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Whatever makes us feel superior to other people, whatever tempts us to convey a sense of superiority, that is the gravity of our sinful nature, not grace. -Phillip Yancey
He came barreling down the aisle-police in hot pursuit-cradling something shiny under his arm and sweating heavily in jeans, no shirt, no shoes ... wild-eyed and dangerous looking for such a young, skinny man. The guest preacher looked over at me and kept preaching. He was the U.S. ambassador to Tanzania, had traveled extensively, and had vast experience in unique situations. He'd survived the bombing of Tanzania's embassy; we both knew he could handle a little interruption in an eight o'clock church service.
Truth is, despite the big stained-glass windows, vaulted ceiling, and theaterlike stage that clearly indicate "church," we have little interruptions like this about once a quarter at St. John's. Sometimes it's threatening, sometimes comical, sometimes insane, but every "interrupter" looking for sanctuary ... a spiritual shelter. We serve a part of downtown Houston that attracts every segment of society from 150 zip codes-a melting pot of wealthy and powerful, poor and fragile, educated and uneducated, very young and very old, black, white, and brown. For ninety minutes every Sunday, the lines of class distinction disappear and the pews are packed with white-collar professionals, the family next door, the homeless and addicts. And I was looking at an addict.
The wild man jumped on the stage, turned and faced the congregation-the more conservative, traditional, and less reactionary crowd of the day. If this was happening in the ten o'clock service, we'd need the police to pull the crowd off this intruder. I moved from the stage to the front row to get his attention. What is under his arm, I wondered. Is it a gun? I knew the two policemen-armed and in full uniform-were wondering the same thing. Neither had drawn his weapon, but the moment was tense. They hung back as instructed, waiting for my signal, unwilling to make a bigger scene until absolutely necessary. The preacher kept preaching without pause. The young man looked around frantically, curly afro bobbing, breathing hard, but in just moments we made eye contact. I smiled at him, and he smiled back-a big, toothy smile that transformed him from a threat to a need. There's a happy child in there, I thought and motioned to him. "Come on over and sit next to me."
He came over and sat down. The police watched and waited-just like everybody else in the service. I leaned over and asked him, "Man, what are you running from?" His big eyes looked at me in horror, and he said, "Hell." And then I did something I challenge the congregants to do every Sunday-namely, look your neighbors in the eye, then exchange greetings and hugs. I put my arm around his slight frame; he relaxed, and a CD case slipped from under his arm. No gun ... no weapon. Someone brought him a shirt from the back. The preacher called the young man to the stage and prayed for him, and God did something amazing right then-God gave His calming, healing touch. The fear and phobia were gone. The preacher wrapped up his sermon, and I began talking to this young man.
His name was Patrick, he was twenty-five years old, and he'd just escaped from the county psychiatric hospital by jumping the fence. He'd been placed there a day earlier for having a psychotic episode. He'd been smoking marijuana laced with formaldehyde, street name "wet," and he'd been hallucinating. "Wet" is a particularly wicked drug-it opens the user's spirit and brain to terrifying demonic encounters that have a paranoid-schizophrenic appearance. Patrick confirmed he'd had a firsthand encounter with the devil. But while locked up, he remembered hearing St. John's would be a safe place for him. He ran here as fast as he could. He wasn't carrying a gun; he was carrying hope.
And that's what St. John's is all about: a sanctuary, a place of safety and freedom for hurting people to be who they are authentically-whether crazed or sick or sad or lonely or desperate or just in need of loving human touch and a little hope. Sure, this creates some high drama at times. We hire off-duty cops for our congregants' safety. We get interrupted. Members get irritated and ask me when I'm going to "do something about all these ... people." I tell members what I won't do: I won't push these people aside or make them sit in the back or parade them to the front row to make a spectacle of them. What I will do is love them unconditionally, and treat them with grace and dignity.
Congregants at St. John's understand what it is to be poor, to have broken relationships, to lose a loved one to death. We have a common denominator of understanding human suffering. So we might be the only chance for people like Patrick ... people on their own drug-marked odysseys, looking for that warmth and acceptance missing in society. We are missionaries; we simply pose as a church.
The wild young man committed that Sunday to turn his life around. And he has. He started attending services and has a wife and two kids coming with him. Six St. John's men have agreed to call Patrick every week, and his life is starting to take a turn. His recovery has not been perfect, but he desperately wants his life to permanently change. And that's all we-and the Lord-require.
That was the eight o'clock service. When the ten o'clock service began, Patrick was walking out of the church as his father came walking in. They were estranged and hadn't seen each other in a long time. They hugged joyously and sat together for the second service. It was his father's first visit to St. John's, and I guess he was desperate for some hope, too. It was a beautiful thing to see.
OLD LESSONS ... AND NEW
"Never trust preachers and church folk."
