Connections…

It has been a good weekend of connections.

It began Friday morning at the jail.  For some reason the small ‘library’ where I meet on Friday mornings was nearly packed full of guys for Bible study.  The most I’ve seen in a long, long time, and most of them I’d never seen or met before.  As I usually do, I gave them the opportunity to begin discussion by asking questions they might have about the Bible or Jesus or the faith, and our discussion started off.

Towards the close of the time one of the guys asked if I could give some Scripture passages that would help him – and others – who weren’t sure how long they were going to be incarcerated, who were still awaiting trial and sentencing and all the uncertainties inherent in that process.  I offered up the Gospel lesson for this Sunday -the Prodigal Son story in Luke 15.

At first I wasn’t clear that it was a good connect, but it was what I had been working on personally and so we read through it together.  It became clear that it was a good story of hope.  A room full of prodigals both literally and figuratively.  A father who loves them beyond any human father, in spite of whatever they have done.  A father who welcomes them home not with harsh words or demands, but who wipes away every trace of their previous sinfulness.  Who trades out the mud-caked clothes of the pig-keeper for a clean robe, new shoes, the ring and symbol of a wealthy family.  For us in the midst of the uncertainties of life – jail and trial and elections – it is a story of hope.  Home awaits us.  The famine and the degradation are not the final word.

We concluded with prayer and I headed out.  But before I could leave the area I ran into – almost literally – a guy I had mentored last year at the Rescue Mission.  One of those guys that you instinctively like even though you know that under the wrong circumstances he could easily be a nightmare.  He graduated the program and was on track with life with a job and attending church again and renewed relationships with his family.  But there he was, standing in blue overalls and orange socks and sandals.  “I lost sight of my values,” he said simply.

There is the temptation to react in disappointment and judgment.  But I gave him a hug and a handshake and gave thanks that at least he was alive.  He smiled and agreed quickly.  He may be there for a few months or the better part of the year, but it will give us time to reconnect (hopefully) on Fridays, time for him to prepare for another chance at making better decisions some day.

And this afternoon, after a morning and afternoon full of meetings and appointments, and knowing I had a long night ahead of sermon prep, I met up with one of my teammates for a few games of pool.  I waited at the bar to order my drink, becoming aware of a grizzled man carrying on boisterously a few stools down from me.  He seemed like quite a character and my attention was mostly focused on him, but then I gradually realized that the guy he was talking to was a former member of our congregation that I hadn’t seen in over a year.

I don’t know about other pastors, but the people that leave my congregation haunt me.  Regardless of how many people are still there, how many people are happy with me and what I’m doing, the ones who decide they need to leave occupy a disproportionate share of my thoughts.  What could I have done differently?  What did I do wrong?  How might I have kept them in the congregation?  I know that there aren’t simple answers to these things, and sometimes the answer to all of the above questions is nothing.  But still they haunt me.

I walked over and interrupted just long enough to say hi and shake hands.  He seemed genuinely glad to see me, and even came over for a few minutes to shake hands again.  He appreciated the Christmas card and note I had sent.  His family is doing well and looking forward to big changes in the coming year.  We didn’t talk long, but it was long enough to help me come to a better peace with their absence.  It was a good opportunity to connect for a few moments and give thanks for all God has done, is doing, and continues to do.

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