These three stories were posted in this order in January of 2003 at Real Live Preacher. This was VERY early in my RLP adventure. Just a little over thirty days after my first blog post.
George the Middle
If I told you the story of how dope-smoking George became a Christian while eating a sandwich with me at Subway and how he later came to be a deacon in our church, you would laugh to beat the band. You would. I might do it too – tell that story. If I do I’ll call it “George the Beginning”. If I feel up to it, I might write “George the End”. I don’t know.
I always change the names of the people in my stories, but not this time. George is dead so I don’t think he’ll mind, and it feels real nice to be using his name again.
When I met George, his T-cell count was at zero, and it seemed that AIDS had won the war. He started the new Protease Inhibitor drugs in ’97, but it was too late for him. The treatment prolonged his life, but made him wish he were dead. He started smoking marijuana again. It was the only thing that helped the pain. He had a ceramic water pipe shaped like a winged horse that he lovingly called “Pegasus”. Most deacons don’t hit the pipe, but George had need, and we kept it our little secret.
I remember the night George told me he was stopping the treatments. We were sitting in my yard, watching the stars, drinking beer, and praying. Well, George was praying. I was just drinking and listening. George liked to pray out loud and called God, “Dad”. His own father had been a real asshole. The nicest thing he ever did was die young.
“It’s just not worth it”, he said. “I’ve reached the place where I want the pain to go away more than I want to live.”
I cried a little, he waited for me to finish, and that was that. We spent some time planning his funeral, and I took notes to make sure I would remember everything when the time came.
I had no idea how fast he would go down. That very Sunday he showed up for church in a wheelchair. During the service he felt something burning in his pants and tried to take them off. Dementia was starting to set in. After that, coming to church was too hard for George, so we had a communion service at his home. Just a few people came, including Don, an ex-Pentecostal who had dropped that theology but kept his guitar and Jesus songs, and a 4th grade girl with her mom.
Christians understand communion in different ways. For me, communion is the time to lay down everything that doesn’t matter and celebrate the realization that you are not alone on this journey. It’s a pretty important ritual for us.
We brought the wine, the bread, and Don’s guitar to George’s house. Don was about a third of the way through his Jesus songs when George started feeling the pain. He reached behind his chair, pulled out Pegasus, and proceeded to take two HUGE hits off that mofo, complete with the classic “hold it… hold it… exhale” drama.
I’d been in a lot of worship services, and I’d seen some weird things happen. My own daughter blasted a huge fart during worship once and cracked up the whole church, but I’d never seen anyone whip out a bong right in the middle of communion. No sir, I had not seen that. I can promise you the good Christians with me on this mission of mercy had never seen it either. The Jesus music died, but not sudden-like. It kinda wound down like when you unplug a record player. I could see the little 4th grader mouthing, “What’s he doing, Mommie?”
I thought to myself, “Deacon George’s lil’ secret is out now!”
When George was done he put the pipe away and looked at us as if to say, “Why’d the music stop?”
It was Don who got things going again. He jumped right back into a Jesus song and the rest of the service went without a hitch. We all hugged George on the way out, and he seemed VERY much at peace. Turns out that was the last time I would see the George that I remember. The next time I spoke with him he was in a coma.
My Christian tradition does not understand the bread and wine of communion to be vehicles of grace. They are symbols and reminders of a great sacrifice and of just how much it costs to set things right. I’ve thought a lot about our last service with George and about that third element he introduced into our communion worship that day. The sustaining breath from Pegasus was a reminder of our high calling to comfort those who stand in need.
“I will ask the father and he will send the comforter to you, the very God-breath of truth.”
Jesus said that.
George the Beginning
I apologize for the length. If you knew how bravely I cut it, and how it hurt to do so, you might forgive me.
In 1996 an AIDS patient in our local hospital had a delirious vision. He was medicated and in deep pain when he saw Jesus standing by his bedside. The man’s name was George. At that very moment, a chaplain, who happened to be a close friend of mine, walked into the room. George had left Christianity behind, along with his dead father and a lot of other bad memories. He would have asked the chaplain to leave, but the vision shook him up a little, and he felt like talking to someone.
Over the next few days, George asked her some pretty tough questions. She said, “I know someone you might like to talk with.”
That’s how George and I ended up meeting at the Subway sandwich shop. All I knew was that a guy named George wanted to talk to me about God. All George knew was that I was a pastor who supposedly didn’t mind questions.
