Everything went wrong Sunday at church. We had a late-gathering crowd (later than usual). The sound system decided to screech and belch and muffle and everything except work. This mattered even more since part of the sermon was me doing an interview with three people. God gave me a loud voice that can overcome turning off the mic, but not everyone has this gift. So, I was frustrated, but moving on. This is what you do at church. Things don’t go the way you plan but you keep going. Can’t just quit in the middle of a worship service.
Then it happened. During our time of prayer and confession a young woman named Monica came desiring to be baptized. So, after announcements were made and all usual business taken care of, Monica and Brenna (a woman she had built a connection with at church) came to the front with me. Monica and Brenna began telling Monica’s story. Addiction. Jail. Children taken away. And then God showing up. Monica realizing in jail that she needed to be there to get some sobriety. Eventually she was helping lead a prayer group of other incarcerated women. Upon release she ends up at our church with some extended family and her children. I then asked Monica my favorite question in the world: “Why do you want to be baptized?” She said, “Since God has loved me so much and not given up on me, how could I not follow Him?”
At that moment, with tears in my eyes, I looked out at our congregation. Over on my right were many members of Monica’s extended family. Some of them are regulars, some not. But I was reminded that a year ago, almost none of them had been at church. Only one really. His name is Rudy. I had known Rudy for many years when he showed up at our church. He came with a wonderful lady he was dating, Angie. Not long after they came I performed their wedding. Over their time at church we talked often about Rudy and Angie’s desire to see members of their large extended family come to know God, believe in Jesus, become part of the body of Christ. Rudy and Angie were working on it.
Then tragedy struck. Although young (48) and in great shape (buffest dude I knew) Rudy mysteriously died while working out. Along with all the devastation for Angie, Rudy’s kids, Rudy’s family and our church, was the realization that Rudy and Angie’s dream of bringing family to church was not going to happen.
But then it did. Rudy’s funeral was held at our meager building. It is still the most people who have ever been in our little storefront church. And all of Rudy’s family was there. Angie and I talked about it afterwards. Rudy would have loved seeing them there, singing those songs, praying some prayers, hearing me preach.
Over the next few months, a strange thing happened. Many members of Angie’s family began coming to church. They rallied around her, they held her up, and they watched her faith. And then, little by little, Rudy’s family began showing up. A niece, a cousin, some kids. Slowly but surely they came to the place Rudy had so desired they come.
It culminated this past Sunday, with Rudy’s niece Monica being baptized. As I looked at Rudy’s family in the audience I proclaimed that “the Bible says God works in all things for good. Seeing Monica up here tonight is proof. God has worked in the worst, the most tragic, to bring about the best. Church, what we are witnessing here tonight is what God is all about, bringing new life where there has been hurt and pain and tragedy.”
We then all went and hurriedly ate dinner (we share dinner every Sunday) and then quickly rushed to our local university where there is a wonderful statue with a baptismal pool. And even though it was cold and dark, by the light of several iPhones we watched Brenna baptize Monica.
I returned to the church building to shut everything down. The last few people cleaning up dinner left, and I was alone. I sat and reflected. As a minister it is sometimes hard for me to believe in the good. I constantly hear about people’s suffering, their bad health, their addictions, untimely deaths, family strife. My wife is a counselor and she hears the same and worse. It is easy for me to believe in sin and evil. But as I sat there alone, I was overwhelmed with the love of God, and the good He is trying to bring about. There was no doubt.
So as I sat in the midst of God’s warmth and pictured Rudy in my mind. I thought back to that difficult day when Angie called me as she was on her way to the hospital. I couldn’t remember exactly when it was, although I knew it had been just over a year. So I looked up Rudy’s obituary online. Rudy died November 6, 2012. His funeral was held at our building on November 10, 2012. Monica was baptized, November 10, 2013. Coincidence? Maybe. But as I walked to my car I looked back at the front door of the building. I was drawn to the little sign that has our church name and service times on it. I wasn’t around when the church was named, but whoever did it got it right. The sign simply says, HOPE.