One of my favorite stories in the Bible takes place in the Galilee. Jesus is heading toward a command healing performance, because the 12 year-old daughter of Jairus, a synagogue leader, is dying. But as he's headed there, a woman pushes through the crowd and touches the hem of his garment, seemingly sapping all of his healing power away. It delays his arrival to Jairus' home, and the girl has died; even so, Jesus is able to raise her from the dead. It's in the woman's "interruption" of Jesus on the way that becomes the focus of the story. Anyone who has spent any time in ministry has experienced God's interruption of our best laid plans. We are in the midst of doing the things we're supposed to do in our job description when something intervenes: a crisis of some kind, an unexpected interference in our well-crafted schedule; and when we finally open ourselves to the possibility that there might be something of God at work in all of this, that's when we ourselves are changed.
Yesterday, "Jack" showed up at the door of the church. He was chatting with our Office Manager when I happened to walk past. I recognized him immediately. We had been at the same doctor's office several months back: I was sitting in the waiting room when he came in, explaining to the receptionist about his severe PTSD following a crippling roadside bomb explosion in Iraq. He was on the verge of tears, and when the receptionist showed him to an examination room, he asked her to keep the door open because he was also claustrophobic.
I had chatted with Jack briefly in the waiting room that day; and clearly something about it had stuck with me, because I remembered much of his story when we sat down in my office. He had been well-groomed by the military. At every turn, he called me "sir", and even asked my permission to sit down.
He recalled his whole story: an eight year stint in the Army, mostly out of combat duty. He was on his second tour of duty when he was out on patrol. He was on the right side of the Hum-V, his buddy on the left, when a roadside bomb exploded underneath them, killing his buddy immediately. Jack was severely wounded. It was then that his nightmare began, both literally and bureaucratically. As he was getting medical treatment for his physical and psychological wounds, the Army let him know that they would be giving him a paltry percentage of disability benefits. He refused the offer, thereby being forced out of the V.A. system and into private pay until his appeal could be heard.
He has had massive reconstructive surgery since then, has been under the care of various therapists, and has been unable to work (not to mention the lack of an available job). And through it all, he paid for everything out of his pocket, wiping out all of his savings from eight years of military service.
Now, he's got a job, has won his appeal with the Army (meaning a full reimbursement plus back pay and future benefits), and still has no debt; but he has a water bill due today and no money to pay it at all. He came to us because he grew up Presbyterian and saw us as he walked past on his way to another church.
It was not difficult to decide to help him out. I made a quick call to the guy he said was his new employer anyway, and his story checked out there. When I handed Jack the bill back with the confirmation number proving it had been paid, he broke down and wept, giving us hugs of gratitude and praising God. He promised to pay it back, wanted us to write up an IOU, and said we'd get our money back in two weeks, and we prayed together before I gave him a ride back home.
I've been in professional ministry for 16 years. I have heard a ton of hard luck stories. I have been able to help out a lot of people in dire straits. I also know that some of the time the story I've been fed is completely bogus. And despite many promises to the contrary, not one person that I've helped out has ever made good on repayment. I would like to say that something about Jack that is different, because my gut tells me there is. But my gut has been wrong dozens of times before.
So that's not really the point here. It's not about being paid back. It's not about being able to read a line of b.s. from a mile away. It's about the church's desire to be a vessel of God's grace in a world that is so empty of such mercy.
Let's assume that Jack was telling the truth about all of this, and that he really intends to pay us back at the first opportunity. Can't the church afford to pay one utility bill for him? For a guy who has faced as much hardship as he has, can't we give him this tiny bit of relief, and hopefully remind him that God is at work in his life despite all evidence to the contrary?
Now, let's assume Jack is lying. I don't think so, but I have been wrong before. If so, what's the harm in the church offering its own integrity as an example and extending a helping hand anyway? I seem to remember something about God loving us despite knowing us and all of our faults. Maybe we could try to mirror some of that in what we do? Besides, even if the story is 100% fabricated, if you're coming to a church for help with utilities, you are probably in need of that hand of grace.
I had hoped to get a lot more done yesterday. There are very few checks on my "to do" list for this week, and woefully fewer because of the time this all took out of my day. But there is no doubt in my mind that this was one of those moments where the interruption was far more important than the original destination.