A couple of years ago, I had lunch with a close friend and told him I had made the decision to devote my life to Christ. I was so excited I could hardly contain myself. He asked (only partially tongue-in-cheek): So, can you still play golf, or do you have to give that up? He smiled and said, “Seriously, though, how has that impacted your life? Are you different?” Hmmm. Was I? I knew the theological answer. But, how was I different, really? What difference does it make to be a follower of Christ? How is my life different? How would my life be different if I were to follow Christ? Maybe the answer to this question is what’s holding you back.
Lots people think that what it means is to give up stuff you love doing. Give up all your possessions. Follow tons of rules that lead to failure and disappointment. It’s a reservation system, an insurance policy so that when you die, you’re going to the good place instead of the bad place. Your Sunday mornings are blocked off and sometimes you miss the first quarter of football games. Doesn’t this sound a lot like dying? I had an experience yesterday through which God showed me what following Christ means. It means living.
As I was leaving the Willow Creek food pantry, I met a guy named Allen. He is homeless and jobless. He is 25, African-American, and has long eyelashes and dark brown eyes. His thin frame barely holds up his pants and as of yesterday afternoon, he could not remember the last time he slept. Allen had nowhere to go and nothing to eat, so my friend Sue volunteered to drive him to a local place that could provide shelter. She asked me if I wanted to come along. Yes! But before we took him to the shelter, we took him to lunch.
He ordered a chili-cheese hamburger, fries and lemonade. While we waited for our food, we asked him questions and he answered them shyly, but honestly. A man he didn’t know drove him to our area from southern Illinois months ago and he just happened to walk into the food pantry on July 5, 2011. He was born in Cook County, but grew up in Tennessee. He used to go to church with his grandmother who laughed a lot. He and his brothers were separated from each other and their mother when he was about 12 years old because his home was unfit for children. When he was a young teenager, his only goal was to graduate from high school. And he did. He worked for some time at a Proctor & Gamble factory. His mother has a drug addiction and his six-year old sister died recently in a car accident as a result. What he wants to do most of all is go to college and major in psychology. Allen’s only clothes were the ones he was wearing – a green Whole Foods t-shirt and gray Puma sweatpants. He had no identification, no wallet, and no money. As far as I could tell, there is not a person on earth who would claim Allen as theirs, none who would take him in and love him. No family. No friends. I don’t know, but suspect that no one has hugged Allen in many years. I do know, because he said so with quiet confidence, that every day when he wakes up, Allen thanks God for the gift of another day and another breath.
As we sat in the restaurant booth, I totally lost track of time. We laughed at ourselves and told stories. Sue told us about her relationship with Jesus and her years of struggle to understand what that relationship could be like. Allen and I talked about regrets and anxiety. When we finished eating, we made our way to an organization called PADS, which we understood might help find a shelter for Allen. I sat in the back of Sue’s car shaking my head and marveling at this remarkable adventure. The day I had planned was so different than the one that was unfolding slowly before me. I didn’t know what was to come, didn’t know how things would turn out, didn’t know anything other than at that moment, we were in the car headed to find out. We stopped at PADS and learned quickly that there are no homeless shelters in the suburbs of Chicago during the summer months. So there we were in a large conference room full of eclectic pieces of furniture and cold pizza on the table wondering what to do next. Sue and I both prayed separately for God’s guidance and direction, but for the moment, heard nothing. Sue tried to help Allen come up with ways to find his wallet, where he had his state identification card, which would allow him to get a job and open other doors for him.
Then Rachel came into the conference room. PADS was her address and she had come to pick up her mail. She looked like she was in her early 20s, short and thin with brown bangs hanging in her eyes. She told Sue she looked familiar and as they swapped names of places where they may have run into each other, Allen rubbed his hands over his face, resting his elbows on his knees. I sat next to him, helpless, but present. Rachel was homeless too. She’d had some sort of falling out with her family. This unfolded in slow motion and I could see so clearly the pain in her deepest parts. I glanced at Allen and knew his pain went just as deep. I asked Rachel where she stayed and she told us the name of a motel down the street.
Sue and I stepped outside and stood next to the building. The bitter smell of hot tar from the asphalt burned our noses and we laughed, asking “What do we do now?” I prayed silently and she put her arm around me. We laughed again. We had no idea what time it was or what was next. We just prayed for guidance. The motel down the street that Rachel had mentioned was the only option and it would be our next stop. So, we all climbed back in the car to find the motel and to ask about rates. When we arrived, we were told there were no rooms. Of course. More laughing. To see Allen laugh made my soul soar. I asked if there was another place and the attendant told us there was, a little farther down. So, that’s where we headed.
The second motel was smaller, less appealing, but there were rooms available and a weekly rate. We got a room for Allen and carried two bags of food he’d gotten at the food pantry into his room. The room reeked of stale smoke. Sue adjusted the air conditioning and I fiddled with the refrigerator. Allen sat absently on the bed, overwhelmed or grateful, or both. I thought maybe he would sleep tonight. He would be safe and he would have privacy. Before we went our separate ways, we needed to get Allen to a place where he could order his birth certificate and begin the process of obtaining identification. So, we drove him to the Cook County courthouse and as we pulled up, we all knew we were nearing the end. Sue stopped the car and she prayed for Allen. I put my arm on his shoulder from the backseat and Sue described how much Jesus loves Allen. She looked at him, praying for him and into him. She reminded him that if he were to turn to Jesus and ask for forgiveness, Jesus would forgive him. And then Allen got out of the car and we watched him walk up the ramp to the courthouse entrance.
I don’t know what will happen to Allen. I don’t know if he was able to apply for his birth certificate. I don’t know if he made it back to the motel. I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again. I know he’s claimed now, though. He knows he is claimed and he knows he is loved.
Jesus said: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10) And, the author of Hebrews described it this way: “Christ offered himself as an unblemished sacrifice, freeing us from all those dead-end efforts to make ourselves respectable, so that we can live all out for God.” (Heb. 9:15)
What difference does it make to follow Christ? How is my life different? Present. Seeing. Deep Laughter. Surprises. Unknown. Fullness. Fearless. Freedom. Wide Open Heart.