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The Drug Dealer and the Miracle of Hot Springs, South Dakota

May 7, 2014

I was speaking for a week in South Dakota.  Tonight, we were carrying boxes of food for the dinner at Bill’s home in the little town of Hot Springs.

“Now, I want you to pay special attention to Neal tonight,” said the pastor. “He’s been a Christian for only about, oh, two months or so, and he’s really digging in, wanting to learn how to serve, how to pray, and how to read the Bible in a way to help him grow.”

“Certainly,“ I replied.  “How did you happen to meet him?”

“He came to church, stumbling in one Sunday morning,” said the pastor, lugging a box of food.  “He’d been a drug dealer over near Pierre for a number of years and was physically falling apart from a cocaine addiction.  He was spiraling downward until at a bookstore he met a girl –  a Christian girl named Carol – who lived here in Hot Springs.  He was intrigued by her character, how she stood up to him when he1bbb made advances to her, and how she let him know of her convictions.  Carol was never impolite, he told me, but she never wavered either.”

The pastor set down the box and wiped his forehead before continuing.

“Neal was intrigued by someone who had strength, because he said that nobody he knew had any kind of backbone or convictions.  Carol did, though, and he was enamored.  She really didn’t have any romantic feelings for him, but she did befriend him.  Stunned that anyone would ever consider him to be a friend with no strings attached, he dropped everything and moved down here.   He dropped everything, that is, except his cocaine habit – he brought that to Hot Springs.”

We headed up the steps.  “But… well, I’ll tell you more later.”   He opened the door so I could carry in my box.  “Better yet, I’ll let him tell you.”

As we sat down to dinner, I looked at Neal.  He was barely over five feet tall, dressed in a suit coat and tie,  which was unusual for this rural community in the late summer.  I could tell Neal had a hard life.  His eyes were dreary, with dark bags underneath.  His hands shook at times.

“Neal,” I said as we ate, “Pastor tells me you’ve been a Christian for about two months.”

“Yes, sir,” he said, with a tone of respect, though he was only about five or six years older than me.  “I climbed out of bed one Sunday and decided that I was done with a life of indecision.  I knew drugs were killing me, sir. I wanted some firm answers, and I wanted them before I finished out the day.  There was a friend named Carol that I knew who had given me some direction on how to become a Christian, but she had moved away from Hot Springs, and I didn’t feel that I should hang on one person to get me the answers I needed.”

“I picked up a phone and started calling area churches and asking the person who answered the phone one simple question:  ‘how can I get to Heaven?’”  Neal looked down at his plate and chuckled quietly.  “Would you believe this, sir?  Four successive phone calls – they hung up on me.”

“What?”  I was amazed.  “Did they say that they were Bible-believing churches?”

“As far as what they put in the Yellow Pages,” answered Neal.  “And I began wondering: why does a church exist if it can’t answer questions about Heaven?”

“Good question,” said Bill.

“So I looked at the fifth ad in the Yellow Pages, and it was Pastor Mattish’s church.  I looked at the Sunday morning service time and knew I could make it, figuring I wouldn’t let the man go until I got some answers.  However, Pastor here gave a clear message and I made a decision that day.”

“He was serious,” said Marilyn, smiling.

“Yep,” said Neal.  “I chucked all the coke and the rest of the narcotics.  Went clean and have been that way.  Jesus made it possible, man.”

“Amazing,” I said.

“Amazing, but not unbelievable,” said Neal.  “Believe me, it happened.”

As I nodded, Neal turned to the pastor.

“Sir, I looked up the passage in Psalm 81, you know ‘Sing for joy to God our strength, begin the music.’  It also said something about God saying ‘in your distress you called and I rescued you’, and promises like that, but then it said that this was a, uh, a ‘covenant renewal liturgy’.”  He smiled and pointed at Pastor Mattish.  “I know you’re trying to get me to learn something here.  All right, tell me what it is.”

The pastor pushed aside his plate and pulled a small Bible out of his suit coat.  “Psalms 50 and 81 are both called covenant renewal liturgies, and they remind God’s people about promises of protection that he gave them in the past.  In turn, He wants them to renew their covenant of a great relationship – can I call it a dear friendship? –  and sincere worship.”

Bill nodded.  “That’s only fair.  That’s what we should be doing anyway.  I mean, like getting serious with God.”

“You’ve got the idea,” said the pastor.  “We get into church service and aim our worship to God through Jesus Christ. Psalm 81 reminds us that we don’t just go through the motions, guys.  We sing and pray and learn as a church for a reason, and that reason is to deepen our walk with God.  It should never be routine.”

Neal folded his hands in thought and looked up.  “It’s like having a birthday party just of the sake of the party, but it’d be stupid because nobody’s birthday is recognized, right?  Or like having a wedding only for the flowers and the music and the rice throwin’ – it wouldn’t make sense.   That’s like what’s wrong with a serving that doesn’t clearly point toward God.  It should really be about honoring the God we worship.  Each time.”

“You got it,” said the pastor.

“And that’s what I want, each time I come to the building,” said Neal.

The nights of the meeting went by and the people were responsive and active in the Word.  They asked questions before and after the service.  They met me at restaurants and drilled me as we chewed on A & W hamburgers and downed mugs of root beer.  They stopped by the trailer, bringing deep discussions and plans of action to reach others.  Neal was there among them in every available situation.  He had taken his week of vacation from work so that he could get everything possible from this week of meetings.  The people continued to seek and read. They wanted more than head knowledge; they wanted to feel God’s power and be used by Him.