By the time we met, George’s Jesus vision had faded, and he was asking himself how the hell he got into this. Meeting ministers for lunch was not his idea of a good time. He showed up ready to do battle. He hit me with his toughest questions and a lot of anger. Religion and abuse had gone hand-in-hand with his father, and he told me all about it. He was talking so fast I was starting to slip into a coma. I’m not above a good fight, but I was so tired. I’d been fighting fundamentalist Christians for 20 years, had left my denomination, and had washed ashore with the only congregation that would have someone like me as their pastor. I didn’t have any fight left in me.
So I said the first thing that came to my mind.
“Fuckin’ A, man. Fu-Kin-A.”
I have found over the years that with some people, a well-placed “F-bomb” is the best pastoral move I can make. It’s like a conversational “Ctrl-Alt-Delete”. If nothing else works, just reboot and start over.
George, who had never heard a preacher say the “F-word”, started to laugh. Then I started laughing too. We couldn’t stop and the pimply-faced Subway guy thought we were out of our minds. I guess we were, kind of.
And so it began – a real live friendship. We discovered we had much in common. We both loved astronomy and movies and junior physics, having both read “Dancing Wu Li Masters” and Stephen Hawking, but nothing else. We both loved Science Fiction. George was hooked on sci-fi classics while I liked the zippy new stuff, but we agreed that “Foundation” kicked ass. Mostly we shared a sense of humor and a way of looking at the world. George was a kindred spirit. You ever meet someone like that? It’s amazing when it happens.
We always met at Subway. George was in very poor health, and for some reason their sandwiches didn’t make him sick. We talked about life, and facing death, and AIDS, and God, and grief, and fathers, and every other thing you can imagine.
I sure do miss him.
One day George said, “I wish I could believe in God. I really do. I’d like to go to your church, and sing hymns, and be a part of something bigger than myself. I’m at the end of my life, and I don’t think I’ve made a real difference in the world. My life hasn’t really mattered to anyone. But, I just can’t believe in God, so…”
You should never tell this preacher you don’t believe in God.
“You don’t believe in God? So what. Sometimes I don’t either. The important question in life is not a question of belief. What’s really important is whom you serve. I think it’s serving God that makes life meaningful.”
“You mean I could go to church, and sing, and do stuff, and all that, without believing in God?”
“Hell yes. I hope so, or else I better find another fuckin’ job.”
“You don’t believe in God?”
“Well, I do now, mostly. I still have my bad days. It’s complicated. Belief comes later for some people, for people like you and me.”
“What would I do? How would I get started?”
“I don’t know, I guess just come to church and sing.”
Understand that this preacher NEVER asks people to become Christians. If anything, I shoo people away. I consider Christianity to be a pretty stiff commitment, and I don’t ever sugar coat it. If someone is seeking a spiritual path and wants to journey with me, I’m fine with that. I’ll shoulder my pack, help get his adjusted, and we’ll move on down the road together. I don’t really give a shit about making converts. That’s not my business. I will walk with people though, if they want. That’s really all church is about anyway. We’re a bunch of rag-tag pilgrims sharing the road and taking turns shielding each other from the wind. Sometimes we carry each other’s packs for a spell. We share maps and provisions and friendship. We serve God by serving each other.
It ain’t no big deal, and it is a big deal, if you know what I mean.
George came to church every Sunday after that. He just listened at first. Later he prayed some. He loved to sing. George was 5′ 6″ and weighed about 110 lbs., but he had the richest baritone voice you ever heard. Jesus, that guy could sing. I wish you could see George the way I remember him. Black tennis shoes, faded jeans and a flannel shirt with a tie. Sometimes suspenders too, I shit you not. Singing his heart out.
After awhile I noticed everyone wanted to sit near George so they could hear him sing. People stayed around after church to talk with him. He would sometimes stay late and help me put stuff away. That was George’s spiritual program. Come. Listen. Sing. Pray. Help me put stuff away.
A visitor once grabbed me after church and said, “Who is that little man with the beautiful voice?”
“There’s something almost saint-like about him.”
I don’t know if it was because he was facing death, or because of all his new friends, or because God was working in his life, but there WAS something rather saint-like about George. It’s hard to explain.
George did become a Christian. It just happened somewhere along the way. Somewhere along the way he made his peace with God. I’m not saying he always believed, but he made peace. I don’t know when, and I don’t mark that kind of thing on the calendar. He found what he needed. You could call it belief or you could call it faith.
