Life is Wild: God is Good
Indianapolis First Friends Quaker Meeting
Pastor Bob Henry
July 14, 2019
Psalm 27 (Message)
Light, space, zest—
So, with him on my side I’m fearless,
afraid of no one and nothing.
2 When vandal hordes ride down
ready to eat me alive,
Those bullies and toughs
fall flat on their faces.
3 When besieged,
I’m calm as a baby.
When all hell breaks loose,
I’m collected and cool.
4 I’m asking God for one thing,
only one thing:
To live with him in his house
my whole life long.
I’ll contemplate his beauty;
I’ll study at his feet.
5 That’s the only quiet, secure place
in a noisy world,
The perfect getaway,
far from the buzz of traffic.
6 God holds me head and shoulders
above all who try to pull me down.
I’m headed for his place to offer anthems
that will raise the roof!
Already I’m singing God-songs;
I’m making music to God.
7-9 Listen, God, I’m calling at the top of my lungs:
“Be good to me! Answer me!”
When my heart whispered, “Seek God,”
my whole being replied,
“I’m seeking him!”
Don’t hide from me now!
9-10 You’ve always been right there for me;
don’t turn your back on me now.
Don’t throw me out, don’t abandon me;
you’ve always kept the door open.
My father and mother walked out and left me,
but God took me in.
11-12 Point me down your highway, God;
direct me along a well-lighted street;
show my enemies whose side you’re on.
Don’t throw me to the dogs,
those liars who are out to get me,
filling the air with their threats.
13-14 I’m sure now I’ll see God’s goodness
in the exuberant earth.
Stay with God!
Take heart. Don’t quit.
I’ll say it again:
Stay with God.
Today, we kick off Vacation Bible School after lunch in our fellowship hall. I am so excited to interact with nearly 30 children from First Friends and Cross and Crown Lutheran as they travel to an “African” safari setting to ROAR and learn how Life is Wild and God is Good.
I love that tag line – Life is Wild: God is Good. That summarizes it well. As did those final words from our scriptures for this morning.
I’m sure now I’ll see God’s goodness
in the exuberant earth.
Stay with God!
Take heart. Don’t quit.
I’ll say it again:
Stay with God.
As I have been pondering all of this, I realized I have not had a safari experience (except maybe at Disney’s Animal Kingdom - but that doesn’t really count). I haven’t really faced lions, giraffes, yaks, rhinoceroses, except in the zoo which usually is pretty safe. Well, as I was thinking about the phrase Life is Wild: God is Good, I was reminded of an experience I will never forget. It definitely shows how Life is Wild and God is Good.
My story starts one Christmas Eve in 2002, after the Candle Light Service at the Anglican Church I was pastoring in Rochester Hills, Michigan. Our deacon, also named Bob, noticed a familiar face among our packed church. It happened to be a social work client of his who was dying from Hepatitis C. As we greeted the worshippers at the back door (just as I do here each Sunday), Deacon Bob introduced me to Jack Coe. Jack seemed to be a quiet man, but very gracious and glad to have joined us. I sensed it had been a while since Jack had been in church. He introduced us to the woman that was with him and her child. I assumed this was Jack’s daughter, but it didn’t seem appropriate to ask at the time.
Well, Jack continued to attend on occasion and Deacon Bob met with him and checked in with him. Then one day, Deacon Bob was out of town and he asked if I would go check on Jack, pay him a visit, listen to his stories, and he said, “make sure you take him communion.” So, I called Jack, set up a time to visit, and had my vestry prepare my communion kit. I visited Jack during the week. He lived in a double-wide trailer on the outskirts of town. When I arrived the lady that I thought was his daughter was on her way out with her son. She was kind and said, “You are in for an afternoon of stories. Jack is in a good mood, today, and is looking forward to your visit.”
Jack met me at the door in an ornate smoking jacket with no shirt, jeans, and socks and sandals. His hair was still wet as if he had just taken a shower. You could tell he was excited to see me. We went into the dimly lit front room and he asked if I wanted a drink or food. I declined, so he went straight to storytelling. He told me about why he showed up on Christmas Eve. It was the first time he had stepped foot into a church since he was a young orphan living at Starr Commonwealth For Boys - a place similar to Boys Town. From what he said, he and his brother never really knew their parents and they were sent at young ages to live at the Commonwealth. Several years after he ran away from the Commonwealth, he and several other young men decided to join a motorcycle gang. He said he was mad at the world and needed a family. So, Jack joined one of the roughest motorcycle gangs around – The Outlaws.
At this point, I had never heard of the Outlaws. I had heard of Hell’s Angels and those bike gangs you used to see on the T.V. show, Chips, but that was the extent of my knowledge. Jack continued on as though I knew what bike gangs were all about. He told me one wild story after another as though he was trying to see what would actually surprise me. He explained how he moved up the ranks of the Outlaws, and described his drinking habits, drug addictions, wild living (remember “Life is Wild”), motorcycle accidents (he showed me the scars for proof), gun fights, knife fights (he showed me his knife collection in the beautiful Asian-style case on his wall) and then almost on a dime he sighed…sat down on the couch looking exhausted and said, “…then I was done with all of that. Well kinda, since the Outlaws never let you out.”
