we spent in Belfast, Northern Ireland. God, in his infinite wisdom, knew I was prone to run like hell when I was challenged. There were three incidents in a short period of time that helped to melt my hardened heart, gently and lovingly.
The first was the day I was walking home behind a woman, her daughter, about twelve, and son, about four. Suddenly, without any provocation that I saw, she began slapping the little boy on the head. I was shocked to see how out-of-control she was, and in public no less; how the little girl seemed indifferent, and the little boy appeared to be used to it. He didn’t cry or recoil. He held his hands up to block hers, but there didn’t seem to be any sense of fear. They crossed the street. Oh good. Now, I could continue on my way, minding my own business, like everyone else. NOT.
Suddenly, I felt God’s prompting on my heart to go back and reach out to her. Not something I was accustomed to doing. But, I knew God wasn’t going to go away, even though I protested, “But, Lord, what am I supposed to say to her? “I don’t like this, Lord”.
As I started praying to the Holy Spirit to give me the words to say I nervously crossed the street and walked toward them. She knew I was headed straight for her, and I had no idea how she was going to respond to me. As I approached her, she stopped, and I simply asked her if she wanted someone to talk to. She waved me off and kept going, kids in tow, and the little boy sticking his tongue out at me.
At the time, I wasn’t sure what that accomplished because I never saw her again either. (Do you see a pattern emerging?)
As if that wasn’t enough discomfort, I had another experience not long after that of “butting into other people’s business”. This time at the post office. There was a long line that day. In front of me there were three elderly ladies and a young girl with a buggy in front them. The line twisted and turned between the ropes. The girl had a tiny baby in the carriage that began to cry. It was clearly beginning to annoy the people in line. Or, I should say, the girl annoyed them because she did not respond to the baby. She would occasionally shake the carriage, but made no attempt to pick him up. The glares and whispers were obvious to the young mom.
Then came that familiar “Holy nudge” again!
“Alright I’m going” was my immediate response hoping to avoid the inevitable flick. As we came to a turning point in the line I managed to slip past the women and stand next to the girl; baby still crying. I noticed a bottle in the holder and began a conversation:
What a beautiful baby.”
“Thanks” she replied
“How old is he?”
“Oh, my great-grandson is about two months.”
She smiled as the baby continued to cry. The women were exasperated at that point.
I said the obvious, “He’s fussy.”
“Do you mind if I hold him?” Expecting her to tell me to take a flying leap – or worse!
I unbuckled him and picked him up. “Do you think he’s hungry?”
“Do you mind if I try to feed him?”
Now, everybody’s happy! We talked a bit more as he finished the bottle and then she was at the front of the line. I put the baby back in the carriage, gave her a hug, shook my head at women I assumed were grandmothers themselves and gave them a look that said, “Shame on you”. We never saw each other again. (See, something is going on here.)
Chalk up another, not so obvious to me at the time, lesson.
Then came my final, and most profound lesson on the streets of Belfast, a veritable school of life! I was about to meet Bernie, my alcoholic teacher, on yet another trip to the Post Office. I was in a hurry this time, on a mission to tick off another task before work. I noticed a woman sleeping on the sidewalk, oblivious to the people passing and trying not to pay the slightest attention to her. I even noticed a few people crossing to the other side of the street. And here’s me as I walk past her, “I wonder if she’s alive”. But did I stop? No. And then? There it was again. That “Holy nudge”. Dang it! Not now.
“Lord, don’t you have other heathens to reckon with?” I must have walked another five minutes before God got the best of me. I guess I thought I could out-run him. I kept hearing, “Go back”. That’s all. Nothing about what I was supposed to do once I got there. No. That would have been too easy.
Fine. So, back I go.
As I sat down on the cold sidewalk beside her I nudged her but she didn’t move. Oh my God, I got a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach. What if she really was dead?! I nudged her again. She slowly opened her eyes and I could tell she was intoxicated. “Come on, Love. Sit up (that’s what they say in Ireland. They call everyone “Love” even if they don’t know them).
She looked at me and said angrily, “No, leave me alone!”
“No, come on, you can’t stay here. It isn’t safe. Sit up.”
She managed to sit up and looked at me like, “Okay, now what”?
“What’s your name?”
“Do you have a home, Bernie?”
Now I’m wondering what I am going to do with her. Being unfamiliar with Belfast I didn’t know where to take her. “Are you hungry? We’ll go get something to eat.”
“No. You got a fag?”
“No, sorry I don’t smoke, (are you ready for this?) it’s bad for your health.” That caused both of us to laugh, it was such a ridiculous response.
Then she looked me straight in the eye and said, “Look at me! No one wants me. It’s no use. It’s no use. Just leave me alone!”
“No, Bernie, that’s not true. I am looking at you and what I see is beautiful. Now, come on, let’s get you to a shelter.” Then, as I struggled to help her up, I prayed, “Oh, Lord, help me here.”
