I just finished my 26th year as a chaplain for the Tulsa State Fair. I look forward each year to this ministry as it allows me to walk, hug and love on the people Jesus came to die for.
For 20 years, I served on a church staff. I don’t know when or how it happened, but the longer I was on staff, the fewer lost people I knew. I was surrounded by believers in every area of my life. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s not a good thing, either.
Jesus has called us to be salt. Adding a grain of salt to a salt shaker doesn’t make it any saltier. In fact, salt doesn’t do much of anything until it is shaken out. Only then does it make a difference. But most grains of salt like hanging out with each other, and we’re always interested in what the latest and greatest salt shakers are doing. We have salt conventions where we discuss how to become saltier. We recognize the head shakers, everybody applauds and we all go back home to the salt mines to give reports on how we were motivated to become better salt.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not criticizing salt conventions. I’m just confessing where I found myself one day when I woke up and realized there had to be more than life in a salt shaker. If I didn’t get out soon, a phenomenon called clumping would take place. This happens when we as grains of salt become so entangled with each other that we can no longer leave the shaker. My grandma used to put rice in her salt shaker to prevent clumping. And I didn’t want to be a clumper; no, sir!
That’s when I decided to become intentional in developing relationships with people outside the church. And these were relationships not only outside the church but also with people who had no clue about Jesus, the kind who live in the “highways and byways,” as Jesus would call them.
Engaging with lost people does make life interesting. By the time I’ve made my first round on the midway at the Tulsa State Fair, I’ve dealt with the breaking of every one of the Ten Commandments. In fact, I’m not sure the people I talk to haven’t broken a couple of commandments the Bible doesn’t list.
My carnie friends tell me about things that would make a sailor blush, using words my grandmother never heard. But when you talk to people who are walking in the darkness and living in the world, what do you expect?
On my first day as a chaplain, all I do is listen. Everyone seems to have a laundry list of problems. While they take a smoke break, I listen to them talk about being conned out of their paycheck and harassed by the police, their children getting in trouble, suffering from a lack of funds, discovering a mate cheating with their best friend and the list goes on. After listening for hours, I just want them to know two things: they matter to God, and they matter to me. Period. No agenda, no judgments, no sermons. Just two simple truths.
By the middle of the week, as I make round after round (I wish I knew how many miles I’ve walked over these past 26 years), something begins to happen. I walk by a booth where you can toss a ping-pong ball into a fishbowl and win a goldfish. When I first met the lady who runs the booth, she told me she was a person of prayer: “I pray over the dead fish every morning.” I’m not sure what a prayer for dead fish consists of, but bless her heart, she’s trying.
I’ve visited with this woman many times, but last week, as I walked by, I heard her yell, “Chaplain!” As I drew near, she leaned out of her booth, grabbed my neck and began to weep. She’d gotten a call that her 15-year-old son had been arrested for both shoplifting and having possession of an illegal substance.
I asked where her son was. She named a city where I know the pastor of the First Salt Shaker. As she stood there, I made a call. I asked one of the grains of salt to go see her son.
She felt so relieved that we had not only loved her, but assisted her with a need as well. When salt takes the trouble to leave the shaker, it makes a difference. And I could tell you story after story how God can use a grain of salt when He sprinkles it across the world.
I’m just glad God gave me that opportunity before I became a clumper.