This was going to be about bears.
Grizzlies, in fact. I was thinking about Pastor Luke’s message about the love of God. I thought of hiking in wild places, because it reminds me not only of God’s infinite grandeur, but also his infinite love. There’s a lot there to write about.
Some other time.
Thursday night changed my plans, because God’s love shone brightly on display at 715 West State Street. For the first time in 15 months, Rockford Rescue Mission held a Restoration Celebration, honoring graduates of its Life Recovery Program.
Even with a reduced capacity because of COVID, the room was filled with people of assorted races, social and economic strata. You rarely see a group like this under one roof … including the roof of a typical American church. Everyone was here for someone they love. Someone they’ve prayed for, agonized for. Moms and dads for their sons or daughters. Kids for their mom or dad. Siblings, friends, employers, all thanking God together. It was one of those earthly glimpses into the kingdom of God.
Our culture might have considered these 10 graduates to be throwaway people, beaten down by life and hard circumstances — some out of their control and some of their own choosing. At one time, many of them wanted to die, so the pain would end. Now, during the long road of recovery, they revel in their infinite value to God.
It’s hard to fully appreciate the love of God from a position of pride, or comfort. From a place of suffering, redemption and restoration, it fills your entire field of view. The most grateful people I know are those whom God has delivered from some of the harshest stories I’ve ever heard.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character produces hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. — Romans 5:3-5
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. — Romans 5:8
Bible verses like these carry a whole new meaning when you’ve walked through fire. Or when we stop treating our faith less as an accessory and more as our deepest identity. The author Brennan Manning once wrote, “Define yourself radically as one beloved by God.”
God’s love personified
The Mission’s staff and volunteers pour love into the lives of their guests and residents. Food and shelter for starters, then spiritual guidance, job training, restoration. It’s the love of God, given through people filled with his Holy Spirit. None of this is transactional; the Mission doesn’t charge for any of its services. There’s nothing tangible the people can give in return, because most of them came here with nothing.
Extending God’s love to hurting, broken people is risky. There will be disappointments. Danger. Rejection. Even some Mission graduates turn back toward destruction. Just last year, a young man I had interviewed before another one of these events, and who appeared to be doing great, died of a drug overdose.
But the victories are joyful beyond belief. Take a few minutes to watch some of Thursday’s graduates tell their stories.
“When you share your stories, here’s what happens. The church comes together,” the Mission’s retired chaplain, Dave Aldridge of Bethany Presbyterian Church, told the graduates Thursday. “And we need the church to come together right now something fierce.”
“God has given you a testimony. And it’s hard to share, but when you start sharing the truth, what happens? The kingdom of God shows up and just explodes on the scene. When you remember the Lord, you help us remember. And the church of God comes alive.”
Would you take time today to pray for these new graduates as they walk back into the world? For Nicole, Sheila, Bobbie, Fern, Kirstie, Charles, Anthony, Carl, Nate and Randy? You could pray this for them and for those who will know their stories:
And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. — Ephesians 3:17-19
Feel free to ask me sometime about the grizzlies. It’s a good story. Not as good as this one, though.