“Here the Beaver's voice sank into silence and it gave one or two very mysterious nods. Then signalling to the children to stand as close around it as they possibly could, so that their faces were actually tickled by its whiskers, it added in a low whisper – 'They say Aslan is on the move – perhaps has already landed.'” from “A Day with the Beavers” in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
This past Sunday at Refuge we had a pretty unusual thing occur during our weekly worship gathering. In fact, in nearly twenty years of pastoring I have never experienced this sort of thing - a guy asked to make a public confession of Jesus Christ. Over the last two decades serving Chetek Full Gospel/Refuge we've had a fair amount of people who at the request of some evangelist or myself have closed their eyes, bowed their heads and raised their hands to receive Jesus into their heart. I think of Kale, one of our worship leaders, or my son, Ed. But never have I had an individual make such a deliberate request to do so in such a public manner. And when he did even the ones who tend to get drowsy during the scope of our usual two hour service sat up and took notice.
|Most fourth Sundays of the year I'm here|
I'm a volunteer chaplain at the Barron County Justice Center. Once a month since the place opened up back in 2004 – and always on the fourth Sunday – I have been leading one or two worship gatherings in the afternoon depending on how many sign up for church. Usually, I have follow-up requests from inmates to visit either once or regularly until they are released. When it comes to the worship gatherings, I never prepare a text or a message. I just bring my Bible and my guitar, strap it on, begin playing and see where things take me. Like off-roading for ATVers. So this past January, on the fourth Sunday, what I remember about that particular day is that there were two services at the jail and at both I shared my faith story. As those things go, mine's a pretty bland tale – no drugs, no booze, no loose women. Just a good church-going kid, who for the most part kept his nose clean in high school but did not know God. But that warm Friday night back in April 1980 when I met Bill I had a conversation that changed the course of my life.
Bill asked me two things – If I were to die tonight would I go to heaven? (“Yeah, I think I would...”) and If I were to die tonight and I were to stand before God and he were to ask me, “Why should I let you into my heaven?” how would you answer? (“Um...I'm a good person?...ah...I go to church?...I..ah...am the president of my youth group?...”) I don't remember much of the rest of that conversation but I can vividly recall driving home that night and being certain of this: Up until that moment, I thought I knew God. But after meeting Bill I realized I only knew about Him while he actually knew Him. And so I prayed a prayer that went like this, “God, I want to know You like that man knows You.” A week or so later, Bill's daughter gave me a gospel tract to read which had a prayer attached to it to receive Jesus into my heart - which I did. But I think my pilgrimage really began that night driving home from Bill's house. So, this is what I shared on that fourth Sunday of January a few months ago.
What I also recall about that afternoon was that my needle, as it were, was stuck. I hammered the point home that a person, no matter how good they are, is not good enough for heaven on their own merit. Troy was in that service that day and by Tuesday afternoon – two days later – we were meeting in Personal Visitation #2 to discuss the very things I had addressed on Sunday afternoon. Troy is a 40-year old guy who began using when he was six. Since he turned 18 he's been in and out of jail for alcohol-related charges. In early January he had violated the terms of his probation putting him back inside once again. Down and discouraged though he was, with a little gentle prodding by one of his dorm mates he had reluctantly signed up for church that day I came. My story captivated him. And scared him because he was convinced that he was not ready for heaven.
Over the next several months, Troy and I met every Tuesday for 30-45 minutes discussing spiritual things. During March I was out of the country and by May, he had graduated to Huber privileges. Scheduled to be released on May 29, he wanted to meet with me one more time. I really needed to give myself to Ed's graduation party prep but wanting to touch base with him I agreed to do so. “My plan is to be at Refuge this coming Sunday.” Every time I'm at the jail I always extend the same invitation: “When you get out of here, if you don't have a local fellowship we want you to know that you are more than welcome to try us out. We may not be your cup of tea...but if you want to be healthy you're going to have to find some place to drink tea!” Over the years I've only had a few guys take me up on that offer but save one, they have never stayed. Troy was released on a Friday and that Sunday he showed up for worship just as he had promised. I had tried to prepare him for what he should expect but he had no church rubric to compare with given that he had only attended a Methodist church when he was a little guy. But when I opened up the altar for prayer that Sunday morning, Troy made a B-line for it, bowed down and began praying. With the exception of the 4th of July weekend when he was working he has been doing the same every Sunday since.
A few weeks after he got out I suggested that we resume what we had been doing when he had been “inside” - meet together to study the Bible and pray together. He readily agreed and so most Fridays since we have done just this. Sometimes his wife joins us and sometimes his son, Alex, but mostly it's been Troy, his pug dog Mack and me getting together, opening our Bibles and finding what the Spirit has to share with us. On the week we took Ed to IHOP, we met on a Tuesday since we would be leaving the following morning. And that was the day he asked me, “Del told me he was born again. So what does it mean to be born again?” Del had been one of his dorm mates – the same guy who had encouraged Troy to go to church that fourth Sunday in January. Even though I'm sure we had discussed this before, we turned to John 3 and began to review the story again:
“There was a man named Nicodemus who was one of the Pharisees and an important Jewish leader. One night Nicodemus came to Jesus and said, "Teacher, we know you are a teacher sent from God, because no one can do the miracles you do unless God is with him."
“Jesus answered, 'I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot be in God's kingdom.'”
