A Reunion of BrothersEssays, Featured — By Larry Shallenberger on October 17, 2012 at 4:31 am
I pulled into the coffee shop, double-checked the time on the dashboard, and cursed myself. I arrived an hour earlier than needed. I used the sprint through the rain as an opportunity to chastise myself for being careless with my alarm. I decided to use the extra time to knock down a few loose projects for work. I fired up the laptop and ordered more bold coffee than I needed.
That’s when I noticed a guy I’ll call John. John was dressed like a biker but had the tattoos and physique of a cage fighter. He was hard to miss, our being the only customers on an early Sunday AM. I eavesdropped as he asked the baristas in guttural tones if he could just have a seat until the rain stopped. He and his old lady had a fight over drugs and money earlier that morning. He was walking to one of our local hospitals to sign himself into detox. The girls agreed and John grabbed a New York Times off the rack and sat at the table next to me.
I looked at my “to do” list and sighed. Zero boxes would be checked in the next hour. I sighed and then remembered a conversation I had with some friends about Jesus the day before. Jesus had a habit of crashing the parties of flamboyant sinners. He never seemed to hang out with religious people, or even salt-of-the-earth-good people. He always made a bee-line for the over-the-top-I’m-going-to-Hell-so-what-the-eff sinners. And these fine people probably didn’t understand that he was God’s Son, but they knew that a Rabbi had just violated their buzz (“Should we hide the beer?”). We wondered how Jesus was able to get everyone to relax and get about their partying and still be God.
I decided to try to to make John as comfortable as Jesus made the party goers. I invited him over to my table and bought him a cup of coffee. John was happy to talk about his girlfriend, her drug stash that he raided, and his long struggle with addiction. John faded in and out of consciousness. When he was out, I took the coffee of his hands and set it back on the table to avoid a spill. After a few minutes, he came to and we’d recite the same paragraphs, or he’d add a new meandering story.
Eventually he asked me what I did for a living, and I told him I was a pastor. He tensed up as much as was possible in his baked state. I was killing his buzz. He proceeded to tell me of his long history with God and how he seemed to have a better connection with The Man Upstairs just talking under the stars than he did at a small, conservative congregation across town. Church-going seemed to work for a bit. He got baptized and busy, until the drugs came a-calling.
I noticed the tattoo on his bicep. It had the name of a local amateur fighter who died in a violent wreck a few years back. It was his brother. I told him that I met his brother once and that I had watched a few UFC cards with his nephew who was also a cage fighter. John was from a family of boxers and cage fighters. I told him I had a friend who sold his brother a used motor bike several years back. His brother didn’t think the bike ran well enough and asked my friend for a refund. My friend refused and spent the next several years looking over his shoulder. John’s brother made a point of liver punching my buddy whenever they crossed paths at a bar. John nodded and smiled at the realization I knew his blood. He told me that his daddy was mean son of a bitch. Special forces. Didn’t know him much.
He faded off and my mind drifted to the Sunday School class I’d be facilitating in a few hours. My church is studying Tim Keller’s book Prodigal God. Keller’s book explores a story Jesus told about two sons. One son took the father’s cash and blew it on hookers and wine. The other son stayed home, sulked, and did everything expected of him. Keller said the point of the story is that neither son loved their daddy much. The younger son wanted dad’s stuff so he lived a life of self-discovery. The older brother was moral but didn’t really love his dad either. When the younger brother came home the daddy was thrilled and slaughtered the fatted calf and had a neighborhood barbecue. It was the best day in the father’s life, but all the older son could think about was how his younger brother was escaping justice and that dad was wasting what was left of his inheritance.
Jesus seemed to be saying that there are two type of people. People stay far from God through a life of moral experimentation. And people who stay far from God by doing his work with a joyless, self-righteous attitude. I’m not proud of it, but I lived the greater part of my years living like the older brother. I looked across the table at John sleeping off his drugs. Jesus was saying that at the end of the day, John and I are the same person, only the tattoos and haircuts were different.
All God wants for either us is to sit down at the feast and enjoy his company. And try the ribs too, they’re fabulous. And for some reason, its so darn hard for any of us to stop our busyness, whatever type it is, and enjoy God. Probably because we don’t get to control anything.
John woke up and told me it was fate that brought us together. He never would have stopped at the coffee shop if it weren’t for the rain. I agreed and told him the story messing up my alarm. John offered that maybe God was telling him to get back to church and to start working his program. I told him I didn’t know anything about that. I believed God sent me to him to say that God never stopped enjoying and loving him. Nothing ever changed and that nothing could ever change how God feels about him.
We both sat silently, sipping our coffee, as brothers.