I guess if I was going to title this podcast it would be “Part One of the Joe Chronicles.” Joe worked for me for, gosh, probably five or six years, and I won’t reveal the ending of the chronicles, but I’ll tell you about the beginning. But before I tell you about the beginning, I want to tell you a little bit about construction.
Construction is kind of a rude and crude world, but after working in people’s offices and homes in various settings over the years, it’s not too much different from just about every other occupation and trade and business that people can get involved in because, well, there’s people there. And in every occupation and in every business, there’s a fine art of messing with people. The journeymen or the old-timers are masters at the practical jokes, creating situations that humble the novices, or playing on people’s ignorances and trying to make them look foolish.
I remember when I was in Boy Scouts: humiliating the tenderfoot. When I was working at a Ford dealership just out of high school, we would send the new people back to the mechanics for “radiator bearings” and “left-handed wrenches.” When I got into construction, it was sending people after “drywall stretchers” or “stud stretchers.” And this is just human nature. This stuff even happens in the monasteries, and I guess that’s another podcast in itself, but that’s how I met Joe.
Don was the superintendent on a job that I had taken over when the original contractor had gone bankrupt in the middle of it, and he knew me and I had worked for him before on other projects. And he knew my story, he knew how I had been a former Protestant minister and had gotten fired and started a construction company, and he knew I was a Christian. So Don called me over one day., and he said, “There’s a guy you need to meet here on the job. His name’s Joe, and he’s really spiritual. I think you guys would really have a lot in common. I think you’d hit it off. If you want to track him down, he’s up doing doors in the north wing.”
So I walked down the long corridor to the north wing, and there was a guy with long, blond hair standing up on a ladder, slamming a hollow metal doorframe with a rubber mallet, swearing like a sailor. He was the only person doing doors, so I walked up to the ladder, and he cocked his arm to swing the hammer and he looked down at me and stopped. And I said, “Are you Joe?”
He said, “Yeah.”
I said, “Hi, Joe. I’m Steve. I’m the new drywall contractor. Don says you like to talk about God.”
Joe says, “Yeah, that’s right. So, are you a Christian?”
And I said, “Yeah.”
He said, “Okay. I hate Jesus Christ, and I hate Christians,” and he spit. I didn’t flinch.
“Cool,” I said. “We need to talk.”
Over the next months, we spent hours working together. When we finished the job, I hired him. For eight to ten hours a day, we worked together and talked about God. Over the months, he told me about being adopted by a Protestant minister: how he came to hate Christians. He was physically and sexually abused by his father, his mother, his brothers, his uncles, and his cousins. He left the house when he was seventeen and became a male prostitute in Hollywood. Not because he was gay, he said, but because there was money there. He became a heroin addict and an alcoholic, but now he was five years clean and sober. He attributed his sobriety to his higher power: a nebulous blob of deity and cosmic power that could be benevolent or malevolent, depending on the whim of the deity.
Whenever we’d see a grossly impaired person in a wheelchair or somebody grossly handicapped—we worked at several hospitals and whenever we worked in a wing of a hospital that treated children or something like that, Joe would just look at them and shake his head and say, “Hm. One of God’s little jokes on humanity.” One of the ways Joe dealt with his childhood was just to believe that, for some odd reason, the deity, the cosmic power, decided to play a little joke on him, and in some mysterious way down the line, the punchline would make sense.
So for two years, we talked about Jesus Christ. Jesus was kind of a tough sell to him. When I look back on it now, he was kind of Nestorian; he believed that Jesus was just a good guy that somehow attained his personal deity by being a really good guy. And, in the end, the same thing happened to him that happened to Joe: the cosmic deity just played a little joke on him and got him crucified. He really didn’t believe much beyond that. But I told him over the years about how Jesus Christ wasn’t just another good guy who had a cosmic joke played on him by some malevolent deity, but that he was God in the flesh. And that God came into this world to encounter people like him. He came to the lost; he came to the least: the little, the broken, the powerless, the weak, the people with pointless existences, and the people who were clueless about what their life was about and why life happened to them the way it did. And I talked to him about how faith and desperation in the Gospels didn’t really look too different from one another.
