Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’.
John, a friend of mine from a weekly Bible study we shared, traveled to D.C. every year for the National Prayer Breakfast. He was a volunteer there, one of the many who worked behind the scenes to make sure the gathering of world political and religious leaders went smoothly.
At these breakfasts John was able to meet Doug Coe, the leader of the group that organizes the prayer breakfast. Coe is one of the most influential and well-connected people that no one has ever heard of; he meets regularly with presidents, legislators, and diplomats the world over as sort of a self-appointed ambassador for Jesus. Your country is facing an economic crisis, and you need advice? What would Jesus do. Embroiled in a civil war? Doesn’t matter, as long as you have Jesus.
John related a story he heard at one of these breakfasts, in which Doug told his personal story of how he had become a Christian and went to work for Billy Graham, serving as one of his top men before moving on to his current role as ambassador and prayer breakfast leader. “And then,” Doug said, “I met Jesus.”
“What?!” said John, explaining his reaction. “What does he mean, ‘and then he met Jesus’? This guy already believed in Christ, and he was second-in-command to Billy Graham for all those years, organizing those huge revivals where thousands would come and be saved. And then he met Jesus?”
“He said it like they had met on the street one day, and shook hands. Like he actually met Jesus, and took him out to lunch.”
“Well, what do you think he meant by that?” I asked. “Do you think he was talking about, what is it, in Matthew, where Jesus says that ‘whatever you do for the least of these, you do also for me’?”
“I don’t know,” said John. “I don’t know what he meant. I just know I left there thinking, man, I hope someday I can say that I met Jesus, the way he did.”
A week after the Labor Day retreat, I was heading to our church’s monthly Sunday evening worship and prayer service when I received a call on my cell phone.
It was Derrick.
He was at the Forest Lane transit station, and had somehow missed the bus he needed to take to get to the church building. He wondered if I could come pick him up.
I looked at my watch. It was 5:29, one minute before the service started, and I was just pulling in to the church parking lot. Why does he always have to be such a bother? After a short internal debate, though, I agreed to drive back and pick him up.
We were therefore rather late getting to the service, and arrived right when people were splitting up into small groups to pray. There was no time to find people I knew, so Derrick and I ended up with a group of mostly strangers near the back of the room.
One person, who happened to be on staff at the church, explained to Derrick and anyone else who might be new how the process worked: that we would each pray in turn, working our way through a list of topics printed in the program. I looked around the circle and grinned sheepishly, mentally apologizing for having brought Derrick into their group. Most of them probably did not know Derrick, and had no idea what they were in for.
The first time around the circle, Derrick went into a long liturgy covering everything that was on his mind: work, friends, his Grandmother’s health, and life in general. I simply thanked God for all of the people He had brought into my life to teach me in different ways, hoping somehow that the other people in the group would understand that I was asking them to treat Derrick as a learning opportunity.
Everyone prayed in order around the circle, and then it got back to Derrick. I wondered if he would be able to think of anything else to pray for, after his long initial first offering. Indeed, his shorter second prayer included a humble-sounding “I don’t know what to say.” But, as he prayed for things such as an end to his stuttering and the ability to work faster at his Goodwill job, it occurred to me that we were supposed to be more like that—more childlike, more trusting and honest.
One girl in the prayer group, Courtney, had been with us at the Labor Day retreat and was familiar with Derrick’s story. When it was her turn to pray, she gave thanks for “Kevin’s love for Derrick and Derrick’s love for Kevin”, and how that demonstrated to her the kind of “agape” love we are supposed to have for each other. Oh no, I thought. Don’t give him any ideas. I don’t even like the guy, even if my actions toward him could be considered love, and I didn’t want Derrick to think that we were friends or that I enjoyed being with him. That might just encourage him to call on me more.
It suddenly occurred to me just how poorly I had treated Derrick, at least in my mind—and occasionally in my actions toward him, though in his naiveté he never picked up on it. I usually rued the time and trouble he cost me, and cursed him under my breath.
I thought back to a few times in the past, when I had secretly wished that someone would notice that I was helping Derrick, and think that I was a swell guy for doing so. Now it was really happening. I was receiving praise. And I realized that I did not deserve any of it.
Taking the cue from Courtney, Derrick started praying for his “best friend Kevin”. He repeated the phrase several times, each an odd sort of dagger to me. He prayed for my well-being, that God would help me do well at my job, and in general asked for blessings on my life. I held back tears, thankful that everyone had their heads bowed and eyes closed.
The really odd thought, though, was the realization that I had Derrick praying for me. Somehow, that seemed backwards. After all, Derrick is the one who needs the help, right? Isn’t that the way prayer worked? I couldn’t think of any instance in which I would need help from him, or in which he would even be able to help.
Of course, that’s not how things work, as I realized even then. The power of a prayer doesn’t come from the person himself. Jesus seemed to value childlike faith, so maybe Derrick’s childlike prayer would even be valued higher than others. And there are a few verses that state even Jesus and the Holy Spirit pray for us, on our behalf. I never fully understood what that looked like, or how God could pray to Himself, but it was humbling and awe-inspiring to think that I had such people on my side. God, Jesus, and…Derrick. Mr. “the least of these” himself. Derrick the Jesus.
After the service, Derrick asked me if I could take him to the bus station. Earlier, I had suggested to him that I would probably not have time to take him all the way to his house—not because I didn’t have the time, but just because I didn’t want to spend the time in that way.
Now, though, I told him not to worry about the bus station; I would gladly drive him all the way home. It was not that big a sacrifice, giving up an hour or so of my time and a couple of gallons of gas. After all, I was his best friend.
One Sunday morning, I was greeted not only by Derrick, but also by his friend Brandon. “Hey, I know you!” he yelled, upon seeing me.
“Yeah, you do.”
He was standing next to Zach, one of the Watermark guys who had gone to that first Christmas party at Derrick’s house.
“I invited him,” Zach explained, as Brandon walked off to greet other people. “I’ve been talking with him on the phone some lately.”
“Yeah. I was kind of reluctant at first, because it was so hard to understand him. You know the way he talks.”
“For real for real. But, after a while, you kind of get used to it, and get to where you can carry on a conversation. And, it’s kind of funny…well, it’s hard to explain, but…it’s really not that bad.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I know what you mean.”
That winter found me traveling much of the time, which means I wasn’t around Derrick as much. He found other people willing to drive him around and buy his lunch, and became more popular as these other people got to truly know him.
He did call me occasionally, such as the time he caught me on my cell phone in Central Park in order to ask me what I had eaten that day. He said that he missed me, but when I was back in town, I found that I was no longer needed as much by him. Instead of Derrick asking me for rides, I had to ask him if he wanted my help. And he usually turned me down, since he had other people taking care of him.
Derrick’s 25th birthday party (which, of course, was announced months in advance) was held not at his small house in west Dallas, but rather at a friend’s penthouse apartment in Uptown. Instead of 2 or 3 Watermark people showing up, 50 or 60 friends dropped by to wish him well. It was the social event of the month.
Derrick himself had not changed much. His social graces did not quite match the setting; when one girl introduced herself to him, the first words out of his mouth were “are you single?” No one seemed to mind, though; they understood that was just his way.
I greeted Derrick with a hug.
“Derrick, since it’s your birthday, I have something I want to tell you.”
“Jump in front of a truck.”
“HA HA HA HA HA!”
A few people nearby gave us odd looks. Obviously, they did not understand the joke.
That’s OK, I thought. All they need to do is to continue hanging out with Derrick. Do that, and eventually everything will start to make sense.