I have been doing ministry for a time, always out on the ragged edge of things. And even after all of these years I find myself wondering why God would save and call an old skinhead and gutterpunk.
As I sit here and write this, I am restless. I actually loathe the thought of another speaking date. Don’t get me wrong – good things always happen. I will preach hard and to the point. I will not dodge issues and I will speak in the vernacular of my day.
I will dress without a facade and force people to see God beyond the exterior. I will play the role of a novelty and try my best to allow something positive to happen. People will be saved and delivered from demonic strongholds and to me, none of it will be enough.
Because even on those rare occasions when the sermon that God gives me is revolutionary in scope and substance, even when people flood the altar and repent, I still retire to whatever room I have and lament the entire event. Because no matter how well I may “perform”, no matter how strong the message seems to be, I know it is partly due to intellect, partly due to street smarts, part marketing and a part God’s Spirit. How can that ever be enough?
The weight of the ministry is at times oppressive. I feel the weight of my speaking to these crowds that are nameless and faceless to me. I know that God wants to intervene in their lives and that so much may be riding on God’s being able to use what I say and do as a catalyst for change. And I fear that I will fail in my task because of there being too much of me in the equation.
Something has transpired in me over these past years that doesn’t allow me to take the ministry in a cavalier way. I know that somewhere out there, just beyond my grasp is the light switch. In every event, every innocent meeting, the “forever change” potentially waits for the people that I come into contact with. That the possibility exists that somehow God could use this ugly vessel to produce a radical shift in someone’s accustomed paradigm that could affect the rest of his or her life.
And I know that it’s not me. And it is nothing that I know, nor any skill I possess. My cleverness cannot produce this forever change. And I cannot afford to write it off as some sovereign work of God that is simply beyond me, a divine comic lottery, if you will. There is a method to God’s seeming madness at all times, even (or especially) when His will makes no clear sense to us.
I am terrified of speaking well and manipulating people’s emotions in some way that I had predetermined that they should go. I am distressed at the thought that I am a factor in this ministry at all. I wish above all things that people would just say that God shows up at my meetings. I do not wish to be known for my intellect, my cutting style, my dress or my caustic sense of humor. I wish they would just see Jesus. But I am not equal to that task. And I wish more than anything that that fact were not so. I fall so short of the mark in so many areas; I am the perfect example of the wrong person for the job.
I choose to live on the edge and so the position of the tenuous and slippery hold is almost commonplace. If I were like many of the preachers that I know, I would simply shut up, play the game and prosper. I see so many of them do just that. It regularly pains me to see my family go without when with just a small amount of what I would call compromise they would be just fine. But I seem to live my life along the lines of Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken.
“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for what this life of faith has done for me. There have been times when my life was threatened when the years of faith paid off. I have had people sit on the front row during sermons of mine and show me the gun they had hidden between their legs. I do not know much but I know that the same person who did that was on their face the next night at the altar, completely overwhelmed by God’s love.
A part of my preparation for that moment happened during the times we prayed in dinner or rent. We live on the edge of disaster all of the time. People come and go in our lives. Promises are made and broken regularly. We sit on the verge of having nothing and losing what little we do have. But in all of that, one thing never changes; we know by practical experience that God is faithful.
And this is why I continue despite everything that happens. I am not the right choice for the job; I know there is someone out there who can do what I do better than me. But God’s love compels me. When I want to quit and start a business, when people desert us and forget us, when disaster looms ahead and there is no hope in sight, I still cannot quit. Because I remember when, despite all of my faults, God showed mercy. I remember when the answer came when all hope was lost. And I remember the joy at rediscovering the faithfulness of God when all else had failed. And so, I continue to be God’s fool.
I preach in some very large churches but never do I try and clean up to be able to speak at those “big churches”; I would rather hug the AIDS patient or befriend the runaway teen that is forgotten. I would rather live with nothing and know the joy of God’s provision in the midst of impossible odds than compromise and never experience him that way. It is just God and us alone most of the time. Funny how easily people turn away from you when you have nothing and they have nothing to gain from you. We have learned from vast experience that you can count on no one except God. I will fail you or offend you at some point. I will do wrong and you will walk away. But when that happens, I look around and find the Father smiling at me.
