On Saturday, I went to our ministerial alliance meeting. We met out at a church about 15 minutes from town, because they were having their monthly men’s breakfast. We drove out into the country and found the church sitting next to an old cemetery just about a mile off of the lake. We walked in to a hearty breakfast. The biscuits and gravy were delicious, the coffee was stout, and the bacon was cooked crispy, which in my opinion is the only good way to cook bacon.
After the breakfast we preachers, and that is what we’re usually called, broke off into another room to carry on the business of the day. There were only eight of us there that day. Southern Baptist, Freewill Baptist, Church of God, two Community Churches, and two men from another community that I didn’t know. We took care of the business of planning our upcoming Thanksgiving service with the usual conversation.
After that, a few of the preachers left and the real conversation began. Several of the men took turns sharing how God was at work in their lives, oftentimes sharing how they had led someone to the Lord. Finally, one of the men who I’ve really come to respect started to share. In order for you to understand this story more deeply, you need to know this preacher is a “whoopin’ and hollerin'” sort of preacher. He’s sort of baptist, but doesn’t really belong to any denomination. He doesn’t have any kind of degree whatsoever, and he probably couldn’t quote a theologian if he had to. But he shared a story that has been on my mind ever since.
He began to share about a man named “Catfish.” Catfish was a friend of his, but he was not a churchgoing man. His wife had went to my preacher friend’s church for many years, but Catfish never would darken the doors except occasionally on a Sunday night. Catfish got cancer. My friend went to see him several times in the hospital. Each time, before he left the hospital, he told us how he’d ask Catfish if he was right with God. To this, Catfish always replied, “The Lord’s Spirit don’t strive with me anymore, because I denied him and missed my chance.” This happened twice. The third time, when my old friend returned, Catfish was in bad shape – just waiting to die. They began the same conversation they always had about various things from the weather, to fishing, to how the doctors thought he was doing.
Before leaving, my preacher friend reached out to hold Catfish’s hand. He said, “You know what I’m going to ask. I want to know if you’ve made your peace with God.” Again, Catfish said, “The Spirit don’t strive with me anymore. I’ve missed my chance.” My friend then told us, “Right then, I tightened my grip on his hand just a bit…and I looked him in the eye.” In a quiet trembling voice he shared with us the words he spoke to Catfish, “I said, my God is more merciful than that.” At this, he said, Catfish broke into tears. In that moment, he knew a merciful, forgiving, and loving God – a God who doesn’t give up. He made a commitment to Christ right then and there, with his wife and my friend sharing tears with Catfish by his bed.
I don’t think I’m anywhere close to describing the power this simple story had for me in that moment; maybe you had to have been there to hear the aching love of God present in those seven simple words. But I do know this. If our theology of evangelism, salvation, and God’s work can’t embrace the story of my preacher friend and Catfish, then we just might need to take it back to the drawing board. I know a whole lot of sophisticated seminary-type folks like myself who think we know quite a bit, but I wonder if we could have helped Catfish in a moment like that. Thanks be to God; someone did.