When we look at the woman at the well with five failed relationships, and we look at the outcast woman with the issue of blood who was unclean, and the lepers who stood by the side of the road who shouted after Jesus to have mercy on them because they, too, were outcasts, the tax-collector who used people to make money, people who were powerless over their demons, people who were born a certain way, cast into a dark life through no choice of their own, and how Jesus, as God, entered these people’s lives and transformed them. And we talked about how, when we approach God, very often we approach God from the bottom, very much like in the twelve-step programs that he had been involved in for the last five years. That sometimes it takes just sheer desperation and absolute darkness for us to reach out into a dark place and find God there.
We talked about— that God becomes flesh in Jesus Christ, and really shows us what a true human being is supposed to look like. I couldn’t help but think over the couple of years that Joe was beginning to see himself in the lives of all these people in the Gospel, and beginning to get a grasp that God had a face, God had a name, that God really did come to people like him. That nothing that he did in Hollywood, that nothing that he did in all of the failed relationships he had could make God turn away from him.
But at the end of every day, Christians were always his best apologetic for Christ being a fable, for Christianity being a myth, and for us being pawns in some kind of cosmic deity’s little chess game, and if we could just stay sober long enough, we might—maybe—attain some form of personal deity by the time we die. Joe said he’d just rather not name his god, because his god was cosmic, and he could be a carburetor or a doorknob or anything you want it to be. He said, “I don’t need to pray to Jesus Christ; I don’t need to pray to Jehovah God. I can pray to a doorknob, because God’s there.”
One day, Joe came to work looking like he’d been out all night: pretty disheveled, a little twitchy, obviously nervous. He wasn’t his normal jovial, sarcastic, in-your-face kind of person. So I asked him, “What’s going on?”
And he said, “I want to be baptized. I want to be a Christian.”
And I said, “So… What’s going on?” So he told me this story:
So I decided to go get some heroin last night. So me and Mark, we went to the dope-man’s house. So we’re there buying the dope, and these guys come busting through the door with masks and guns, and they start yelling, “Everyone on the floor!” And I froze. So this guy come up behind me and he hits me with the butt of a rifle, and he says, “I said, ‘On the floor, white boy!’ ” And I dropped to my knees and I put my hands up, and he smacks me on the back of the head with the butt of the shotgun and he yells, “I said: ‘On the floor!’ ” And he starts poking me in the back of the head with the barrel of a shotgun and he’s yelling, “You wanna die, white boy, you wanna die?” And the other guy, he’s got these other guys down on the floor, and he’s got Mark on the floor, and they’re just yelling and screaming and I just knew we were all going to get killed. And these guys, they just grab all the money, they grab all the dope, and … they left. They didn’t kill anyone.
And he said, “But you know what? When I was there on the floor, and that guy was sticking me with that shotgun in the back of my head, I wasn’t praying to a doorknob. I wasn’t begging a cosmic deity. I was saying, ‘O Jesus, O Jesus, O Jesus!’ So I guess that makes me a Christian, right?”
I said, “Yeah, I guess it does.” And so I baptized Joe, and he was a Christian; he was a lover of Jesus Christ, a servant of God, a child of God. But it didn’t magically do away with all of his issues, didn’t take away all of the pain of his past life. It didn’t change his opinion of his parents, of his brothers, his cousins, his mother. But he did know that in one desperate moment he reached out to Someone out there, and that was Jesus Christ, and he came out alive.
St. Paul says we preach Jesus Christ and him crucified, and when we as human beings reach our end, and we’re staring into the black abyss in desperation, and we need a God with a name and a face, and we need a God who has looked into that same abyss, and that same oblivion, has taken on death, who didn’t cut and run, who didn’t drug the pain, but entered the darkness, committed his life into the hands of the Father: this is our God. This is the God we preach.
And in the ears of God, the cry of faith and the cry of desperation are one and the same. “O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”