Just then (I’m not kidding) a van pulled up and a young man got out. Bernie recognized him, “Here comes the welcome wagon.” We both laughed again. The man, calling her by name, very gently and lovingly got her in the van and climbed into the driver’s seat. Not sure what to do, I quickly wrote down my phone number, “Please, would you give her my number if she wants to contact me?” He assured me he would and drove away. But, alas, as you know by now, I never saw or heard from her again.
I have related to you in this one post, four incidents in which I encountered, for just a moment in time, hurting people that I fancied myself saving. Truth be told, they actually saved me. We weren’t meant to have ongoing relationships that would last a lifetime. None of them would be calling me years later to tell me they named their first-born child after me, or to invite me to their college graduation. God was working quietly and without fanfare on a heart I often thought was beyond reach, and he knew it would take time.
They were just little moments of grace, and there would be many more to follow. It was like a child learning to crawl, then holding onto something sturdy to stand before he could trust enough to walk…and then run. Eventually, I discovered that God gives us everything we need to be all he created and called us to be; that my past did not define my future, and that the lies I lived were Satan’s stronghold on me – not my truth.
When we doubt ourselves Satan gets all giddy inside. When we question God’s call to us, the kingdom work he has planned for us to do never gets done. And Satan cheers. Sure, he could go find someone else, but with the number of us who never were willing to step out of their comfort zones, that leaves him limited resources.
And Satan cheers again.
Our strength is limited, but we don’t need to rely on our own strength because God’s boundless, inexhaustible, immeasurable grace is just a prayer away. Not convinced? Pick one:
The Lord will give strength to His people; the Lord will bless his people with peace. Psalm 29:11
In quietness and confidence shall be my strength. Isaiah 30:15
I am strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Ephesians 6:10
I have put on the complete armor of God. Ephesians 6:11
God gives power to the weak. And to those who have no might, He increases strength. Isaiah 40:29
Enough? Yeah, it seems God knew we needed lots of convincing. Has it worked? Not according to Ed Stetzer in his article titled, Too Many So-Called Christians Merely Giving Lip Service to Jesus. Below is an excerpt, and if you would like to read the entire article go here.
The Data Conundrum
First, let’s consider the data. A 2012 Gallup poll illustrates about three out of four Americans (77 percent) still identify as Christian. And about 137 million Americans, or 44 percent of the population, say they are part of a specific Christian congregation, according to the 2010 U.S. Religion Census. Most weekends, tens of millions of worshippers still attend churches. Even the lowest estimates show that about one in five Americans—or about 60 million people—show up in worship every week. But I think we’d all agree that fewer follow Jesus. Fewer let their faith shape their lives or have deep spiritual resources to draw on when life gets hard.
Why is that?
I suspect many churches have forgotten their main calling: to make disciples. Instead, we believe drawing a crowd of people on Sundays is enough. We invite people to come to church or to be good people—but not to follow Jesus.
Sociologists like Christian Smith say many Americans follow something called “moralistic therapeutic deism,” a belief in God that’s mainly focused on being a good person and having a positive self-image.
That kind of religion feels good. But it doesn’t have staying power. And it doesn’t motivate people to act on their faith in areas where it costs them.
Call It What It Is
The issue is nominalism—when someone is a Christian in name only. They call themselves Christians but are not disciples. They are not people who follow Jesus.
This is hardly a new phenomenon. Remember the Israelites? Remember when they were tent camping at the foot of the mountain eating beans and roasting marshmallows over an open fire and singing cowboy ballots?
Wait, no, that’s the wrong scene. Sorry…
Here. Here they are…
They were scared to death of God and insisted Moses go up the mountain himself. Exodus 20:18-19 (NIV), “When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”
They would just stay put at the foot of that mountain, “We’ll be right here when you get back!” But, guess what happens when you park yourself at the foot of the mountain because you’re too afraid to move; too afraid of what God might ask of you, too afraid of what it will cost you? You get pelted with the falling rocks of a mediocre life.
Mediocre. Is that what you’re striving for? Is that what gets you up every morning and fills you with excitement about what life has in store for you? Are you content to sleepwalk through this life waiting for the next? Sadly, most people are, and Christians are no different. Have you thought about what you’re missing when you sleepwalk through life?!:
That’s a shame because God could have put those gifts he gave you to better use. Imagine him watching you just sitting on them…
Oh, okay, maybe you’re waiting until you get your life straightened out before you think God can use you. After all, you may reason, I’m just too broken myself. There’s no way I could help anyone else if I can’t even help myself. That’s true, if in fact it is you that you’re relying on the fix yourself. It’ll never happen! Sorry. I can’t imagine you haven’t heard the expression: God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called. Catchy huh?
Come on, Love.
There’s kingdom work to be done. God’s waiting…
Here’s a little food for thought: Do you realize that God is dependent on you? That’s not a typo.
Say it to yourself, “God is dependent on ME!
Linda, you’re crazy!”
Really? Then what does this quote by St. Irenaeus mean? “The glory of God is man fully alive.” Let that sink in a moment. You see, God needs us. It’s true. Anyone ever tell you that before? God gave us free will knowing full well we would often use it against him. But that was the only way we would come on our own into a loving relationship with him.
So, you see, you MUST WAKE UP because this broken world needs you! God needs you! Now more than ever.