I’ve been a worship leader in some form or fashion for 15 years, and I’ve seen and experienced quite a bit from up front, whether it is the front of a church, a fellowship hall, a field full of 900 Harley riders, or the Bud Light stage at a local crawfish festival. I like to think that experience has shown me how to react appropriately to nearly any situation that could befall me as a Christian musician.
Once or twice a month, I lead worship for a missional church in the deep south. The congregation I serve is primarily an amalgam of mainstream society’s castaways: indigents, migrants, addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes, and the mentally ill – with the very luckiest of these belonging to only one or two of those categories. Yet, undaunted by the coldness of the world outside, there is still joy in our worship and comfort found in each other. It is a warm place and a brief island of calm in the constant chaos.
At the conclusion of the most recent service, however, a tearful gentleman pressed his palm to mine and thanked me, leaving a little bit of money in my grasp as he pulled his hand away.
Silently I stood, mouth agape for several seconds gripping that familiar texture of legal tender. Would that someone had taken a picture during those few seconds, just so that I could see the astonished look that was certainly plastered across my face. The few thoughts I managed to invoke raced incoherently, vainly trying to reconcile this moment that was so incongruent with my version of reality. I have so much, and it could be that this gentleman just placed what should have been his next meal into my hand.
How could I accept such a thing? I volunteered for this gig to pour myself into you because you are less fortunate than I am. I’m the one giving, offering, and sacrificing. I’m the one who has to give back, not you. This is my opportunity to feel good about myself, not yours. Why would you taint that by making yourself poorer on my account?
Pastor Judy, the saintly director of the mission, was directing the worshippers toward the lunch line, and I spied the offering basket on the table next to where she was standing. “Pastor Judy,” I whispered, still dumbfounded. “The man standing across from me while I was leading worship put this money in my hand.” I dropped the cash into the offering plate, deciding that is where it belonged. Pastor Judy snatched the money from the plate almost before it landed and placed it firmly back in my palm. Again, a well-timed photograph of my face right then would have been priceless.
“He already gave,” she said, and to the church is what she meant. Her mien was not unlike that of a second-grade teacher correcting a wayward child who meant well, but messed up anyway. “This is a gift to you.”
“What do I do with it?” it was a mindless response, but there it was.
“Put some gas in your truck. Get some lunch,” was her reply, adding a slight shrug.
I was gifted with a difficult, convicting, heart-wrenching, and beautiful realization. At 46 years old, this was my first real lesson in Christ-like grace. Most of the congregation of this church strive against whatever manners of impoverishment I can conceive of. Respite comes from the opportunity of a little food in the belly, some fuel in the tank, dry socks, a soft shoulder, warm clothes, a few hours of heat or air conditioning. Few know the sweet gift of a little relief better than they do, and few can experience it so viscerally when there is some to be had. I don’t know the specific struggles of the gentleman who pressed the few dollars into my hand. For all I know he could be okay financially, but that is very likely not the safe bet.
What I do know is that a man who might not have enough to eat gave me some of his food. A man who might not have enough fuel to get home put gas in my truck. It was likely the greatest gesture of unselfishness I have ever experienced from another human being, and I would have deflected it and dishonored it were it not for Pastor Judy’s precision wisdom. Until that moment, I was ignorant of my condition—another clueless camel trying to squeeze his nose through a needle’s eye—incapable of receiving grace because I foolishly believed that I did not need it, and unaware of my own impoverishment.
Sean Lyon is a Christian performer and worship leader from the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Once or twice a month, he volunteers at the Seashore Mission in Biloxi, Mississippi, among the “least if these,” where he often enjoys the awesome privilege of watching God show off.