That was one of the lessons my dad taught me, and I believed him. My only contact with religious people revealed their poisonous blend of self-righteousness and hypocrisy. I didn't mind making money off them, but I sure wasn't attracted to them in any way. Things, though, were about to change.
After Juanita and I had been married for a few years and the girls were very young, I decided I'd go with them to church. I wasn't going because I had some kind of experience with God. Only went because it was the right thing to do. I didn't hate it, but it sure didn't cause any fireworks, either.
Months later, I decided to join a men's group, and suddenly, I was opening the Bible and reading the gospel accounts of Jesus' life. I was fascinated by how He related to men and women-people on the edge-people just like me. He didn't care who people were. He just loved them. And His love wasn't some pious statement uttered from a distance; He touched them! He intentionally reached out and touched poor people, sick people, unclean people, society's outcasts, precocious children, and anybody else who wanted to connect with Him.
STILL TOUCHING PEOPLE ... LIKE ME
As I read story after story of Jesus' interaction with people, I realized that He's the same today as He was then ... He's just invisible now. He still wants to touch people, and He was touching me at that very moment. I was desperate and empty. My life was headed in the wrong direction, and I knew it. I opened my heart to Jesus and began the most life-changing relationship ever known to man. He touched me just as He touched the leper, the blind man, the crippled guy, the kids, and the dead girl. They were all forgiven and given new life. So was I!
As the weeks went by, God melted my calloused heart. I had been guarded, but now His love allowed me to be open. I had been tough, but He replaced my defensiveness with compassion and kindness. I had been angry, but now His forgiveness assured me I was cleansed. I had depended on my own abilities, but He showed me that I could trust in His power to accomplish far greater purposes than I'd ever dreamed. The more I experienced the touch of His love, kindness, forgiveness, and strength, the more revolution God caused in my heart. I began to see myself as an advocate for the marginalized around me: drug addicts, homeless people, gays and lesbians, gang members, and misfits-people I had never cared for before.
Nobody at the church put up roadblocks for a new believer who wanted to help outcasts in our community, so not long after I trusted in Jesus as my Savior, I found myself neck deep in ministry to those people. After a couple of years (I'll tell more of that story later), my friend and mentor, Kirbyjon Caldwell, asked me to take leadership of a dying church in Houston's inner city. Soon, homeless people and addicts sat in the pews with people of power and prominence. It was thrilling! It looked like the kingdom of God to me, but the kingdom came at a cost. One day, a well-dressed lady who was a corporate professional came to me with a complaint. "Rudy," she said with a tone of disgust, "things just don't seem to be improving around here. What are you going to do about all of those people?"
I knew exactly who she was referring to. She was the spokesperson for some upwardly mobile professionals who were dissatisfied with our church. At that moment, God gave me a clear insight, and I made a choice: From that moment, I realized that it wasn't just a good thing to reach out to the marginalized-I had to defend their right to be here. She had meant her comment to correct my wayward thinking, but I took it as a clear signal from God to champion the people she despised.
That's what Jesus did when He walked among us.
In Jesus' world, people who felt superior to the sick, blind, lame, and demon-possessed often went to Jesus with their complaints. It's the same today. Like the lady who looked down her nose at "those people," they feel completely righteous when they ask questions such as, "Pastor Rudy, what are we going to do with all these gays and lesbians [or addicts or mentally ill or gang members or homeless people or whoever] who come to church here?" or "Can you help us figure out what to do about that person's smell?" or "Pastor, can you help me? I just don't feel safe around people like that."
When I hear questions like these, I ask, "Who are the people you're talking about? What are their names? Tell me about their lives. How many people are we talking about?" And in the vast majority of cases, I receive only blank stares in reply. The inquisitors have made a value judgment based on outward appearance. They haven't taken the time to know these people, to touch their lives in meaningful ways. Their prejudice is based on ignorance of the real person. But Jesus had given me a love for all these people, so I was unwilling to tolerate exclusion of anyone under any circumstances. Each time I heard questions like that, I grew in my boldness to fight for the right of each person to sit in the pew, to feel the love of God and God's people, to be touched by God, and to experience a taste of the kingdom of God. As this conviction spread and permeated our church, people in our community realized that if they'd just walk through the door, they'd be welcomed with open arms. Authentic love, it seems, is pretty attractive to a lot of people.
As I continued to read the New Testament, one of the things that impressed me most about Jesus is that He took plenty of time to get to know lots of people-the powerful and the powerless, the slick and the sick. He went to their parties, dined with them, and engaged in lengthy conversations. And His deep involvement in their lives invoked the most caustic attacks by those who prided themselves in being clean and right. The Pharisees accused John the Baptist of being demon-possessed because John ate strange things, like bugs, but when Jesus ate and drank at parties with His friends, the Pharisees accused Him of being a drunk and a glutton. When He enjoyed time with outcasts, these religious leaders grumbled, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them," as if it was the worst crime a person could commit. And when Jesus showed children special affection, His own disciples tried to correct Him. Nothing could prevent Jesus from showing love and acceptance to every person in His path, but He seemed to take special delight in showing up the rigid by showing love to the rejected.