There have been times when we have had to go to the local churches and ask about the possibility of using their church for two hours on Sunday afternoons. When I approached one local pastor with the question, he put the religious 20 questions to me like he was Torquemada. Before I could use his building for a two-hour slot on Sundays he had to know who I was, what credentials I carried, my education, my thoughts on everything from predestination to the Apostles Creed. I started off answering his questions politely but I very quickly grew tired of them. Finally, I had to stop the inquisition and speak frankly.
I said, “Pastor, you want to know who I am? Let me tell you. I am a failure. I have been a liar, a cheat, a conman, a criminal, a squatting gutterpunk for years and a violent racist. I am the epitome of wasted potential. I was locked up in juvenile hall for a large part of my teenage years. I have a verified I.Q. of 153… And yet the last full year of regular school that I attended was the seventh grade. I taught myself everything that I knew. I grew up as true white trash; my family lived in trailers my entire life. We were on welfare or low paying jobs most of the time and I shopped for school clothes at the Salvation Army. I was a runaway and a vagrant. I could have been a great doctor or a lawyer, perhaps. If the plan would have worked out differently maybe I would have had a rich family that helped me.
But I lived on the streets from the time I was twelve. I saw a friend shot dead beside me and a girlfriend shot in the face in a drive-by shooting when I was a teenager. I had a seventeen-year-old friend die of AIDS as I watched. There have been at least 4 serious attempts on my life and I carry the scars to prove it. I have woken up in the middle of the night with a gang member’s pistol shoved in my mouth. So, I am by all normal estimates in this society and in this modern church- a failure and a dreg.
But when I was 19, Jesus intervened in my life during a suicide attempt. I crawled bloody out of a cold bathtub and sobbed naked on the floor asking him for help. And he changed my life. I may not be able to show you something that will make you feel that I am qualified; I may not have the backing of a major denomination that is well respected and safe. I have none of the qualities that people like you look for in a tame spiritual leader. I did not grow up like Ned Flanders, safe and secure in my wonderful home. It took me over twenty years to start to pursue my Masters because I spent no time in Bible School when i was first saved – I was too busy being a street preacher, reaching out to those that no one else cares for because there is no money in them. All that I have to qualify me is Christ in me. And that may not be much to someone like you but for someone like me, it is everything.”
The simple and elusive fact to many is that God loves the outcast. He loves the second-rate and the counted out. He seems to embrace those of us with nothing to show for years that we wasted on the world. When you look in the eyes of someone not worth your time, someone dying or poor, the obvious welfare mother at the store or the bum on the library steps, you are seeing Jesus stare back at you. When you stand next to the alcoholic who smells of urine and booze or the criminal Christian, who has failed even after salvation, you stand shoulder to shoulder with the Messiah’s heart. I am not the best man for the job and yet God chooses to use me. And that makes some people very angry. I leave them, who are way more qualified than I, without excuse. I live my life in joyful abandon because when the lights dim and the music is over, when the crowd is gone and the only sound is my own breathing, all that I have is God.
I can say with some pride that I am a fool and deserve to lose it all for foolishly trusting in God. But that trust that God will provide is my joy and that abandon is my identity. And He gave that to me, me the outcast, me the failure and liar and cheat. He looked on me in my worst possible moments, during the times I am most ashamed of and still he loved me. And if he loved me then, at that place and that time, how could he think less of me now?
What a mighty and amazing God we serve! I feel his presence so strong even as I write this. Yes, you too are a failure and a hypocrite. Yes, you could be better than what you are. But God called you as you were and you need to remember that when everyone around you reminds you of all that you are not.
He didn’t call you because you were the best or the brightest. He didn’t call you because of your morals or your strengths. God called you because of your failings and your shortcomings. He chose you because you are a fool and He loves to make purses out of sow’s ears. So many of us are deceived into thinking that it is what we don’t do or what we overcome that gives us our testimony. But your weakness is your testimony, not your strengths.
I may never be a success in the church’s eyes. Those who hate me may get to laugh as I fail. But I am thrilled at the ride. I am addicted to my hero, Jehovah Jireh. I know that life is no fun without danger and a man or woman needs no savior when there is no threat. And I have a hero who excels in the role. He lives for it, in fact. Because even though the one he rescues is dirty and discarded, used and abandoned, he is by nature the Savior.
And in the end we have but one job, you and I. And although we may wish that the job were to save the world or cause revival fires to spread over the entire planet, it is far more simple than that.
We are called to be beautifully broken in his wonderful hands.