There are a thousand stories. I’ll tell two: You never know what part you’ll play in a person’s story of redemption. I think of the story we usually call the prodigal son, though really the story is about a father who longs for his children—both of them—to come feast with him at his table. Sometimes at our church we get to be the servants preparing the meal for the son returning home, the ones running to get the ring and the robe after a person reconciles with the Father after a long time running.
We got to play that role a month ago. I wrote in my last update about a conversation with our friend John (I’ve changed the names) in which he told me he really and truly thought God hated him. Since that moment, we were never without him. He was in church on Sunday, Wednesday night, every Friday, and became a regular at our Saturday morning coffee shop run by one of our ministry partners, Hollis. We had been praying for John constantly: he was having some severe mobility issues—falling down about a dozen times a day, breaking bones. We bought him a cane, which helped, but we started pleading with him to let us get him off the street. He told us, over and again, “I’m not ready.” At first he would say it stubbornly, like seeking help was for weaker men, but, over weeks, it became a confession: a son worried about how his father would receive him if he came home. “I’m not ready.”
If he had a moment of conversion, I wasn’t there for it, and he would probably never admit it; but we all noticed the change. You could see him, like the prodigal son in the story, thinking about what he would say to his Father when he finally arrived, what bargain he might make to be allowed as a servant in the household—not even dreaming that he might be considered a son again. About a month ago, he came in on a Saturday and cracked a smile: “I’m ready now,” he said. He agreed to go home with Hollis, though at first he refused to come inside, and slept on the front porch.
And I don’t want to say that I’ve seen Christ heal the lame beggar, because that makes John’s story sound sensational, and therefore cheap. This was days spent suffering through detox, weeks of John falling and being injured, years of patient relationship before that, probably hundreds of conversations about the gospel and Jesus. But I can tell you, today—that cane we bought him is leaning against the corner of a wall in Hollis’s house. John is walking just fine, in a long-term care facility and still attending church and praising God there. He’s doing just fine. Someone get this man a ring and a robe. “Let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
Jesus famously summarizes the law of God as it relates to the people around us, saying “love your neighbor,” and the lawyers to whom he is speaking are quick to ask, “who is my neighbor?” which Bonhoeffer calls an evil question, a question wanting to dodge obedience to the word of Christ. But I’ll confess, this is a question I ask sometimes in spite of myself. Sometimes when I meet people, I think, “Lord, is this my neighbor? And if so, can I live somewhere else?” Spencer is not someone I would have called a neighbor the first time I met him. He was drunk, and he cursed me out, threatened me, told me he didn’t want anything to do with the church if I was the pastor.
He got married at a very young age—17—so imagine his disorientation when his wife died shortly afterward, unexpectedly. He came to New Orleans to bury his grief, but grief is like a seed in this way—if you bury it, it sprouts, grows, and produces many more griefs in its season. By the time I met Spencer, he had been drunk in New Orleans for the past 45 years, his entire adult life.
One shower Friday a few weeks ago, he shows up asking us to drive him to rehab. He said he wanted something else for his life. We sat upstairs and spoke for a while about the difficulty ahead and the gospel. He told me he felt his life was worth very little, because he had wasted it, and I told him about the Father who waits and watches on the road, who runs to his son while he’s still a ways away. Spencer broke down.
And sometimes God does things I don’t understand at first and don’t like. Shower Friday took longer that day than it usually does. Spencer waited for us to finish, and we went to a level one detox facility up the road from us. We had called ahead, but when we got there, they informed us intake was closed for the day. We’d have to come back the next day. 45 years, and he was told to wait another day. I offered to drop him off and pick him up the next morning, about twelve hours later.
When I dropped him off at his spot, I was astounded to find he had been sleeping in an abandoned building a block away from an apartment Anne-Elise and I lived in when we first started in ministry. For years, we had been literal neighbors.
I was anxious when I showed up to get him the next morning, because he didn’t show. I thought, we missed it, the window of lucidity and conviction. In a fit of questionable decision-making for which my wife scolded me afterward, I went into the building to see if I could find him. But find him I did. He had slept in—it was still about 7am. He hopped up, and—as with so many of the people Jesus heals in the Bible—he left his mat on the ground as we left the building, no longer having a use for it.
I prayed for him before I left the rehab center, thanking God for allowing me to love a neighbor I hadn’t noticed before, and thanking him for waiting and watching for us, for welcoming us home.