The week fairly flew by.  On Thursday night as I concluded my message, I made a call to action.

“Tomorrow night is the final night of our meetings.  I want you to try to bring someone to tomorrow night’s meeting because I’m going to give a plain, clear John-chapter-three approach to salvation and how to get to Heaven.  How many of you will try to bring a friend, an acquaintance, or even a stranger?”

Virtually every hand went up in the room.  Neal’s hand was raised, and I could see on his face that this was a deeply serious commitment he was making.

Friday night was the final night of the meetings.  The service started at 7 p.m.  I was standing in the empty main auditorium at that exact time, totally puzzled at the lack of people, when Pastor Mattish burst through the door and yelled to me.

“You’re wondering why nobody’s come in yet, huh, Bradley?  Well, I’ve been holding them all back in the parking lot.  I want you to meet someone first!”  With that, he slammed the door shut and then re-opened it grandly.

Neal came in alongside a tall, mop-haired man with a day’s growth of beard on his face.

“Sir,” Neal said to me, gripping his Bible and gesturing to the man, “ I want you to meet Mike.”  Mike smiled warmly and even gave me a short bow.

Neal turned to look at him.  “Mike accepted Jesus as his savior five minutes ago.”  Neal turned to look at me.  “I was able to lead him to Christ myself.”

I shook hands with Mike, then took a step back and sat down on the front step of the stage.

“Neal, you’d better tell me all about it.”  Mike was grinning ear to ear.  Pastor Mattish and other people quietly slipped in the back of the auditorium, unknown to Neal, so that they could hear.

Neal stepped forward, cleared his throat and told us the story:

“Last night I was in the service, as you know, and heard you talking about reaching out to bring a lost person to the service so that they could hear about Christ.  I raised my hand and made a promise to Jesus Himself that I would bring someone.  I mean it – I promised that I would do so, since this was the last day you’d be here.  And I prayed this to Jesus Himself so I wasn’t taking this lightly.”

“So this morning I got up and jumped in my pickup and went downtown into Hot Springs. They’re having that Black Hills Gold festival and since there were thousands of people here, I pulled up into the big parking lot – it was a big field, actually – and made my way through the festival, inviting people.  I figured I could get ten or twenty people to come.  The morning went by and some people listened, other people ignored me, but nobody said they’d come.  Well, I was a bit frustrated but not discouraged.  I kept praying.  Maybe seven or eight people would be fine, I thought.  Noontime came and went, and I kept inviting people all through the festival, but still nobody wanted to come.  Now I was at the point that I would settle on two or three to come to the service.  Some people even openly mocked me, but still nobody agreed to come.  Now I was praying hard, asking for just one person to come with me.“

“The late afternoon was no better.  Not a person, not a one.  Well, I knew the service would start at seven o’clock and I knew I had to make it back here to the church on time.  I was seriously hurtin’ though.  I had spent over eight, nine hours asking people and trying to get them to understand how important this was. Nothing.”

“There was nobody in the field where the cars were parked, so I had just about given up.  I wandered back to my pickup truck in the middle of those hundreds of cars and slumped in the seat, leaving the door open and praying a heartbroken prayer:  Lord, you know I want to bring someone so they can see Your Kingdom.  Wouldn’t You send me just one person?”

“I reached out to grab my door and slam it shut when a man out of nowhere grabbed the door by the handle and asked me with an urgent voice:  ‘Mister, could you tell me how to get to Heaven?’  Well, I looked up, pretty stunned, sir.  The man told me:  ‘I went through the hell of being in the military in Viet Nam, seeing people die, and I haven’t had peace in years.  I need peace in my life and in my soul, mister.  I know I’m gonna die one day and I need to know.  Mister, could you tell me how to get to Heaven?”

He pointed to Mike, who was grinning ear to ear.

“I said to him,” continued Neal, “Brother, get yourself in the truck and I’ll take you to a man who’s going to talk about that very thing in five minutes. Well, he sure enough jumped in the cab but he said, ‘I can’t wait that long.  I need to know now.  I can’t wait five minutes.’”

Neal grinned widely.

“And so while we were driving over here, I was able to show him how to become a Christian and let Jesus take over. Can you beat that?”

Mike stood up and thumped his chest.  “I’m a new man,” he said.  “I’m a new person.”

“And you know, in another sense,” said Neal, “I am too.”

I knew what Neal meant.

As we sat on the carpet at the front of that small church with the people of the church piling in, crying and hugging, I had an astounding truth drive home into my heart and soul:

This is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

I wanted to do what Neal had just done.  I wanted to reach out to other people.

I was tired of the social- centrism of Christianity where the “big-crowd excitement” was becoming the obsession of every church at the expense of actually teaching what God would have us to know.  I had grown weary of the desire for congregations to make on-stage music the forefront of the meetings.  I was tired to seeing pastors who wanted to gain prominence and power.  I wanted none of that.

I wanted this.

No matter what my occupation or my situation in the future, I wanted to lead people to Jesus.  I wanted Christ to guide me to people – any race, any culture, any financial status, any situation – and help them see the Cross.  This was what I knew the Lord was showing me now.  I wanted to be off the stage and onto the street-level eye-to-eye work of seeing people where they were and showing them how Jesus could lift them up.

I wanted to be like Neal, who cried in his truck and begged the Lord to show him someone who was hurting and searching – and God did.

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