The week before New Year's, I was part of a large contingent from The Focus (our youth fellowship) that attended the Onething conference in Kansas City, MO. Onething is a four day intensive worship-teaching-prayer experience hosted annually by the International House of Prayer-KC between Christmas and New Year's. Every year since they began the event, we've had a group from here attend and this year's group was by far the largest.
Let me start out by stating that I really didn't want to go. It's not that I don't like it there - I do. Having made the trip to the House of Prayer several times before either as a participant of other conferences they host or simply to spend time in the prayer room, without fail I am blessed while I am there. No, I just didn't want to make the drive. At the present time, neither my radio nor my CD player in my van are working and so I feared that much of my trip through Iowa would be spent fighting to stay awake in a van load of sleeping kids (which is pretty much what happened on the trip down). Some guys like driving over the road. I'm someone who likes to travel so long as I can put my head back from time to time and catch a short nap. But when our original means of transportation broke down (fortunately in Chetek), I became part of Plan B.
Once there, I had to reconcile myself to the fact that I was and to quit my interior whining and join the festive throng going into the house of God (Ps. 42). So, our first evening there I spent entirely in the prayer room. As an example of the mood I was in, here's a sentence from my journal from that afternoon:
...here I am: a little ornery, a little out of place, a little hungry, a little lost.
I wrote that around 7:30 p.m. But there is something healing and restorative by just sitting in a room that has an atmosphere of worship because by 8:15 I was jotting down this little bit:
It occurs to me [not for the first time] that spending time in our own
prayer room is not about first and foremost getting a more "fired-up"
fellowship but of Him getting more of me. I think of Renee who has been
fairly regular at praying at Refuge [for Refuge] on Thursday mornings
for several years now. Her prayers have had an affect, no doubt, on the
life of our fellowship but that time has spent has also had an affect on
Renee. Lord, change me...that I, too, may be transformed from glory to glory.
In any case, just 45 minutes in the "pool"of the prayer room had already begun a restorative work in me.
Jesse is a guy from our fellowship I mentioned a few installments ago ("Taste and See", 11/12/10) who for several months running has been undergoing a remarkable heart make-over of sorts. A year ago at this time, his future with his wife and family was in question for reasons that are not important to list here. It is enough to state that they were all in a very bad way. But while we were away on sabbatical this past summer, God was at work in his heart and a thaw had begun. In fact, by the time of the Service of Thanks-Bringing, he had the wherewithal to stand and share in his own manner the confounding thing that was going on in him:
"We lost our lease to our hunting land in Buffalo County and I'm not stressed
about it. I just figure this will give me and Sheryl more time to be together
so we're not deer hunting this fall."
[This from a guy who hunts everything.]
"Our new widescreen TV broke and I'm not frustrated about it. It just gives
us more time to be together."
[Is someone writing this down????]
He's the guy who got the tattoo on his arm that serves as a carry-with-you-memorial stone: "Father, Lead Me." When someone who was resistant to this "Christian-thing" goes so far to get imprinted permanently with the sign of Jesus something is going on.
A few weeks after this, Troy invited him to help us transport kids down to Onething and he agreed to - giving up a week of bobcat hunting to do so. For good measure, Sheryl, his wife who has been praying fo him for quite some time, agreed to come along, too, with her teenage daughter in tow. So, that's the short story of how we all ended up in Bartle Hall in downtown Kansas City amongst 28,000 others a few nights before New Year's Eve. Me reluctantly, he fearfully and yet willingly not knowing just what this event was all about.
On the second night of the conference, David Sliker shared a brief exhortation to students who were struggling with their parents challenging them to pray every day for them in 2011. "Even if you only pray half of the year for them that's still one half more than you did in 2010." He then asked all those challenged to do just that to stand so that others could pray for them. Hanna (Sheryl's daughter and Jesse's step-daughter) stood. It was something of an 11th-hour thing for her to even make the trip as her dad was not keen on her attending. After the kids finished praying for her, Jesse got up and walked to where she was sitting and put his arm around her and gave her a warm embrace (I learned later that Hanna had been struggling with her step-dad as well.) While Matt Gilman (the worship leader) led a short set, I was captivated by what I was witnessing - a man, who not too long ago, was looking for a way out of his filial responsibilities, is doing a very fatherly thing and by the display of his step-daughter's body language she was very welcoming of it. Sitting in front of them was my own daughter who stood up to put her sweatshirt on. It was one of her Cross Country ones and as she put it on the saying emblazoned on the back of it was like God's word to me:
Hard things take time. Impossible things take a little longer.
In that moment my five year history with Jesse slid instantly before my eyes - the day I met him when he and Sheryl came to see me about presiding at their wedding; their wedding day; being with them after Kolton [their little Downs guy]; his time of going AWOL and now here, in Bartle Hall, in downtown Kansas City on Wednesday, December 29, 2010 loving on his step-daughter. "Hard things take time. Impossible things take a little longer." You got that right. I began to quietly weep at the sight of the grace of God at work in a man's heart and a family's reality. I was witnessing a miracle - no doubt an unobtrusive one but a dramatic one all the same. Later that night he asked me to pray for him to be free from his addiction to chew [i.e., tobacco] and on New Year's Eve he was baptized in the Holy Spirit at a special ministry set for just that purpose. By the end of the evening amidst all the dancing and celebration, he was praying over his wife or others who were in need or worshiping with all the rest with hands thrust into the air. I learned later that before we left, he had made a point to speak briefly with certain kids to affirm them and tell them how much he appreciated them. This is not the Jesse that we know or (I suspect) he knows himself! At the end of it all he could say to me about the week pretty much sums up all of it: "Wow."
I don't want to overstate it. None of us ever "arrives" with one step. We are all a work in progress. But I like what C.S Lewis wrote of Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader after he had been un-draggoned:
It would be nice, and fairly nearly true, to say that 'from that time forth
Eustace was a different boy.' To be strictly accurate, he began to be a
different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could
be very tiresome. But most of those I shall not notice. The cure had begun.
Time will tell but I have hope the same will bear true for Jesse.
The way home was vastly different than the way down. For nearly 9 hours the van was full of story-telling and conversation of what we had experienced at the high place. At a gas stop in Minnesota Rachel asked me, "What did you receive while you were there?" To wit I replied, "A boat-load of encouragement." As a pastor, I am cognizant of the fact that we all ebb and flow and while the fact that people do has little, if anything, to do with me, I get what Paul felt when he wrote a group of people he was providing pastoral oversight to: "My children, I am in terrible pain until Christ may be seen living in you!" (Gal 4:19, CEV). This past fall it seems like I've been observing an inordinate amount of ebbing in the lives of those I feel spiritually responsible for and for a few, I've despaired that they will ever change. But on the night that I witnessed Jesse loving on his step-daughter or praying over his wife or worshiping the God that has become all so new to him, the word of the Lord to me was, "All things are possible to him who believes" (Mark 9:23). And the right response to that is, "Lord, I believe. Help me in my unbelief." On the day that Jesus healed the demonized boy with the malady he had all his life, it didn't get written down but I'm sure someone who witnessed this amazing feat must have said what Jesse said to me on New Year's Eve in Kansas City: "Wow."