It was then that Jack rolled up the right sleeve of his smoking jacket. On his arm was a small tattoo close to his wrist. It was an old tattoo because the green/blue ink had faded and run, and I could not even make out what it said. Jack said, pointing to the ink blots, this is what will probably kill me. He then told me that when he was introduced to the Outlaws, they tattoo you as part of their initiation. He and the young men who had joined together all were tattooed with the same needle. At this point tears formed in his eyes and he said, “I am the last one alive.” Each of those boys who fled the Commonwealth and joined the gang had received Hepatitis C from the shared needle (including Jack). He went into great detail sharing how each friend suffered and died, going into such detail that it was almost unbearable the grief and pain he was experiencing. All of his friends died before they were 50.
Then he looked at me and asked, “Why am I still alive? My life has been all about suffering and pain. I don’t want this life anymore. I tried to give it up, but the Outlaws don’t let you. Once an Outlaw always an Outlaw.” Jack paused and then said, “That is why I am helping that young lady and her son who left the house when you arrived.” See, to make money Jack explained that he was given a strip club to manage by a fellow Outlaw friend. This gave him steady pay and a sense of normalcy. One night that young lady, who was a stripper in his club, came up to him scared to death. She was not only a stripper but a prostitute as well and she had just found out that she was pregnant. Jack explained that when pimps find out one of his girls are pregnant they are done and often they get beat or sometimes lose their life. She was rightly scared.
Jack said at that moment, something inside him said, “This is your opportunity to do something right.” At first, he thought it was the booze talking since most days he spent drunk or at least buzzed, but that day he realized it was God speaking to him. He sensed God was good because he had saved him from the cruel deaths of his friends at much younger ages. So, at the strip club that night, Jack told God that he would take care of the stripper and her child.
He sold the strip club, went on disability, moved into the double wide and invited the stripper and her new born son into his home. In the coming years, with the money he made off the strip club, he helped get her a stable job and a decent car and sent the boy to school. He treated them like his own kids (thus the reason I thought she was his daughter – also please note I am not using their names because they are still alive).
Well, by now, Jack was ready for me to speak and asked me to lead us in communion. I took out my kit and found that there were no small cups for the wine. Jack, without missing a beat, ran over to his cupboard and retrieved two plastic medicine cups – with a smile he said, “Well, its medicine for the soul.” We communed, prayed, and Jack was ready for a nap, so I left.
I went and visited Jack on several other occasions and he attended church a handful more times. Until one evening, I received a phone call from Deacon Bob. Jack had passed from this life. The Hepatitis C had finally won. As I tried to process Jack’s passing, Deacon Bob mentioned something else, “Jack wants us to do his funeral.” I quickly agreed and said we would do whatever.
Well, a couple of days later, Deacon Bob and I received the details for the funeral. The funeral would take place at the Outlaw Headquarters of Detroit at 11pm (yes, 11pm in the evening) on a Thursday night. I remember it was a Thursday night because my day off was Friday and I had a lot to process that day.
The night of the funeral came and Deacon Bob picked me up in his truck to head into uncharted territory. We both had clerical collars on and pectoral crosses hanging around our necks. I remember it being very cold that night. The windchill was 8 below in Detroit. Bob and I went early to check out where we were going. I was assuming a nice hall with parking, but as we arrived at the block on which the Outlaw headquarters was on, we saw no building, lights were all broken out, and it looked rather daunting.
Then Deacon Bob exclaimed, “There it is.” A fifteen-foot wall appeared with a large Outlaw logo (the skull and pistons as they call it) reading “Outlaws” in big red and black letters. At the top of the wall was razor wire and we could see the roof of a building. The only light was coming from what looked like a giant fire within the wall. Then Deacon Bob and I noticed two men with large shot guns on top of the roof. Folks, this looked like a war zone we were entering. We passed what we now called “the fortress” and retreated several blocks back to a Tim Horton’s to rethink what we were doing.
We both pondered whether we would ever see our families again over a donut and coffee. But in the end, Deacon Bob and I realized we had to do this for Jack. (Life is Wild sometimes but God is good.)
After gathering up our courage, we returned to the truck, made a phone call to our Outlaw host, and found him waiting for us at the back of the wall of the fortress where there was a large sliding door. We pulled up. The man said, “You must be the preacher men, I will take care of your truck for you. It is rather cold out here.” So far so good. We hopped out and he opened the large sliding door and told us to follow along the inside of the wall to the side door. There we would knock and wait for someone to invite us in. As we made our way around the inner wall, we found ourselves amidst cages with ravenous fighting dogs, walls covered in weaponry of all sorts – looking like a scene from medieval times, and a large bonfire, which we became concerned would become the crematorium for Jack’s remains.
