By Shayne Mason Vincent

“A loved person can change, but a condemned person doesn’t even have the energy to try.” —Chad McComas

At the age of five, I would go with my grandma to this old country church, hidden away in a sleepy hollow called Cedar Valley. On cold winter days, while Jack Frost was doing his Michelangelos, l would sit in the back with the old timers, my numb toes burning under the whoosh of the wood stove. Those jolly old men made church just as warm as that stove. Inevitably, my attention would drift and my gaze would fall on this immense painting of the ascension of Christ keeping sentinel behind the pulpit. Whenever I saw it, it was like I could sense the Spirit in my bones. I can still smell the musty wood and brewing coffee of that happy memory.

The gentle joy those men showed me as a child planted a seed in my heart that ultimately led to me becoming a pastor. Having grown up without a father, their love helped me see that God could be my Father; as we read in Psalms 27:10 (GNT): “My father and mother may abandon me, but the Lord will take care of me.” And that is exactly what He did. Through all my years of ups and downs, He never left my side. The sense that the Lord was speaking to my heart never stopped. And when I had had enough, He called me back home again. I was the stranger who wandered through the doors of your church. Yet, I was no stranger to God.

What do we see in God’s missing children when they come home? Harshness, crudity, pride, flamboyance? One thing is for sure; they usually have better taste in music. But kidding aside, while they may be strangers to the myriad of our religious norms, God has known them intimately all their lives. They are the broken-hearted, whose wounds Christ is anxious to bind. They are the found, the seekers of hope, who long for more than empty promises. And I was one of them. The ones whose “sins—and they are many—have been for- given, so they have shown me much love” (Luke 7:47, NLT).

I found one of these secret children of God while working as a bereavement counselor in hospice. Like ministry, bereavement is a tender and careful work that demands intimacy with God. While counseling the inconsolable, the Spirit of God began to speak words of healing comfort directly into my heart. It was often so specific (and completely off topic) that I would apologetically say, “I don’t know why, but this is coming to me.” And without fail, they would begin to sob, and say, “That was exactly what I needed.” It started to happen so often that I became accustomed to running with it whenever it happened.

Over the course of time, I was counseling a woman who was grieving the death of her lesbian partner of twenty years. And as often happened, the Spirit of the Lord gave me a word for her. I sat in stunned silence as I attempted to process this: she was a lesbian, an atheist, and a Ph.D. from Berkeley, of all places, which is basically the Vatican for secular humanism. I said aloud in my head, “Really God?” So, I took the plunge and, as soon as I said it, she began to weep; that wracking kind of grief that comes from your gut. As is typical of our beautiful God, when I returned for our appointment the following month, she told me, “No, I’m good. What you told me was exactly what I needed to hear. You don’t need to come again.”

How amazing is our God?! That He would reach down from Heaven and speak healing directly into the broken heart of someone who may likely never follow Him! It was at that point in my walk with Christ that I stopped pretending to know whom God accepted and did not accept. Truly, God loves His enemies . . . and in this truth lies humanity’s greatest hope: “God proves His love for us in this: while we were still sinning, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, BSB). This is what the stranger who wanders into our church needs to know: that they are wanted. You see, the endless longing within us all is simply to belong. And that is what God is all about. We are the “called out” from a cruel and indifferent world to follow Jesus, whose entire life taught us that “the Holy Spirit produces a different kind of fruit: unconditional love, joy, peace, patience, kindheartedness, goodness, faith- fulness, gentleness, and self-control. You won’t find any law opposed to fruit like this” (Galatians 5:22-23, TVB).

Kicking up cold feet up in front of a winter’s fire, laughter, forgiveness, a deep conversation, sunsets, or just a hug. These are the gifts that God has given.

And so I make it my practice to hug people; especially those who carry a stench (perhaps metaphorically, as well). Because I recognize that clothes can be washed; it’s much more important that hearts be washed in the Blood. In our modern world: love, time, family, our communities, they barely exist. So, when strangers wander into our own churches in the vale, give them a taste of that Normal Rock- well painting I had as a child, where old men poke at your ribs, old friends share a laugh, and young lovers snuggle by the fireside. And perchance, in that magical place of grace, the Spirit of God will speak directly into their hearts as well.

–Shayne Mason Vincent is lead pastor, Casper, Wyoming District. Email him at: [email protected]