What is your true role in the often mysterious journey that leads to someone entering into a relationship with Jesus?
Is God counting on you to “win souls,” to “close the deal”? Or, is your job to carefully plant seeds? Or, should you just “let your light shine’?
One thing is clear. Faith is a relationship. It’s not an academic subject to be mastered. It’s not a commodity to be pitched in a hard sell. It’s a relationship.
We work with this understanding every week in Lifetree Café, a community event that consistently draws those who do not yet have a relationship with Jesus. One of our Lifetree hosts, Mikal Keefer, recently reflected on the expiring life of a man who was consistently drawn to Lifetree but often challenged the gospel messages he heard there.
Here’s the story, in Mikal’s own words:
* * *
Jerry and Ruth attended Lifetree often, always spicing up conversations with a quick wit and thoughtful observations.
A few months ago, I received an e-mail from Jerry. He’d been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer and wanted those on his email contact list to know.
I fired back a response right away. I wondered if Jerry’s confidence in reincarnation held now that he was looking down the barrel of a fatal diagnosis.
Pancreatic cancer is as close to pure evil as a disease can get—it’s often diagnosed too late for any treatment to be of much value.
Jerry was quick to respond. “Sure. Drop by.”
The first time I sat on his couch, talking with Ruth and Jerry, I asked Jerry what he expected to happen when he died. Jerry gladly told me. He’d be reincarnated and, he was confident, he and Ruth would be together again. “We’re soul mates,” Jerry said, gently taking Ruth’s hand.
We spent several hours together and I assured Jerry that he was missed at Lifetree.
“I miss it, too,” he said. “But I don’t know if I’ll feel up to coming again.”
Driving away, I was torn. I’ve been in the presence of many Christians who are facing death. None of them have ever faced death with more hope or confidence than Jerry—and Jerry didn’t know Jesus.
Jerry never made it back to our Lifetree Café, never again cocked his head, raised his hand, and asked a question that set the entire room to thinking. We’ll miss him.
And in a sense, I felt like I’d failed somehow.
I was raised to believe that when you believe in Jesus, you’re headed toward the sheep side of the equation come judgment day.
But I can’t make that happen.
Jerry was looking for something—had been all his life.
I believe that something was God’s love in Jesus…and I hope he found it.
One moment I carry with me from my time visiting with Jerry, one bright nugget I hold close…
I was leaving and Jerry was too weak to stand. I shook his hand, and Ruth gave me a hug. I’d mentioned that my wife was traveling in Italy and Ruth said, “Well, you tell your wife that while she was gone you were out doing good deeds.”
Jerry, Ruth, and I had talked about the barrage of phone calls Jerry was receiving from Christians who wanted to convert him. He took the calls but he was annoyed. He felt disrespected. Jerry knew the Gospel—he just didn’t believe it. He didn’t lack for any information.
I’d suggested that, perhaps, there were two reasons he was getting the calls.
Some were from people who’d been raised like I’d been raised: they felt it their duty to tell people about Jesus and to try to close the deal. Jerry was clearly approaching his expiration date; it was now or never to tell him about Jesus.
And some calls were motivated by people who actually cared about Jerry. They knew that, for themselves, there was peace in knowing Jesus, that death wasn’t the end for those who knew Jesus.
The trick, I told Jerry, was in sorting out which motivation prompted a call. “The first batch—you don’t need them. Tell them to get lost,” I said. “But that second bunch are people who love and respect you. Who are willing to risk saying something that might anger you because they care for you. You need as many of those people in your life as you can get.”
That satisfied Jerry.
So as I took a step toward the front door of their condo that day I said, “Unfortunately, this doesn’t count as a good deed because I actually like you. If you two were jerks—then it would be a reportable good deed.”
Jerry laughed and said, “Well, count it anyway.”
I looked at him and said, “That gets me to ‘nice’ deed. If you’d become a Christian as a result of our time together, then it would be a good deed. So what do you think, Jerry? Did you come to Jesus as a result of our time together?”
Jerry’s eyes twinkled as he paused, thinking. “No. Actually, I think Jesus came to me today.”
Excellent!! Thanks so much for being His hands and feet Thom and thanks for sharing this with us. Inspiring!!
A few quick thoughts… 1) We are called to do our part, and we are responsible for that, not for the results. The Watchman Passage in Ezekiel 3 is a great example of this. 2) We must make every effort to make sure we’re in “that second group” Mikal spoke of–people who care enough to risk anger and rejection to speak truth, but do so in love. This is also Biblical. 3) We must also be careful to make sure we’re not wasting our time, always evaluating the overall effectiveness of what we’re doing to reach these goals. My desire to reach greater results is the primary reason I subscribe to this blog and care what is written here. I hope that you guys are also looking at the overall effectiveness of the gentler approach; most of the stories you share are of people who didn’t actually become disciples. That concerns me, especially because I’m trying to learn from you how to do what I do, better! Finally, 4) We are called to make disciples–followers–not to “seal the deal”. I believe that no matter how we seek to accomplish these goals, Christ will evaluate our effectiveness at being and raising up people who truly follow Him. It sounds like Mikal is one of those people, and that even if Jerry didn’t become one or believe the truth before it was too late, even he was able to see that.
Thank you for sharing Mikal’s account. Jerry truly was visited by Jesus that day!
One of those life experiences that left me with goosebumps by the end of your entry…
Thanks Thom for being Jesus to Jerry and his wife. As you mention, even Jerry sensed that. In Jerry’s decision not to accept Jesus, we felt a little of God’s heartache that some will choose not to accept Him.
I’m holding out hope that in the hours before Jerry slipped away, he and Jesus got acquainted.
I’m hoping with you Thom and I’m trusting that my God loves Jerry more than we can possibly imagine or understand. The Holy Spirit must have been cultivating the seed Mikal planted in those last minutes. Mikal was just a great example of Jesus’ love for each one of us.
Thom – how wonderful that you could be with Jerry and his wife – showing them both respect and God’s love. Today you are a “God-Sighting” to me!
I still wonder sometimes if we over-simplify how people are “saved” or “not-saved” with our interpretation of the Bible. My husband described it this way: Would God give us a very complicated puzzle (trying to believe in Jesus in a very specific way) and then set a timer (our lifetime) and then say “Go!” as we scramble around trying to rapidly get our mind around the complexities found in different books in the Bible, the things different pastors tell us we should believe, and the things we actually do believe, all before the “timer of life” goes off.
I don’t think so! I think our God is MUCH bigger than anything we can wrap our little minds around – and that we are foolish to decide that a particular person is “saved and going to heaven” or “not-saved and going to hell”.
And that’s what I love about God, and the people who spread God’s light to the world.