But to be honest, I didn't come to that perspective about loving the unlovely in a vacuum. I learned it all from watching my Auntie Mae Mae as she ran her store, the Allen Food Market.
AUNTIE MAE MAE
Auntie Mae Mae ran a grocery store on 1714 Patterson Street in Houston. From the time I was a little boy, I watched her treat every person-from winos to suits-with dignity and respect. When I was about six years old, I started going to her store every afternoon after school and on weekends. She let me help by dusting the shelves. By the time I was ten, I often stood in a chair and worked the cash register. She not only taught me about love; she also taught me about business. She was a marvelous businesswoman! I sometimes tell people that I went to the Hattie Mae Allen School of Business. She was a remarkable woman.
Those hours in Auntie Mae Mae's store showed me the very best example of God's love that I've ever seen. Day after day, I watched her show kindness and bestow respect on people, even those who were outcasts in our community. I remember watching a drunk stumble through the front door, but before my aunt saw him, he tried to straighten up to look presentable because he wanted to be worthy of her love. Her unconditional love motivated him to be the best he could be at that moment. He came in to buy a little food. He didn't have much money, because he spent almost all of it on liquor, but he was a regular customer and bought whatever he could afford. Auntie Mae Mae treated him with the same respect she would have treated the mayor of Houston if he'd come in the store.
I believe people have built-in radar to detect the level of acceptance we offer them. We don't have to say we love them. They sense it. We don't have to make a sign that says we accept them the way they are. They know it instinctively. And it amazes them!
Auntie Mae Mae taught me that people respond to one another in one of two ways: in fear or in love. There may be a thousand subcategories, but these are the two primary responses in any situation. When the wino walked through the door of Allen Food Market, he knew my aunt's response to him wouldn't be fear. He could count on Auntie Mae Mae loving him. She wasn't afraid that he would try to steal something, that another customer would be offended by her acceptance of him, or that he might become too attached to her because he enjoyed her acceptance so much. All those things (and many others) were genuine risks and sometimes occurred, but she never let those possibilities cloud her commitment to show genuine acceptance and respect to each person who walked through her door. Her love conquered all fears.
Fear is at the heart of exclusion, and fear perpetuates our desire to be distant from people who aren't like us. But love is a tremendously powerful force. I know. I saw it in action. Auntie Mae Mae was an incredible lady. In addition to running her store, she worked for forty-seven years as the manager of a school lunchroom. After school each day, she went to the grocery store. From the time I was a little boy, I hung out at the store with her, and I watched her like a hawk. She didn't talk to her customers about love, but she modeled it all day every day. In fact, one of the things that was so amazing to me was her consistency. No matter how tired she was, and no matter how annoying a customer might be, Auntie Mae Mae treated each one as if he or she was the most important person in the world.
Her commitment to love people was honed, as it often is, in heartache. Difficulties make us bitter or better, and Auntie Mae Mae's difficulties caused her to make a heartfelt and lifelong commitment to show love even to those who hurt her-like her husband. They were married for fifty years, and for most of those years, he abused her. I knew it was happening, and for some reason, I felt comfortable enough to ask her about it. Her reply was simply, "Little Rudy [my daddy was "Big Rudy"], he's my husband." In the midst of physical pain and emotional rejection, she went deep into the heart of God to find His love for her. Her intimate, rich experience of God's unconditional love gave her strength, and it caused her to see each person, including my uncle, with a fresh set of eyes. She was convinced that each man or woman, boy or girl was valuable-no matter what he'd done, no matter how she acted. She treated each person as a treasure. And every person sensed it.
Excerpted from TOUCH by RUDY RASMUS Copyright © 2007 by Rudy Rasmus. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted January 25, 2008
¿And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. In a world where `Me First' has become the norm, it is refreshing to read a text as heart-felt and instructive as Touch: The Power of Touch in Transforming Lives. Through the eyes of this hands-on pastor the reader receives life-lessons rooted in biblical foundation. It also shows us that ministry is not confined to the official positions of church leadership. Clearly this writing shows that ministry is setting your hand to doing the work of Christ, be it on your job or while at play. With consistency, Pastor Rasmus not only stresses the necessity to know your neighbor, but also to love them. This love he speaks of has the power to effect change for not only the current recipient and the giver, but for generations to come. It is a love that has to do with a personal rather than a distant touch. As gentle as it is direct, Touch is a read that makes us mindful of the compassion, grace and mercy of Christ. It shares the joy as well as the challenges and heartache of serving. Above all, its content has the potential to provoke self-examination. After consuming these words of passion and wisdom from one on the front line, one might ask: Is it enough to speak about change or is it my duty, my reasonable service, to become a part of the change we seek? Reviewer/Dr. Linda Beed On Assignment Reviews
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