"My chains are gone, I've been set free. For Christ my Savior has ransomed me. And like a flood, His mercy reigns, unending love, amazing grace."
Every time I sing that song, I remember...
She climbed out of her beat up van and walked up to the front door. As soon as she came in, I knew she wasn't here for the coffee. She looked beaten and worn. Weary. Drained. But as she spoke, her voice was tinged with anger as well.
She'd heard we were more than a coffee shop. She needed a pastor.
Her fiance had died, and she wanted to hold a memorial service for the only person she believed had ever truly loved her.
She told me the tragic love story. The love of her life had spent much of his life in and out of trouble with the law. They'd become engaged just before the last time he was arrested. They were getting things under control. Their lives were becoming more stable. She said they'd both really committed to the Lord and wanted to marry. Then his past caught up with him and he went to jail.
They began planning to marry immediately following his release. She visited him regularly. But he started getting sick. Thankfully, he was in custody. He received care they probably wouldn't have had available otherwise. But he just kept getting worse. Eventually, he died... in the prison hospital, shackled to the bed.
The state cremated his body, but he was estranged from his biological family and they were unwilling to pay the fees to obtain the remains. They also saw no point in a memorial service. Of course this devastated the surviving fiancee, who really wanted an opportunity for their friends to share their loss.
She was bitter and angry with the state that separated them and the family who didn't seem to care.
She shared her broken heart with a homeless friend, who then sent her to see me.
We sat at a table and discussed her ideas. I learned more about her and about her fiance. We planned a service together. That Sunday (this was a while ago, when we still met on Sunday mornings) I shared with our congregation and they committed to providing finger foods for the service, which would be held at the coffee shop on the following Sunday afternoon.
That next weekend, I wore my suit to church (the first and only time I've worn a suit to teach at Renaissance). After the service, we set up the kids room with a buffet of finger foods. I set up a greeting table with the little "program" I'd created with a picture and narrative of the deceased.
The surviving fiancee and her adult son arrived a few minutes before the start time. Then we waited...
When it became apparent there were no further mourners, we got started. It didn't matter that there were only three people in the room. That nobody else seemed to care enough to show up. Her love for her fiancee deserved --no, demanded-- this memorial.
The most emotional moment was when I played a recording of the song she'd chosen. The one I quoted at the opening of this story. It had such personal meaning for a woman whose fiance had died literally chained to a bed. He'd made it to heaven. His chains were gone. He'd been set free. Literally as well as figuratively. What a powerful time.
We chatted for quite a while. She needed that. I sent the finger food home with them.
Several days later, her son came into the coffee shop to thank me.
I've never seen them since.
But for that afternoon, I was their pastor and this was their church.
We cared when nobody else seemed to.
And THAT, my friends, is what really matters.
That's loving our neighborhood.
So every time I sing that song
"My chains are gone, I've been set free..."
I remember the only memorial service I've been asked to perform.
It still brings tears to my eyes.