If you would like to hear about a real-life example of what love in a gospel community looks like in action, the following true story is worth your time. It is a bit lengthy, but I encourage you to read it. Names have been changed and initials used to protect privacy. All other aspects are true. It is my privilege to know and walk with the family of God in this story.
A few weeks ago I (The local pastor, not SRC, throughout this blog) shared from the story in John 6 about Jesus feeding the five thousand. We saw that Jesus takes the small fishes and loaves we offer to Him instead of consuming them ourselves, and does great things with them. When a community, even a small community, offers what they have that even though it may be small, when Jesus empowers it, great kingdom life can occur!
I wanted to share a story with you so you would have an opportunity to see that truth in action, find places where your fish and loaves are needed, and along with myself, be able to give thanks for what God is doing among us.
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Less than a year ago, Lon walked into our church on a Sunday morning. I still remember him because unlike most new people, he did not hang out in the back, but came right up to the front row and participated in worship with us. Despite what some may call a rougher looking exterior, it was obvious to see he had a soft heart and love for Jesus.
After the meeting that day, Lon came up and with a sincere smile, introduced himself to me and gave me a big hug. It was then that I first started to hear some of his story.
Lon had recently moved here from Texas where he had spent over half his life in state correctional facilities. Lon had never had anyone really care about him: his dad was not there; his mom was abusive and died when Lon was young. From there he was truly on his own. He quickly turned to drugs at a young age, and like usual, those drugs wreaked havoc on his life.
While in prison he met an older woman who came and shared with him about the gospel and a God of love and grace. Lon’s life was changed while meeting and talking with whom he now calls his spiritual mother. She was the first person to really care for and love Lon.
Over time, and with a lot of ups and down, Lon started to get clean. God started to move on his heart and burden him with trying to reach people like himself with the gospel.
While in Texas he met Carrie who was running from her own brokenness as well. Carrie grew up in Spokane and spent the first years of her life at a good church here in Spokane. Her parents however were very legalistic and harsh which often lead to abuse. She has been “excommunicated” from her family numerous times. Conflicted over these mixed messages, she understandably had a mixed view of God and His love. In her brokenness, she looked to men to fill those needs and before high school was over, she had moved out, left the church, and was living with a man who opened the door of drugs to her as well.
Her life quickly spiraled out of control. At a very young age, she had two children. Because of her drug addiction, she lost custody of both of them. She ran to Texas in attempt to get her life back on track. She was going through rehab and as she was slowly getting victory, she met Lon. They bonded quickly in some shared life experiences. Lon’s love for Jesus opened Carrie back up to Jesus’s love for her. It did not take long before these two fell in love. As they both grew stronger Carrie felt pulled to come back to Spokane and work to show she could be a part of her children’s life again.
They moved to Spokane together and quickly realized how hard making a new life all alone was going to be. Lon did not know anyone and Carrie only knew people that were a part of a lifestyle she did not want to be a part of.
It was then that Lon came through the doors of our church. I connected with Lon a couple of times after that first Sunday. We talked about the gospel plenty of times and it was obvious to me to see that God was bringing him to our community so he could experience family. I told him that we are not like a lot of churches where we just do the Sunday thing and fill out time with religious busy work, but that we really are a family. If he could open up his life and begin to trust that people would not betray him, he would find support, love and friendship here.
I could see in his eyes that he yearned for this, but he also did not believe it was possible. Never experiencing real family and probably hearing many an empty promise about community in churches over his life, was weighing too heavily on his reality.
That Sunday little S and JR and SR offered the first fishes and loaves to Lon without knowing it.
As I was talking with Lon about family, little S ran up to him and hugged him, and then grabbed both his hands and danced with him. JR and SR were close by that day and I don’t know what went through their mind, but I do know they did not jump up and pull little S away, afraid of who she was dancing with, or embarrassed that she might have invaded someone’s personal space. They just watched and let her hug and dance Lon. I remember the flood of emotion that almost overwhelmed Lon that day as he realized he was being welcomed and received, not as a suspicious criminal, but as just another person in the family. I truly think little S did more that day than any words or actions on my part to connect with him.
Every so often, Lon and Carrie would be at Sunday gatherings after that first meeting. They always participated when they were around, and I could see God often ministering to them through worship and the word, but they would still quickly leave after meetings, never really getting time to connect with people.
One Sunday, they both approached me to tell me that Carrie was pregnant. Lon was beside himself with excitement and thankfulness for a chance to be a father at this point of his life. Carrie was excited but also nervous considering what she had experienced already and the battle she was in to win back trust and time with her children.
It was not too long after that they both kind of disappeared from Sunday mornings. After close to a month of not seeing them around, I really started to be burdened for them and wondered what had happened and where they were. I was praying for them, but did not have any way to get a hold of them, so I was just praying and hoping they would surface again soon.
