living dangerously

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.
I’m telling a story of the last couple years today, and you’ll either decide I’m nuts or not, but at least, I hope you’ll read. After all, you’re already here. It’s Casey’s story, and I owe him that.
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 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 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. OK, he didn’t only mean that. 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 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.

People tell me, “Oh, you did a great thing.” What they don’t realize is that we received a great thing. That’s why we owe him more than he ever owed us.

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 last week, 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 life is like that.

21 thoughts on “living dangerously

  1. Jill. You floored me with this. Thank you for sharing. “But I know now how amazing grace is not just when its received but when its given.” So good. I'd be honored if you'd join in the conversation about mercy over at my blog starting on Sept 10.


  2. Jill
    This story challenges me because of two boys in my life that require this hazardous faith., You've brought tears to my eyes and the need to go back again to the foot of the cross.


  3. “But I also cried because I knew, absolutely knew, that at that moment, Casey was looking at Jesus through eyes free of fog.” This is that love that lets a “sword pierce (its) own soul, too.” Powerful stuff, and difficult, especially when well-meaning believers make you think you are nuts for being so foolishly loving. I am so glad you are confident in your love for others, and risk to love those around you. So important for the church.


  4. Jill, I am tracking with you and what a powerful story. When my husband and I felt called to step out of traditional church ministry and start our non-profit coffee shop ministry in Hickory, NC, we had no idea what faith in action was. We'd always had a safety net. Since there God has shown us what it means to build the bridge as we walk on it. In a similar story, we helped rescue a homeless woman who volunteered at our coffee shop for a while, while we also gave her room and board. The more we got to know her–she seemed like a very hard luck but normal case at first-the more we saw the brokenness. She too ended up biting the hand that was feeding here and we eventually has to tell her good-bye. Ministry is messy but that doesn't mean we aren't supposed to take chances. Who is to say we didn't plant a seed. Blessings on your ministry. I do feel we are kindred spirits.


  5. Oh, I so understand! I am friends with alcholics, drug users, a registered sex offender, the mentally ill. . .the homeless. They grabbed my heart 4 years ago when I started a blanket ministry for the homeless and now we have a homeless outreach ministry that meets them at the bridge every week. I'm even writing a book about my new friends, one especially, Greg, who lost his fight just a few months ago. I cried too! But we watched him become saved and baptized a year ago, so know he is in a better place:) But I wouldn't trade my life for anything. Even though it's messy and heartbreaking, it is full of blessing too.
    I read this awhile back and really liked it. . .by Dostoevsky. . .”To love a person means to see him as God intended him to be.” I'm so glad you loved Casey like that and I was able to love Greg and that God loved us in spite of the mess we were in. . .sin. Amazing Grace!


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