I baptized him in a swimming pool. The whole church turned out for the party. We had a BBQ. After George came up out of the water, a lot of folks jumped in and went swimming.
That was a good day.
About 6 months after George was baptized, we needed to elect a new deacon. At our church, deacons are servants. They have no power. They look after the sick, greet people, help put stuff away, that kind of thing. I got a shock when I started reading the ballots.
When I asked him if he would be our deacon, he was stunned. “Why the hell did they vote for me? All I ever do is sing and talk to people and put stuff away.”
“Exactly,” I said.
He shook his head, trying to figure it out. “What does this mean?”
I thought for a minute and said, “I think, George, it means that you matter to these people. I think it means they see something good in you. I think it means George has made a real difference at our church.”
And he was OUR deacon all the days of his life.
George the End
I’ve enjoyed watching George bloom again in the telling of his story. It was like an unexpected Indian summer for me. Now winter approaches and George’s petals will fall to the earth. His memory will live on, but in a more subdued way. Perhaps it is best for me to move on too.
Thank you for listening.
When George stopped taking his medicine, I knew it was only a matter of time, but I couldn’t believe how fast it happened. In just a few days I got a phone call and was told George had fallen asleep and could not wake up. He was taken to a hospice facility to be made as comfortable as possible. We were told it wouldn’t be long.
At that time our church had three deacons. Joan, a school nurse and mother of three, Bill, a high school band director, and George. I called the other deacons, grabbed my portable CD player, and jumped in the car. When I arrived, Joan and Bill were already there. I saw a tiny stick figure lying on his left side under a thin sheet. He was so small and frail. Joan was leaning on the bed, stroking George’s hair and talking to him. Bill was holding his hand and standing quietly by. The only noise coming from George was the mantra sound of labored breathing.
We waited for death with George. He never did respond to us, but we said a lot to him. We had all heard that dying people are aware of more than you think. We didn’t know if this was true, but we talked to George just in case it was. We took turns holding his hands and speaking softly into his ear. I don’t remember how long we were there, but it seemed long.
Eventually we got tired. George seemed stable, so we decided to go home and return in the morning.
I placed my CD player on the pillow behind his head and put in “Just Hymns: Singing with the Angels” by Darrell Adams. Darrell is a friend of mine who sings hymns with nothing but a guitar and a soul full of conviction. He also has one of the most angelic voices you’ve ever heard. Imagine Burl Ives as a whiskey drinking, Kentucky Baptist democrat with fire in his eyes and a finger on the pulse of Jesus.
Imagine that and you’re close to understanding Darrell Adams.
George loved hymns so much that I figured Darrell’s music would reach him if anything could. I set my player to repeat forever, and we left.
I got the call at 3:30 that morning. When I walked into the room, Darrell was still singing but George had gone away.
I never really got to say a formal goodbye because he died so suddenly. On the other hand, our whole friendship was one big goodbye, so I felt at peace.
I did George’s funeral and tried my best to put his life and death into words. You can’t ever do this, but knowing you can’t, trying anyway, and keeping it short, is the best formula I’ve found for funerals.
About a week later I was given a cardboard box containing a few things that George left me. Pegasus was not in the box. I never found out what happened to him. George left me his beloved copy of “Stranger in a Strange Land” and a rock.
At that time our church owned a piece of land, but had no building. We were dreaming of a place of our own while meeting in schools, bars, fire stations, and anywhere else we could gather. George had picked up a rock during a prayer service on the land and kept it by his bed. He knew he would not live to see the building.
This was the rock he left me.
Two years after George died, we built a small church nestled among the live oak, mountain laurel, and native persimmon trees on a wild piece of property that we never intend to tame. It is a simple, stone building that suits us well. There is no pulpit or stage in our church. The main feature is a large fireplace with a mantle that is a huge beam from a 150-year-old Amish barn that was torn down.
During construction, I met the stonemason and gave him George’s rock. He embedded it in the wall near the back door. I took a black marker and wrote “George’s Rock” on it. I have to rewrite this about twice a year because the wind and the rain wear his name away.
I don’t want George’s name to go away. That’s probably why I’m telling you this story.
Sometimes new people notice George’s rock. If they ask about it, someone who knew him will tell them the story. We hope they come to understand that love is a deep and powerful force that can outlast death. Witness how George continues to touch lives.
We hope they see that God’s best blessings are given to the world through people who have the courage to be faithful in small ways. George came, he sang, he talked to people, and he helped put things away.
This was the George that we knew. He was both the least and the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.