While on vacation in June, I got an email from Carrie reaching out to me because Lon had relapsed and ended up in jail. The pressure of building a new life from nothing, taking care of Carrie, staying clean while being completely alone had become too much. He turned to the only thing he had ever known to ease the weight, and ended up back in the one place he never wanted to be again.
Now, although their story still worsened from here, this is where the fish and loaves from our community started to make a difference in their lives.
As I was on vacation I really had no way to help. I called AT to see if he would be willing to see how he could help. AT took this need on with passion as God had recently been speaking to him about ministering to incarcerated people. AT had started writing inmates out of the blue just to connect with them, let them know that somebody, somewhere, cares about them and more importantly, that there was a God who cared for them.
He wrote Lon right away and the letter he wrote broke through Lon’s shame and guilt and reminded him that God loved him and was not finished with him. Lon contacted AT from jail and asked AT if he would take the risk and bail him out.
Now let me be honest, although Lon promised to pay AT back this was no small task, undertaking, or risk. I spoke very bluntly with AT that he needed to be careful here and really know that Jesus wanted him to do this. I warned him that because a lifestyle of drugs was involved, there was a good chance he would never see that money, or Lon, again.
AT took this to prayer fervently. I know a lot was going inside of him, intellectually, personally, and spiritually. He called me on vacation and told me, “I have to do this!” He had gotten to the place of not caring what happened, if he ever saw the money again, or if Lon stuck around to get healed or whole. This was a matter of being obedient to God and taking a step of faith. This was a matter of putting his time and treasure where his mouth was, and loving someone who desperately needed it regardless of the outcome
AT bailed him out and picked Lon up, and like most burdens that God places on our hearts, the obedience and giving did not stop with one act.
AT, BT, and the family opened their home and lives to Lon as well. They let Lon stay with them for a few days. They welcomed Lon and Carrie to their dinner table and made him a part of their 4th of July get-together where he got to connect with many of their close friends.
Just a couple of days later was the church’s 4th of July picnic. AT grabbed Lon, picked up Carrie, and brought them to the picnic.
I watched that day as many of you offered your fish and loaves to them as well. I saw M&M T sit and chat with both of them for a long time. Laughing, listening, and offer their friendship. I saw many others, genuinely connecting, asking questions and interacting with them.
I also saw Lon and Carrie watching. I saw them taking in all the friendship, love, and care going on around them: young families, grandparents, pre-teens, and those just their age. I could see them marveling at the level of connection and care happening at this unassuming picnic at a local park in Spokane.
Before they left that day to head to the AT’s home for more interaction and friendship, Lon caught me, and with tears in his eyes said:
“This is amazing! You guys are for real. I have been in lots of churches that talk community and family, but I have never seen a place that actually lives it like this!”
He was almost undone with longing to be a part of something like what he saw, yet I could see fear about the level of trust and openness that would be necessary to experience something like this.
Over the next few days, they were a part of the AT & BT’s lives, Lon talking with AT, T, and the boys. Carrie got to share her heart with BT. But the pull of the known and comfortable is often stronger than we realize. Lon was trying to reconcile the fact that everything he had worked so hard for before his relapse was gone. The house they were renting shut them out, all their possessions were stolen, and the car he had finally saved for, was repossessed. The pressure of God placing him in a place that wanted to connect with him as family and the call to open up his life and heart to people that might betray that heart, was almost too much for him.
He disappeared again. No one knows for sure what was happening. Was he relapsing? Was he just getting time away to think and pray? Was he headed back to Texas, or worse, to jail? No one knew.
He came to church one Sunday and connected with me. With tears in his eyes he said he knew he needed to open his life up to people at the church–to let people into his life, make friends, and be real with people, but he just did not know how. He quickly disappeared after the meeting was dismissed while Carrie stayed and talked with people and found encouragement in the community.
Lon battled his way through many emotions: pain, and hurt, failings, shortcoming, hopes, and desires. He found a new place to live and work and shortly after moving Carrie in with him, tragedy struck again.
Carrie went into labor four months early. She delivered their precious baby Joseph stillborn. Words can’t express the pain and agony both Lon and Carrie were feeling. The disappointment and lies of the enemy came quickly flooding upon them: if only they lived better, if only they did more, or had more, or did not struggle with the things they did. The lies rained down on them: this must be punishment. God was giving up on them.
In the middle of this torment MT called to just check in and say hi and that she was thinking of them. They told her what was happening and she talked with them. She called me and I was able to go meet with Lon, hug him, and offer a shoulder to cry on and ears to listen to all his pain, confusion, and sadness. I was also was able to pray for him and reassure him that we had a community that could stand with them–a community that would rally around him emotionally, spiritually, and practically.
Because this tragedy struck right when Lon was getting a new start, it derailed those attempts. He could not work for a few days, they had to use the little money they had on costs of funeral care and doctors. They were in danger of losing their lease and ending up on the streets with nothing.
