Guest post by pastor Eric Blauer of Jacob's Well Church.
My name is Eric Blauer and I met a man named James at Union Gospel Mission. I’ve had the privilege and honor of serving the men of UGM for a number of years in the chapel services. I am the founding pastor of Jacob’s Well Church located in the East Central Neighborhood for the last 16 years. Our ministry and mission life has been neck deep in the struggles that many of the men and women who come to UGM wrestle with in their lives.
These similar challenges and opportunities motivate us to partner in serving ministries like UGM who are providing the critical support and services we believe help bring hope and healing to our community. Another reason we serve is to help build better bridges between the program and the pew. We want to be a familiar face and place for men and women seeking to continue their success on their own after the program.
Recently, a group of men from our church have started serving dinner on the chapel night we facilitate. This additional opportunity to serve arose out of my desire to share the secret blessings of service that I get from serving the men at UGM. My life has been so impacted by the workings of God in the chapel services over the years. As an avenue of outreach for me, it has been a treasured time where I get to see God’s heart and the power of His word touch men’s lives.
To serve at UGM, one has to be prepared for facing the realities of street life played out in the long resurrection of men and women coming out of addiction, homelessness and many other challenges. There’s gore and glory, a cross and a crown, for all who persevere in this work. Recently this was painfully brought very close to my heart.
At the chapel service in November, I met a man named James. He came forward with a number of men for prayer and ministry after the message. It was a powerful time of personal ministry, and James was one of the men who particularly soaked up the goodness of God being poured out. He had given his heart to Jesus at a previous chapel service, and it was evident God was at work in this man.
Afterwards when we were talking, he asked if he could attend our church service on Sunday. I told him I would come and pick him up at 9:30 a.m. before service. That Sunday, he was outside with a handful of men, some he had lovingly pressured to join him. For the next four weeks, I picked him up and dropped him off on Sundays.
After one service, I asked him if he wanted to go to lunch. We spent a couple of hours talking about his life; it was pleasant, personal and so easy. There was something about James that captured my affection. A special grace was present that I cannot explain, but I was bonding in my heart to this man in a way that isn’t typical.
“There was something about James that captured my affection.”
The next Sunday as I was dropping James off at UGM, before he got out, he asked for prayer for his fiancé. I told him I would pray and he got out of my truck. But as he stood next to my truck, I rolled down my window and told him to come closer, and we would pray right then and there. So we did. Afterwards, he looked at me with a warm smile and said, “Hey that deserves a hug.” So he navigated his walker around to my side, and I got out to give him a bear hug. It was a warm and meaningful exchange.
The next day James was scheduled to get a hip replacement surgery. He had a heart attack and died in his room after a successful procedure.
I got the news the next day in a text from a member of our church who was staying at the shelter. I was shocked, stunned and caught in surprise by the level of emotion that his death produced in me. I also received a picture of an empty chair in the day room with a sign on it that read:
“Life is Short, Please Don’t Waste it! R.I.P. James.”
The stark reality of it all felt far more weighty than the time of our relationship warranted, but I could not deny I was mourning in a manner that I couldn’t rationally explain. I have been in full-time pastoral ministry for over 32 years, and there are seasons when the work weighs heavier than others. The older you get, the call grows more clear and the conviction more acute around the things that truly matter. One of those convictions is the importance of the value of one person and how loving them in meaningful ways matters. Sometimes the focus on one is especially important.
Jesus told a story that I think captures this unique aspect of my interaction with James.
“If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them wanders away, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others on the hills and go out to search for the one that is lost? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he will rejoice over it more than over the ninety-nine that didn’t wander away! In the same way, it is not my heavenly Father’s will that even one of these little ones should perish.” (Matt 18:12-14)
There was a particular focus and special connection that reflected the “leaving the ninety-nine” truth in my short time with James. The whole experience left a lasting impression on my soul. It reminds me to make the most of my opportunity with the men and to never forget that these men are not problems for programs, they are not projects and statistics or political pawns to be moved around, they are people with names, hearts, stories and souls that God loves. I experienced that love from God towards James, and I pray it motivates my ministry and mission to the day I die.
“I experienced that love from God towards James, and I pray it motivates my ministry and mission to the day I die.”
I wrote some poems in my time processing my experience with James. I hope they capture the warmth of friendship and the depth of meaning that took place over the four short weeks with my friend James.
How is it that a man
bent over a walker
could stand so tall over me?
One who has no home,
could make everyone feel welcome,
right here, right now?
Who feasts like a king
at another’s table
and pushes away his plate
with such gratitude
that leaves you so humbled?
What can stand
before a mountain of a man
whose eyes and words
could surely tumble towers,
and submit resistance
yet speaks in soft gossamer
and wields the calming gaze
of celestial glass?
A giant with feet of clay
in the hard ground
of earth’s suffering
but a head of gold
that moved through
In a world that’s bent
on being spark
to every gathered tinder,
Where did you learn
the tongues of angels,
fish and loaf breaking
and moving gravestones
with tears in your eyes?
My heart! My heart!
again Lazarus was named
gentle was the giant,
in whose friendship
this pastor was raised.
The Last Sermon I Ever Preached
Did I preach the last sermon you ever heard?
Did what I say in time
matter for eternity?
Did what you hear
match the silent crescendo
that your life was about to make?
Was our goodbye prayer
attended by angels
weaving the strands
of desire, hope and longing
together into the tapestry
of your life story?
In leather seat and dirty street
we spoke our final prayer
my Ford window, your altar rail
our sacred pleadings,
faith’s hymn’s endings.
You called me “pastor”
like pinning a medal
on my breast
now a renewed honor
an echo in my heart.
from a church bell tolling
in Zion’s distant halls.
Driving you there and back again
was a holy benediction
a sacred epilogue.
Watching you pass into the East door
an unknown moment of a man shuffling
to his eternal rest.
May the last embrace you requested
be the best sermon I ever preached.