Which story are we telling?

There are two ways this story could go.

The first is that a man — either high on something or wrestling with mental issues — came into a local Community Bible Study, interrupting and ruining the time, and then causing trouble at an event across the street.  We could tell this story in frustration, eventually forgetting about the man and the story altogether.

The second is what actually happened; while the first is not false, it fails to acknowledge what was happening on spiritual and Kingdom levels.

The story started for me that morning.  I felt a nudge to read and reflect on Isaiah 58; an elder of my church had challenged the congregation to read it daily for two weeks, but I felt like I needed to do it then rather than later.

I felt a strong conviction around the idea that we fail to understand “oppression”; we want so much to be “right” and “good” that we define oppression as something that is outside us.  Oppression is the cruel man whipping slaves, and we’d never do that.  In reality, oppression can be the neglect of our neighbor, the denial of their “imago Dei” by our apathy, or our participation in oppressive systems.

When I arrived at the Community Bible Study, the Outreach Pastor, Chris, called me outside to talk, where I met Jermaine.  Jermaine had a large wrap covering most of his right leg due to a knee injury. Whether it was the pain medication or something else, it was clear something was going on internally; he was beating the air, coming in and out of conversations, and getting close to people and then walking off quickly.

Community Bible Study is for everyone, so he was welcome.  As we started, it was hard for him to sit and focus, so he began working his way around the room, getting close to people, beating the air, and moving his phone around.  At one point, Marian, a regular member, asked his name.  He quickly shared it, followed by other things we couldn’t understand, and returned to moving around the room.  We wanted him there, and yet were not sure how to address the distractions in a loving way.

The first indication to me that God was up to something was when Hanna, another member, began our study with Proverbs 14:20-33.  Several moments reminded me of things God had brought to mind with Isaiah 58, especially vs. 31:

Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker,

But he who is generous to the needy honors him.

It seemed too convenient that this verse on oppression was here.  God was about to teach us something.

I shared a bit about what God had shown me that morning; how we define “oppression” in ways that free us from guilt, and that we are often guilty of daily acts of oppression.  Chris shared a story of seeing a man the night before asking for money, watching many people pretend like he didn’t exist, and knowing that he needed to honor that man with love.  As he shared about people ignoring the man, Jermaine was behind him, rapidly moving his phone around in a way that was both distracting and clearly not entirely in his control; the only response we could muster was to ignore him.

I didn’t want to ignore him, but I didn’t know how to engage him in love.  I wanted to believe that me ignoring him and allowing him to stay was loving.  This man was clearly being oppressed by something, and I wasn’t sure how to “set the oppressed free.”

As Hanna started a dialogue on how we define and respond oppression, Jermaine’s distractions increase, and Chris quietly asks him to join him outside.  Chris later shares that his experiences in the military and working in jails had created a trigger for people doing things behind him, which gave him a way in to confront Jermaine in love.  Out of earshot of the group, he asked Jermaine if he was okay, let him know how his actions were impacting him, and said he was still welcome to be a part of the group.  Jermaine was genuinely apologetic.

He came back in, but found himself unable to control his actions, continuing to walk around the room, beat the air, lay on the floor, and walk in and out through the open door to the street.

Eventually, he stayed out on the sidewalk, saying disjointed things to the families walking in and out of a program happening at the Robinson Theater across the street.

The second indication to me that God was up to something was where I was sitting.  I’m not going to say God told me to sit where I did, but I remember feeling like it wasn’t random.  As Jermaine called out to families, and then walked across the street towards the doors, I was aware that it could cause issues if he walked into a kids program.  Normally, I could think, “It’ll be fine,” or, “There are adults there, they will take care of it,”; but, as a Board Member for the Robinson, I felt a personal responsibility.  God had placed a Board Member in the only seat that could see Jermaine walking through the doors.

I quickly texted the staff of the Robinson to see if they were there, but when I didn’t get an immediate response, I had a clear sense that I needed to go over there.  Without acknowledgement, I left the Bible Study, and hadn’t made it across the street before Jermaine came out followed by two angry men, a parent and an instructor.  Jermaine had gone into this program, caused a disruption, taken a doughnut, and was now being called out by the men.  Knowing that Jermaine was barely aware of or in control of his actions, I positioned myself between the three men, trying to deescalate the situation; I quietly told the instructor he was justified in his anger, and that Jermaine wasn’t in a place to comprehend.  I could see in my peripheral that Chris had come out, as well as Arlene, who led the NA group that meets next to ours.  Arlene intercepted Jermaine, talked him down, and walked him into NA, while Chris went into the Robinson to smooth things out.  It was not lost on me how God put us in place.

Before Chris had gone into the theater, one of the staff there asked him, “Is he with your Bible study?”

My gut instinct was to defend the study; while he technically had come in, we didn’t know him, and he was in and out.  My instinct was to protect us.  My instinct was to disown Jermaine.

I saw God work through Chris when he paused, then said, “Yeah, he’s with us.”

This, for me, was the moment God wanted me to really pay attention to.  We could do all the loving things we wanted in making space for him, but if, in the end, we disowned Jermaine, we are no better than the Israelites in Isaiah 58, who had thought they were honoring God but had severely missed the mark.

“He’s with us.”  With those words, Chris took on any debt, any shame, any harm that Jermaine had created.  Chris literally did this, telling the instructor, “I’ll cover any expense.”  In a situation where the instructor and parent may have been ready to fight Jermaine, Chris loved Jermaine.

We returned to Bible Study, to talking about “oppression.”  Then Chris said, “Hold on.  Let’s talk about what just happened here.”  It was abundantly clear that God had taken us from a nice Bible Study sharing thoughts on scripture, to a body of people who had just seen scripture come to life; who had just wrestled with their own reactions to the oppressed, to oppression, and who had just witnessed what it could look like to “do the Bible” in an authentic, risky way.

The conversation was deep, convicting, and important.  We acknowledged the irony of discussing oppression while the “oppressed” was in our midst, and we named the ways we needed to move forward.

Most notably: the first version of the story is the easy one, but the second version of the story is the one that brings life and transformation.  The first story is one based on the wisdom of man, the second, on the wisdom of God.  The first is earthly, the second is spiritual.

And because it was spiritual — in more ways than I’ve described — to respond in an earthly way could not only miss the point, but be destructive.  The solution is not to come against Jermaine — who has a Maker, who is a child of God — or to move on, but to stop and pray.

So, a young lady from Ghana, who had a reverence for the spiritual elements of reality, led us in praying for Jermaine.

I don’t know what the enemy intended when Jermaine stepped into the Bible study, whether it was to disrupt or cause us to oppress; but I do know how God used that situation to do abundantly more than we could ask or imagine.  Just like the enemy thought he won when he sent Jesus to be killed, but really lost, the enemy thought he would win with Jermaine’s distractions, but lost big.

Because at 12:30, I don’t know how many people knew Jermaine’s name, or how many people were praying for him; but over the course of an hour a body of people saw this child of God, and loved him.  And at 1:30, over a dozen people knew his name and prayed genuinely for him; and over a dozen people would remember him, and continue to pray for him by name.

We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces.  This is not a story of a man out-of-his-mind disrupting a Bible study, but of a God disrupting our out-of-place minds, and our misunderstanding of what it means to “love our neighbor”.  

Note: Six months after this experience, a man that was there that day shared his story of how God spoke through the ways several people stepped up to love Jermaine. It served as a source of inspiration and equipping that helped position him to begin investing hours each day walking with neighbors wrestling with addiction and homelessness.

~~~

Read more at www.wheredidyouseeGod.com/writings

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