Again, the community stepped up to the plate. I went and bought them some groceries, the board decided to help with rent. MM donated a fan no questions asked. S&J A agreed to walk with them, teach, and help them to be accountable with the help they were getting. They took them to breakfast on their own bill and spent two hours sharing, helping, and caring for them.
Last week when we canceled church to meet up in the park, the P’s responded to a last minute phone call from me asking if they would pick them up on their way to the picnic. They did. Lon came carrying a teddy bear that had been given to him by the funeral home to store the baby’s ashes until they decided what to do. No one snickered or laughed or was weirded-out by a grown man cuddling a teddy bear. Rather, person after person walked up to Lon and put arms around him, listened to his story and shed a tear with him. They did not offer him canned answers and Christian clichés. They offered their hearts and ears. When Carrie wandered off by herself, nervous to be around people, MT walked over to her, offered a hug and support. She lead her back over to the group where BT stopped the conversation she was in to give her a big hug and smile and welcome her into the group she was talking with.
Then in quite possibly one of the deepest displays of spiritual community I have ever been apart of, we had people who had maybe just met or vaguely been aware of the situation, respond to my email and join me and Lon and Carrie for a memorial for Baby Joseph. Memorials are sober occasions, often they are awkward and no one really wants to go to a memorial, as the occasions are sad. Yet there were people from our community surrounding this couple as they grieved. Only one person from their natural family came for them, yet there was MM, AT and MT crying with them and showing them that real men are not afraid to shed tears. SA was there standing behind them with his loving and fatherly hands on them giving them the quiet reassurance all was going to be okay. MT and my wife were there to hug them and talk with them to let them know we were here for them and able to help.
I have to be honest folks, it was one of the most incredible, humbling, God-inspiring moments I have had in a long time.
The next day, Lon called to say they literally had nothing to eat in their home and nothing to eat on. No plates, no silverware, no microwave, no pots and pans . . . nothing. He was embarrassed to ask, but knew he had to. With money already given for them we were able to buy them a good amount of groceries. M and I went through our house and found dishes, the church had some extra silverware, and we were able to take them a toaster and pot and pan as well. Later that day AT took them some other household items and God kept using the fishes and loaves we had.
So that leads me to this: Why I am sharing all these details with you? For quite a few reasons.
I am sharing this to stir thankfulness. I hope you read this and respond in thankfulness for the community that we have. The depth of real family we are a part of. Though we may be small, it means we get to really be a part of affecting people’s lives. We are not dropping some random donations by a big building to go to people we will never know and never see, or sit on shelves for years until they find a home. We get to hear about actual needs, then respond to those people in relationships where our lives and hearts touch and bond.
I am sharing so that you can and will be, grateful like me, for the people God has placed in our community. We have wonderful, caring, loving, and real people here. I am proud of that and don’t mind bragging on them when I see their love in action.
I am also sharing so that you can see a truth we just talked about in action. No one, except maybe AT, took a big risk or made a big commitment (although I am pretty sure he does not view it as one now). All the people I just mentioned just took their little fishes and loaves and instead of using them on themselves they offered them to God. They looked outward for a couple of minutes and met the needs God brought before them. Not in grandiose ways, just simple, real, caring ways.
One of the main reasons I am writing this is so that you all can know what God is working and doing in Lon and Carrie through our community, so that you can pray and look for how you can be a part of helping them. To state the obvious, they still need our help.
Some of you have already given financially and I know many more will. Others are going to go through their belongings to find items to donate to help them build a household and get started again. But as we do that, lets not forget what they really need. If we only give them practical help, we are making their spiral into despair more comfortable. We are only making the journey to hopelessness less bumpy. What they really need is our lives! Our lives offered in gospel love. They need brothers and sisters and friends and fathers and mothers–people to show them how to communicate and that there is a safe place to open up and trust. They need people they can call when they get overwhelmed with life again. They need people they can listen to when the lies of the enemy are screaming guilt and shame at them. They need real family.
As I end this part of the story today, I’ll be honest I don’t know how this story will end. I don’t know if Lon and Carrie will disappear on us again. I don’t know if they will relapse and struggle with addiction again. I don’t know if their personal story will end with redemption or return to dysfunction. What I do know, is that God has brought them into our community and our lives and we have chance to be a part of His work in their lives, by only offering our small fishes and loaves. I also know that we have a real community of people who are going to continue to do that in ways that make me proud, in ways that will make me want to shout and ways that will make me want to cry. I know we have worked hard to let the gospel go deep enough in our lives and transform us into a real community who can offer our lives to God in ways that collectively can change real peoples with God’s Love.
I am thankful to be in a community like ours. I am thankful for those of you who saw what gospel community looked like and worked with me to get there and I am thankful for those God has joined with us over the years only adding to life and love of this family. Lets reach out together and see what God continues to do in Lon and Carrie’s story.