Living Our Spiritual Gifts: The Challenge of Carl
Once in a great while God grants us the opportunity not only to hear the gospel, but also to meet it incarnate. For me, one such experience materialized in the form of a huge, lovable, mountain of a man named Carl.
Carl was a middle-aged single man, independently wealthy, magnanimous, friendly, and deeply devoted to God. Carl stood fully seven-foot tall, wide as a doorway, with a bushy beard — reminiscent of Bluto from the old Popeye comic strip. After a troubled childhood and a stormy adolescence, Carl experienced a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ. Out of deep gratitude for his own salvation, Carl committed his life to introducing Christ to those he met.
Carl found his way to the small United Methodist church I served. This two-century-old congregation coasted through its entire existence protected from much change or growth. Most of the members of the church were lifelong members from community families. Newcomers found themselves held at arm's length by an unseen force that effectively separated outsiders from insiders. No one was unfriendly or unwelcoming. They simply let newcomers enter in so far and no farther. Carl seemed oblivious to this force, and he welcomed himself into our church family.
From his very first Sunday with us, Carl made his presence known. This gentle giant arrived at church and strode down the aisle to the front pew and slid in. This became Carl's seat. I still remember the sweet older ladies behind Carl who craned their necks and strained to see around his hulking mass. Carl sat smiling, committing his full attention to the service of worship. The majority of the congregation committed its attention to Carl.
Over time, this small congregation embraced Carl in spite of itself. He was so friendly, kind, generous, and lovable that he was met, first with tolerance, but soon with real affection. In no time at all, Carl "belonged." However, Carl was not content to find a church just for himself. Carl was committed to bringing "friends" with him; and every person Carl ever met, he considered a friend.
Carl and I once had a long conversation about Christian discipleship and spiritual gifts. Through our time together, we determined that Carl's gifts were evangelism, exhortation, and shepherding. He operated from a deep heart-servant center, and he was a pleaser. Carl had no greater desire than to care for others in Christian love. As he drove around town in his powder blue Toyota Tercel (imagine a compact car driven by Smokey the Bear . . .), he kept his eyes peeled for opportunities to meet people and invite them to church. He once said, "God gave me a car with four seats in it, so it would be poor stewardship to show up at church with one of the seats empty." And so Carl made good on his stewardship. No Sunday passed where Carl did not usher in a trio of "new friends" to his favorite pew up front. Generally, none of Carl's "friends" knew one another. In fact, it is unlikely they would one another other apart from Carl's influence. Homeless people, lawyers, teachers, Korean short-order cooks, doctors, and college students found themselves riding together in Carl's car on their way to church. With the invitation to attend worship came the promise of a meal afterward. Carl remarked, "Food is the single most important tool for evangelism." No one could ever predict whom Carl would latch onto next.
Some of Carl's friends found a home in our congregation, although many did not. Longtime members were often distressed about the people Carl invited. They saw disruptions to their comfort where Carl saw children of God. Carl, they could accept; it was Carl's "friends" who caused them problems.
One Sunday following worship, I re-entered the sanctuary to find an impromptu caucus assembled by the piano. As I approached the group, one woman nearly shouted: "What are we going to do about Carl?!" I stood gaping at this woman, struck silent by the anger and passion with which she spoke. Although I knew there was discomfort in the congregation, I had no idea of the depth of feeling about what Carl was doing. I experienced Carl as a breath of fresh air and a way to challenge our complacency, but others perceived him as a threat to our community.
The impassioned woman continued, "You have to do something about Carl. This has got to stop. He needs to learn how we do things here."
I looked from face to face and saw the fire of defiance in the eyes of many longtime members. I wanted to say so many things, but I chose to hold my tongue. Nothing would be gained by my responding in anger. I withdrew to give myself time to craft an appropriate response. I knew I needed to talk to Carl, and I knew that I would need to address the members of the congregation who were feeling anger, fear, disease, as well as narrow-mindedness and judgement.
God, fate, and Carl intervened before I took action. The following Sunday, I prepared to lead worship. Relying on the sixth chapter of Luke, I was ready to preach a sermon entitled "Release to the Captives," a message about how our own shortsightedness and personal comfort can lead us to a kind of bondage that prevents us from being fully Christian. I laid my bulletin on the pulpit, took my seat on the "throne" — a ghastly, ornate chair that dated back to the time of Moses — and surveyed the congregation. To my surprise, the front pew was empty. Without fail, Carl had arrived each week fifteen minutes before the service with his entourage in tow. As the prelude ended, I stood to issue the call to worship. In the back of my mind, I wondered if someone from the congregation had taken it upon himslef or herself to speak with Carl. I dismissed the thought; because even if someone had spoken to Carl, he probably would not have been dissuaded from attending worship.
We launched into a hearty rendition of "Ask Ye What Great Thing I Know" as our processional hymn, and the choir moved forward to fill the loft. Everyone was in place by the end of the third verse, and we were about to embark on the fourth verse when the doors at the rear of the sanctuary burst inward. The fourth verse quickly became an instrumental as people stopped singing to gawk. In marched Carl followed by seventeen inmates and four armed guards from the Mountainview Correctional Facility. The prisoners were in prison uniforms and leg irons. Carl ushered them forward to the first few pews, asking folks to "scrunch over" where necessary. As the final organ strains of the hymn faded away, silence fell upon the assembly. I looked down at the bulletin on the pulpit, my attention riveted to the sermon, "Release to the Captives." God moves in mysterious ways.
Carl's "prison ministry" brought everything to a head. I fielded dozens of phone calls and visits in the first twenty-four hours after the service. Carl himself came by on Wednesday — at my invitation — and said, with tears in his eyes, that he thought it might be a good idea for him to look for another church. He no longer felt welcome, and he didn't think anyone else shared his passion for evangelism. He didn't want to make people uncomfortable, and he couldn't stand the feeling that people didn't like him. Twisting a baseball cap in both his mammoth hands, Carl looked me in the eye and asked, "What did I do wrong?" Carl moved on to other congregations, but none was able to honor his wonderful gifts. He never found a church where he fit in. I received word a few years ago that Carl had passed away. Rarely a week goes by that I don't feel remorse and a deep sense that I let Carl — and the entire congregation I served — down. I'm ashamed that there wasn't a place for Carl in a church I pastored.
Reflect on these questions individually and with other leaders in your congregation:
- How do we receive people who are different from us?
- Who are the Carls in our congregation? In our community?
- How do we honor the gifts that God gives that make us unique? What are the gifts that are foreign to our current reality? How would we benefit from gifts other than those predominant in our current leadership?
- How do we learn to value the varieties of gifts, spiritual types, leadership interaction styles, and passions of an ever-expanding community of faith? In what ways do we think in terms of "normal" spiritualities or "right" gifts as a way of validating the status quo?
- How do we help everyone embrace diversity as a source of strength and vitality rather than as a threat and a problem? How do we explore diversity beyond issues of race and gender to include spiritual preferences, unique giftedness, and behavioral styles?
These are critically important questions to wrestle with as United Methodist congregational leaders.
*Dan is director of connectional ministries for the Wisconsin Annual Conference. He is the coauthor of Equipped for Every Good Work.