Saturday, January 10, 2004

I had forgotten just how cold "negative 9" is. It's pretty chilly. I had also forgotten what 7 inches of snow feels like under the tires of a rear wheel drive car. It feels pretty chilling. This is typically called, "Winter in Chicago." It has been 20 years since I lived there and you know what? I realized this year that I still miss it. There is something oddly invigorating about walking outside in the morning and hearing crusted-over snow crunch under your boots. There is an amazing feel to the unusual whine your car engine makes when it starts and it is that cold outside. Well ... IF it starts when it is that cold outside. Mine did. But I also saw a late model sedan being towed from the hotel parking lot. It was a foriegn job. I smiled in the direction of Detroit.

Chicago in the winter. I enjoyed my forays into the outside world. But I admit that I enjoyed it best as I viewed it from the glass enclosed hot-tub-by-the-pool in the rear of the hotel. Outside and across the street was a huge office building. The sign glowing from the top said, "Zurich." I don't think they were referring to the city. I believe there must be a company by that name. I'll bet they make something really neat. Something really Scandinavian. I wonder what it is. I invaded the hot tub 3 times in 4 days.

Nobody entered the hot tub/pool room any of the times I was there. I owned the place. That was good because I invited Jesus to come and sit with me in the tub. I went to Chicago simply to get away from life for a few days. Reality sometimes really does bite. Lately it has bitten more than usual. So I ran away. I used my trusty "AAA" card to get a killer rate. I made an appointment to talk to a man that is suppose to be much wiser than I am. Just to get his view of things. But mainly I spent hours upon hours in my room alone. The TV was a big "no-no." I turned it on 3 times in my days there. Never for more than 15 minutes in any one stretch. TV tends to distract one from reality. I didn't need distractions.

So it was me, my bible, my headphones with praise music attached, and ... when it pleased Him to come ... Jesus. Actually, I guess it would be more accurate to say "The Holy Spirit." But I'm claiming the "I and my Father are One" rule and I'm calling this wonderful presence "Jesus." He was kind enough to sit with me until nearly 2AM my first night there. We hashed out some really hard things. It got loud once or twice. Ok, I got loud once or twice. He listened and then responded in that still, small voice that so characterizes Him. I have learned that in our conversations, if there is a scream it is probably me. If it is a whisper it is probably Him. If there is silence it is probably for a reason. Silence is good when you are sitting with Jesus. Most people do not know that. It took me 40-something years to learn it. Silence means that He is just present and is enjoying being with you. It is good when God enjoys being with you.

On my last night in the big city I attended the mid-week worship service at Willowcreek. I have officially declared Willow my "church away from church." Every pastor needs one of those. It's a place where you can go and worship and not be expected to lead or talk or be wise. You can just sit, sing if you want, listen, pray if you want, and leave quietly without anybody caring or waiting at your office door. At Willow you can get lost among about 4,000 people and they will just assume that you belong there. You can wear jeans at any time. They don't care if you want to sit alone but they will make room for you if you want to sit with them.

That is where it got interesting for me this time around. I sat alone. I arrived about 20 minutes before the service and found a seat to the far right and about 8 rows up from the stage. I was the first person in the row so I sat on the inside aisle. After a few minutes a 30-something woman asked if the seats next to me were saved. I said, "nope." She went around, entered the row, and sat one seat removed from me. The remain seats filled quickly except for the one between us.

The praise and worship singing began. It was AWESOME. You can't beat singing along with 4,000 people. About 10 minutes into this time a man tapped my shoulder and motioned toward the empty seat. I stepped back to show that it was available and allow him access. The woman to my right slid over into that seat and he slipped past both of us and sat in the seat she had been in.

Hmmmm. I made notice of that but really didn't think anything of it. I figured the guy on the other side of her must have really smelled bad. The singing finally ended, Pastor Hybles spoke, he finished speaking, and we all stood to leave. One of us started a conversation. I don't remember who or what it was about. But we stood and talked for a few minutes. It seems that she and her husband had moved to the area over a year ago. They had lived in the Memphis area. Since coming to Barrington, (the suburb,) they had failed to find a church that was "a fit" for the two of them and their children. She mentioned that her Memphis church had been a big Baptist one. I simply said, "Bellvue?" She said yes. They had gone to the mega-Southern Baptist Church pastored by Adrian Rodgers. Cool. We talked about that for a minute then she said that her husband had come to Willow the week before and stayed home with the kids on this night so that she could try it. She said she liked it but was concerned that it might be overly charasmatic. She asked me what "we" believed.

That's when it happened. I told her that I didn't belong to Willowcreek. I told her that I was a Southern Baptist Pastor from St. Louis and I just attend Willow when I'm in town. That is when the floodgates broke. She poured out her desperation to find a church for her children to grow up in. She wanted them to learn the truth of scripture in a place that was vital, dynamic, and Christ centered. She was afraid such a place might not exist there.

I became a pastor. I explained how Willowcreek works. I told her about their smallgroups and how you become a member by attending them and eventually getting sponsored for membership by them. I told them that Baptist churches and Willowcreek agree on most everything. I said that if I lived there and was not a pastor myself it is exactly where I would join. She seemd relieved. She WAS relieved. What this dear lady needed was to have someone who shared her "SBC roots" tell her that it was ok ... even right ... to join this church. It was not too good to be true at all. I then walked her to the information booth where I introduced her to someone I did not know myself. She was a woman volunteer. She immediately took my new friend under her wing and began answering her questions. I tapped the visitor on the shoulder, extended my hand, and found it full of hers. As I shook it I told her that I was glad to have helped and that I would be praying that she and her family would settle where God wanted them. With tears still in her eyes she thanked me.

As I walked off into the night I thought I heard her ask the volunteer, "Who was that masked man?" The volunteer replied, "I don't know ... but he left this silver bullet." Ok, you have to be relatively old to get that joke. Nevermind.

I left feeling good. I felt like I had done something just because it was the right thing to do. Our own attendance and offering would not be affected one bit by my actions. I had nothing to gain. It was just ... right. It was still cold outside and the snow still crunched. But I didn't need the hot tub when I got back to the hotel. I was alread warm inside.