To Be Available…

A couple of weeks ago, I was preaching on the text in Mark 10:17-31 where Jesus is approached by a Rich Man  who asks him how he might inherit eternal life.  It is quite a challenging passage.  Jesus tells the man to follow the commandments and when the man reports that he has, Jesus shares with him that he should sell all his stuff, give it to the poor, and join up with Jesus and the rest of the disciples.  It is challenging.  As I wrestled through the passage with the congregation, a voice shouted out from the middle of the room, “Amen!  Amen!”

The voice was “Chilly Willy,” one of Charlotte’s most colorful street personalities.  I was excited to hear an “Amen” and then I was startled.  What brought him to our church on this day?  He had been before, but for him to be sitting not in the back, but right in the middle as this particular text was read made the reality of the divides we live in more striking.  “Chilly Willy” was a man that challenged me.  He challenged me because I didn’t always have a good answer for him.   There were no eyes that could avert his presence on this Sunday because he was making his presence known. He refused to be ignored. I am thankful he was with us on that day, but I would be lying if I didn’t also share that it was a challenge.

After the service had concluded, I was standing at the front door and he approached me to tell me that he enjoyed my message.  He shared with me that his father was a minister and then broke the conversation we were in to look at me and say, “If I didn’t hear you preach, I would never believe anyone as pretty as you was a preacher.  If I can ever get cleaned up, would you do me the honor of marrying me?”  I smiled and laughed awkwardly and we parted ways.  Later on he found me in my office and shared he needed a ride.  One of our members volunteered to get him back to Moore House where he had found housing and that was the last I heard of “Chilly Willy.”

I read in the paper the next week that he had been hit by a car.  Chilly Willy died four days after I sat with him–four days.  Though he challenged me, I was thankful that he was with us the day I was preaching on that text.  I needed to see the chains of his life and the chains of mine and I needed to be with him.  I didn’t have an answer for him.  I didn’t know what to do about the fact that he wasn’t allowed on the bus anymore for his drunken-ness,  I wished he hadn’t asked me to marry him with stale liquor on his breath, for then I might have just driven him home myself.  Instead, a “male” someone else did.

There are people who stay with you–moments spent with them that linger.  Even before I learned of Chilly Willy’s death, the time with him lingered.  I don’t think I am the only one who had these moments with him.  I believe his life was hauntingly prophetic in a painfully broken way.  I believe this man who refused to be ignored, shook many of us from the realities that we live with every day.  We have the choice to avert our eyes–we can stay on the other side of the street and not know about the broken-ness, the pain, and the certain joys that filled his life and the lives of many others like him.

As I shared this story with a Sunday School class the week after Chilly Willy’s death, a man in the class said with conviction, “Michelle…I think what you are saying is it is important for us to be available?”  Yes–Yes–this is what I believe I was trying to say, to be available in a moment is something I believe Jesus calls us to and it was something he called the Rich Man to.  He called him to be wholly available for the life God was calling him to.  He called the man to join a journey that would drag him through valleys and propel him on top of mountains–a journey that would fill him with such purpose and hope that he would find it JOY to live this way, no matter the cost.

Do we say, “yes” to this?  Do we?  Do we avert our gaze when Jesus asks too much from us?  I recognized with Chilly Willy that he was a witness to me–an invitation to be more available…  Isn’t this the gift of it all for us–that the God of the Heavens and the Earth chose to make himself more available to us–in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we find God with us.  As I celebrate the gift of a new year, I hope that Jesus continues to interrupt my life with characters that refuse to be ignored. My hope and my prayer is that I will not avert my gaze, but that I will understand the gift it is to simply be with some of the others that God created in God’s own image…the gift is simply to be…

I celebrate on this “All Saints Day”–my birthday, the gift of time spent with a man who taught me how important it is to be available, Mr. “Chilly Willy” who was born into this world under the name of William Major.


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