The first sign you may be right where God wants you is when everyone starts telling you you're nuts. Or you may well be nuts; that's your call.
This week, it's been three years. I will never forget this week. It's the week I learned for sure that discipleship is scary, and love is risky, and following Jesus can break your heart. Or fix it to be more like his.
This may not sound strictly like a blog post on discipleship. It's not. It's a story. But stories are often the best means of learning what following Jesus means. They're the way we teach the next generation what it means. Stories matter. So I'm going to tell Casey's story today, and it's a story of discipleship, more mine than his.
I'd never had my debit card used to fill ten peoples' gas tanks. Never had the credit union call me to view security tapes. Never visited a heroin addict in the suicide ward. Life holds all kinds of new experiences when you decide living dangerously for Jesus is the safest way to live.
Casey began life with us as our daughter's boyfriend. (That didn't last long.) He progressed to stealing from us, lying to us, and grand theft auto. Not the video game. Somewhere along the line, he also progressed to a kid we loved. Love is a hazardous thing.
We learned his mom had a restraining order on him. We found out he had a violent past. We discovered at least two past intentional overdoses. We also learned, later in the relationship, that his own father used to hit him so hard that the neighbors could hear him smack the wall. I'm a forgiving person, but looking at the sweet face of that kid, I thought that if I ever met the dad, I'd probably acquaint him with a two by four to the head. Beating the heck out of your kid and personally getting him hooked on drugs are not OK in any parenting manual that I've read.
When we took him in as “part of the family,” every single real family member and friend he had told us we were nuts. The kid would not change. OK, he was no kid; he was 23. But only chronologically. He would take us for all he could.
And he tried. You have no idea what it's like to try to explain to the security woman at the credit union that, yes, I do know who the young man in the tape is using my debit card. Yes, I do know he's a drug addict and what he'll do with the money. Yes, I know if I don't press charges you won't return the money. No, I still don't want to press charges.
When she looked at me like I was the dumbest human to swim in the gene pool, I just shrugged my shoulders. “I'm a pastor. It's an occupational hazard. I can't really explain.”
When Jesus told us to love the least of these, he wasn't being rhetorical. He didn't mean sending money to African orphans to satisfy my conscience or buying a pair of shoes so a needy child could have one, too.
Yes, those are good things. I do them. But real love takes risks, gets personal, gets messy. Real love looks a messed up kid in the eye and says, “I'm with you for the long haul. What do we have to do?” And sometimes the crapshot you take with love comes up bust. There is no guarantee.
Every single time I thought I had had enough and was ready to turn this kid in and wash my hands, I asked God if I could. Well, I kind of begged him. There were some pretty bad days. And every single time, he said, “No. I am not done with Casey. So neither are you.”
As part of our “I'm not turning you in so now I have some power over you” strategy, we “sentenced” Casey to community service at our church. He met people. He came to a few services. He went forward to the altar, trying to start over and get out of the iron-bar-less prison he knew he was still in. He got better; he got worse; he got better. He told us no one in twenty-three years had made him feel that loved. Like the security woman, he shook his head at us and said he could not understand why.
But eventually, he got it. He got that love beyond all human ability comes from Jesus alone. A tiny bit of comprehension seeped in that, maybe, possibly, it wasn't too late for someone like him. A God who would die for any sin on the books just because he loved us would love him, too.
Eventually, I got it, too. I got that compassion means so much more than a thoughtful email, and mercy is the greatest inexplicable gift someone might get from me. Grace has always meant a lot to me. But I know now how amazing grace is not just when its received but when its given. I've hugged Jesus in the form of a messed-up, love-bewildered kid. And I'll never see Him the same.
You know those stories with bittersweet endings that you hate but know are really more true than the happily ever after ones? This is that kind of story.
Casey didn't make it in this life. He tried hard. He went though recovery and was on the road. But there were too many years of pain and bad choices, and one last time on heroin, after being clean for a while, was the last.
Sitting looking at the waves of Lake Michigan roll in that day, I cried for the man he might have been and the life that could have been his. But I also cried because I knew, absolutely knew, that at that moment, Casey was looking at Jesus through eyes free of fog. He had no pain, no past, no chains of addiction or scars of abuse. He had no tears of hopelessness or self-hatred. He was free. And I'd never been so happy for someone in my life. Or sad. Dangerous love is like that.
To read more stories of dangerous love, check out Jill's blog here.