We approached the door, knocked, (and just as on T.V.) a little sliding door opened, and we saw two eyes peering through asking us if we were the “preacher men.” We said yes, and the door slowly opened and before us was an interesting sight. The room was about half the size of our fellowship hall. Down the middle was a huge table – maybe three 8 foot tables long and two or three wide completely covered with foods – like a giant pitch in (not what I expected from a bunch of biker guys). My eyes followed the table to the front where Jack was laid out in his open casket.
His casket sat against the wall between two large round restaurant booths filled with the Outlaw leaders. Above his casket, hung a large sign with the Outlaw logo with lists of the names of the gang members with check marks behind their name, what we would come to find represented people they had killed. We were escorted to the casket by a younger Outlaw who was asked to host us. Jack’s casket was open. He had a 5th of Jack Daniels gripped in his hand (something he gave up about 15 years ago), quarters over his eyes, and business cards filled the entire casket from Outlaw leaders from all over the world. These were new traditions that Deacon Bob and I had never seen.
After we visited Jack’s casket, we were escorted over to another table filled with stacks of photo albums. The young Outlaw was so excited to show us photos of Jack and his Outlaw life. Jack seemed almost a hero to this young man. As we looked, I noticed a photo of Jack with some country music stars. This is when I put it together -- Jack always talked about his brother David (his only real family). As I looked at the photos, I realized Jack’s brother was the singer David Allen Coe of “Take This Job and Shove It” fame.
While I was taking a look at the photos, another younger Outlaw came up and asked to see my pectoral cross. He said, “Man, I love your cross.” He then proceeded to pull one at least twice the size from the shirt underneath his leather vest. He told me that his Irish grandma gave it to him and it protects him (literally) from gun shots. He then told us his family story through his various tattoos.
As we were taking a look at the tattoos, a grumpier older Outlaw came up and gave us some directions for the service.
1. No scripture readings.
2. No talking about Jesus.
3. Just tell us about Jack.
Deacon Bob’s entire job that night was to share several scripture passages that Jack loved. He leaned over and asked, “What should I do?” I told him he will know. I was thinking about what I was going to say as well. I had written out my thoughts, but nothing seemed right for the current setting. Plus, I will be honest, I was a bit uncomfortable saying anything with about 150 rough looking men and some women looking at me – knowing they all had weapons on them. How did I know? Well, most as them introduced themselves by flashing their piece or showing us the handle of their knife, and then shaking our hands. We had several men tell us we should never have come – I think it was all to build their ego and our fear.
Well about 11:45pm, the Outlaws gathered, and the leader pointed at us to start. Deacon Bob began by telling a story of how he met Jack through being his social worker. He then proceeded to say how much Jack loved to read. And before I knew it, Deacon Bob had shared Jack’s favorite scriptures without saying where they came from – no one but he and I knew.
Now it was my turn. Just as I was about to speak, an Outlaw said in a gruff tone, “Make sure to keep it short preacher man.” He was sitting on top of the illegal gambling machines that were covered up and lined the wall. I started by telling them about my long talks with Jack. How I learned about his difficult life and upbringing, and how he always took care of people (I got some nods of agreement from the Outlaws), I also told them how I saw God in his actions and life. They all gasped when I said I met him for the first time at church. And they laughed out loud when I told them the story of Jack running to get the medicine cups to use for communion and how he said it was “medicine for the soul.” Finally, after I finished, several of the Outlaws shared their remembrances of Jack (almost in waiting worship manner).
By the time I was done, Deacon Bob and I sensed the presence of God in that wild place. The stripper, her son, and her parents were all there and came up to thank us and ask us what we thought of having the funeral at this place. Her parents then told us that earlier, Jack’s casket was put on a trailer and pulled behind one of the Outlaw’s choppers through the streets of Detroit. It was a tradition that they would have a huge procession and the rival gangs would take shots at the casket when they drove by at 80-90 mph. (Remember the wind chill that day was 8 below.)
Well, after we said our goodbyes, the Outlaws escorted us past the large bar at the end of the room where the bartender made a remark that we should not be let out – we laughed and continued through the side door and back into the walled area outside the meeting space. My heart was pounding. There we were again greeted by the man who parked Deacon Bob’s truck. He opened the huge wall entrance and there was the truck started, warmed up and ready to go.
We said very little on the way home. At one point, we tried to take an inventory of what all we had seen, but it was simply overwhelming. It still is. But today, I recognize that even when life seems pretty wild – God is always good. I believe God gave Deacon Bob and I the right words and attitudes in that wild place, but even more God had given us the eyes to see that of God in our brother Jack.
Where is my life a little wild, currently? How am I seeing God as good in the midst? Who do I have a hard time seeing that of God within?