“Nicodemus said, 'But if a person is already old, how can he be born again? He cannot enter his mother's womb again. So how can a person be born a second time?'”
“But Jesus answered, 'I tell you the truth, unless you are born from water and the Spirit, you cannot enter God's kingdom. Human life comes from human parents, but spiritual life comes from the Spirit. Don't be surprised when I tell you, “You must all be born again.” The wind blows where it wants to and you hear the sound of it, but you don't know where the wind comes from or where it is going. It is the same with every person who is born from the Spirit.'” John 3:1-8, NCV
We talked at length of Nicodemus' predicament – here's a religious guy who knows the Law backwards and forwards and has met the first requirement of heaven – he's been born. But one thing he lacks – his spirit made dead by sin must be born anew by the Spirit of God. “I think you're probably there” I suggested even though he and I had never officially prayed together about that very matter. “No, I don't think so,” he countered. “Nope. I'm not there yet.” So, I left it at that for the time being.
The following Sunday morning while I was sitting in the sound booth helping Kale level out the mics he came up to me and said, “I can't get it out of my head. Ever since we spoke it's been bugging me so I think I want to be born again.” Understand, I don't get told that sort of thing very often. In fact, I get that request hardly ever. So I looked up from what I was doing and asked, “Now?” “No, I think I want to be born again next Sunday.” On the principal of carpe diem (i.e., seize the day) I gently persuaded him, “Why not today?” To wit he replied, “I want my family here to see this and they said they would come if I would be born again.” Then I asked, “Do you want to do it before the service or after it?” “No,” he said, “During the service would be good.” So, we set the date accordingly. Later that morning, he was particularly being touched at the altar and a few of the guys attempted to pray with him to receive Jesus but he gently held to his original decision: “I want my family here to be a part of it,” he insisted.
Last Friday, Linda was with me and as we walked up to their trailer, I half expected to find that he had talked himself out of his decision. But on the contrary we found him more determined than ever. His wife, his son and his daughter from Barron was planning to be present as well as her kids. Knowing how our mutual enemy likes to rain on people's parades, I warned him to not be surprised if his family has a big fight that morning taking whatever want-to to attend worship together right out of them. But he was adamant: “Even if they won't come with me, I'm going to be born again on Sunday. To me, I figure it's like getting married. You can't be private about that sort of thing.” Clearly, Troy has another Teacher who has been schooling him in these matters.
|Lost kid gets found|
So Sunday morning came and as promised here was Troy and a good many of the members of his family present to witness him be born again. It was a small crowd – many were gone on vacation or elsewhere – but we worshiped and, as his habit has been, he came to the altar to pray during that time in the gathering. I think he was the only one, in fact, but he came all the same. When it was message-time, I opened up to Luke 15 and began to share about meeting Troy at the jail and how we had been talking about spiritual things for quite awhile. I then invited him up and over the next 15-20 minutes I interviewed him. Troy was very candid about his story and about his failures but was ready now to make a profession of faith. Before we did, however, I opened the floor to those gathered and encouraged anyone who wanted to offer him any encouragement as he took this step. As expected, several people responded with filial counsel as ones who are trying to walk with Jesus as well. I then invited Troy to stand at the altar and any who would stand with him. Over a dozen Refuge-es came to stand around him and join him as he prayed my made-up-on-the-spot version of “the sinner's prayer.” When it was over, people began to clap spontaneously – one even stood to their feet – joining in with celebration that was no doubt going on in the heavenlies at that very moment.
Last Sunday was the fourth Sunday of July which meant that once again I was heading to the Justice Center that afternoon. Just like a guy who's learned that he's just become a dad, I went excited to tell those inmates who had signed up for worship that day what God had did that morning. Such was the power of Troy's story that even telling it second-hand it provoked six people make first-time requests to see me this past Tuesday. It took me all afternoon too meet with these drug dealers and users and a few others who after hearing about Troy found it possible to hope for themselves again.
|I love going to jail|
For me, one of the coolest things about his story is that little tid-bit about his dorm mate, Del. Del is a Christian who got into some trouble (not all of it his own making) and will be inside until this fall. Prior to going in, a relative connected with Rick and Sandy, a couple from Refuge, asked if they could meet with him prior to his incarceration. They met with him three or four times praying for him and asking that God would use him while he was locked up. He had been at the Justice Center maybe six months before Troy arrived. It was Del who had encouraged Troy to sign up for worship that fourth Sunday in January and when his heart had been pricked with conviction of the Holy Spirit who did he have to turn to? Del, of course. In fact, those first few weeks of meeting with Troy was made easier simply having a man on the inside fielding his many questions. Though we hardly knew each other we were working in tandem to point this man to Jesus. How cool is that?
Jesus is still saving people. He's still healing and ridding people of unclean spirits. He's still traveling from burb to burb teaching and preaching “the gospel of the kingdom and healing every sickness and every disease among the people” (Matt 9:35, KJV). Though it may feel at times like we, personally, are working in the middle of a Narnian winter devoid of Christmas, Aslan is, indeed, on the move. Jesus said as much, “My Father never stops working, and so I keep working, too” (John 5:17, NCV). And every time we are graced to partake in helping someone make a profession of faith or pray for someone who begins to experience freedom from tormenting devils it's a reminder that the Kingdom of God is at hand.