The truth is John has a fairly severe mental illness and doesn't have a family that keeps him. He lives in one of those group transitional home settings just off Gordon Highway. He walks everywhere, and has little or no supervision. If you know Augusta then you may realize that means he walks miles to get to church on Sunday. You can't get much out of him to talk with him, so a few years ago I played detective and followed him to the house where he rents a room.
For the most part John is harmless, though at times he can be rather disruptive with his behavior. Usually he sits in worship, may get up a few times during an hour to go outside and smoke the very end of a throw away cigarette he picked up somewhere, and then he's either back in the sanctuary or in his favorite Sunday School class hoping they'll let him eat some food. So, I usually watch him like I would a 5 year old who can get into a lot of mischief with no supervision.
Today John appears at the center doors like a slapstick comedian, realizes he wasn't quite where he wanted to be, and quickly darts back in the narthex to then reappear in his favorite side aisle. Imagine your thoughts if you had to babysit John... or if you were sitting in church in the vicinity of such a character.
John certainly stands out in our crowd of primarily professional, middle class/upper class congregation. He's always got serious bedhead, usually favors an army jacket & surprisingly today is without it and sporting a half tucked shirt, hasn't bathed in who knows when, and laughs loudly at all the wrong places in worship. He usually likes a seat about 2/3's of the way down the aisle, and it doesn't really matter what time it is in the worship. If there is a cute female on the aisle all the better. Add in talking to himself and a rather serious wheezing and you get part of the picture!
Being "the mission guy" I usually try to sit near him. The ushers will give me the signal that one of "my guys" is in the building if I don't seem to be aware of a "disturbance in the force." I don't know what it is that is attractive to John, but he's as dedicated in attendance as many of our members.
At early worship this morning John appears just as the congregation is singing a prayer chorus and as some are going to the altar to pray.
Fill my cup, Lord, I lift it up, Lord.
Come and quench this thirsting of my soul.
Bread of heaven, feed me til I want no more;
fill my cup, fill it up and make me whole.
As the worship service moves on toward offering, and sermon, and communion, my old brother John becomes more at ease and more animated. Since we are usually televised on live TV at 11 AM even the early service has great lighting. But is it something about the preacher's face or the emotions of the place that cause John to laugh at such odd times? I likely don't see or hear what John experiences, but I wonder what draws him here and what he sees. I start hearing him get a little louder, so concerned for others in the congregation, I move closer and sit on John's pew.
Even as I'm trying to play good brother to John and the congregation I hear my preacher, Rev. Dan Brown, as he shares scripture and sermon from Jonah 4:1-5. Dan shares the story of Jonah who didn't want to go where God sent him with the message that was intended, and instead preferred to go in the opposite direction. And then when Jonah finally did go he shared a half hearted message for those he could care less about. I hear something about "needing to show grace to others like God shows us." And later, "... we are to be extensions of God's grace, even to people we do not like."
So, God, and the preacher, and John are all laughing at me now! It occurs to me that both the messenger and the crowd need each other in this relationship of God's grace. Who knows what God is doing in all those lives and what response we might get from those we least expect to respond?
We concluded worship with that hymn/chorus I'm lobbying to have changed. I love the music and the sentiment, but know the words aren't quite what they should be. Here's my version of "Here I Am Lord":
Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
I have heard You calling in the night.
I will go Lord, when you lead me.
I will hold Your people in my heart.