A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about some summer plans, a big part of which is getting water out to friends and acquaintances that are pretty far removed from town. 5 gallon jugs are always welcome, especially this time of year.
I want to share a story of how one of those donated jugs served a Kingdom purpose this last week. (I changed the name and some details because this isn't entirely my own story, and I want to respect the privacy of others.)
My friend J lives out beyond the edge of town. Where he is staying the only reliable water comes off of irrigation lines, and drinking this water is a gamble. It is known to make people sick, and often has chemicals and fertilizers mixed in. J is also trying to kick Fentanyl, and the withdrawals give him the sweats. Its dangerous. Water is welcome.
J's plan for kicking Fentanyl is wean himself off and get back to using only "black", street heroin. Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin, so even this step down is hell. When he shared this plan with me he was in town on his bike. He was in really bad shape, so I asked if I could bring some water to his camp. We met up later that day. The bike was long gone, traded for the black that was going to get him through the afternoon. The water was welcome, and it became the catalyst for a powerful conversation.
As I said, the bike was gone. J was trying to rebuild something out of the piles of bike parts lying around, but it was pretty hopeless. J was pretty hopeless. We talked about how frustrated he was to have sold his bike, and what a complete waste it was considering how bad the Fentanyl withdrawls were getting. We talked about his life, about the family that wants him home, about how he got to this point. Like a lot of people his road to opiate abuse started with a prescription which ran out. Street drugs filled the gap, and then things got totally out of hand. He knows what his camp looks like. Slavery.
It is at this point that I am always impressed with how overwhelmingly hopeless some situations are, and it is at this point that we must grasp that only the power of God can solve a problem that no man can work out. It is at this point that I was able to share with J that Christ is with him and for him, and can lead him out of his darkness. Jesus Christ knows his name.
It is also at this point that some vague, hand-waving reference to "Spirituality" is shown to be totally bankrupt. You see, J is already a profoundly spiritual person. He has the marks of his gods inscribed across his body. He has devoted himself to the old gods, of ancient Babylonia: Anu, supreme god of the sky, and the rest of his pantheon. This isn't a fad for J.
When he is more interested in a lively debate we talk about the similarities of the Biblical Flood to other Ancient Near-Eastern accounts. We talk about the Enuma Elish and Epic of Gilgamesh and the creation of the world. We discuss whether El and Jah were just tribal deities in a world filled with demi-gods. We talk about how Israel's religion could have been just one of many.
We talk about these things because J is a true believer. J has "spirituality."
So that day, standing next to a jug of water, holding a broken bike so J could work on it, I didn't get into the details of this or that creation myth. I just asked a question, "How are your gods treating you?" And this is when some real depth is reached. Not too well, came the honest answer. By his own account, the old gods offered him everything, took his worship, and made him a slave. "Now that they have me they have gone silent. They don't care."
And so for the first time, J let me pray with him and for him. I prayed that God would bless him, knowing that His blessing might be too much to bear. I thanked God for the pain of the withdrawals, knowing that pain can be God's gift when we listen to its warning. I prayed that J would know that God knows him, everything about him, that God knows his name and his story and loves him, even if it is a severe mercy. To my great surprise and wonder J echoed my "Amen", as I spoke it in the strong name of Jesus.
Even if we sneer at these so-called "gods" as myths, or patronizingly incorporate them into our "inter-faith dialogues" we must understand that they may nevertheless be very real. If the Bible is to be believed, they may very well receive worship, devotion, and they may very well enslave their devotees. But they will come to nothing; they will bend the knee to Christ and come to an end.
But there isn't a happy ending to this story. As I was leaving I asked J what he wanted to do next. "Not gonna lie, I'm gonna smoke that heroin." Its his choice, and he's heard the truth. I hope and pray that he survives for another conversation, another prayer. While we breathe God is working, and his work outlasts even that.
So it starts with 5 gallons of water but it can't end there. The water, the mercy, must be an extension somehow of God's grace. He gives us what we don't deserve even in the middle of the wreckage of our own sin. He gives us the gift of pain that warns and calls and pleads with us to turn back, and he also gives the gift of respite from that storm.
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