Storefront preacher exhibits grace

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I ran into Randy Riggs last week.

It’s been a few years since I’ve seen him, and every time I do he oozes God.

The rest of this column is a rerun of what I wrote about my first encounter with him in October 2000:

I don’t know Randy Riggs well, but I love him with all my heart. That’s because God used him to whack me over the head when I needed whacking.
Sometimes God does that.

I first met Randy several years ago, and immediately pegged him as “not like me.” That’s OK now, but back then, being not like me made him wrong.

He’s a country preacher with a slow, Southern drawl. He quotes scripture and lives by faith; trusting God to provide for all his needs.

Not like me.

At the time I met him, he pastored a minuscule storefront church. No air conditioning, out in the middle of nowhere. I pictured metal folding chairs, an out-of-tune piano.

Not like my church.

For years, he’d call and tell me about his ministry, hoping I’d write a story in the paper. However, I kept putting him off. I didn’t think he’d be around very long, that his ministry would fold or whatever happens to those people who aren’t like me.

Then, one week, my scheduled Religion page story fell through. In a panic, I called Randy, and made it sound like I’d wanted to do a story about him all along, and I arranged to meet him at McDonald’s.

I arrived in all my benevolent smugness, prepared to fake sincerity as I conducted our interview. I was there to get a story, fill a page and maybe make a simple country preacher’s day.

I didn’t expect God to show up.

As Randy sat there and told me about how God had redeemed him, tears came to his eyes. He told me about the stigma attached to storefront ministries and how some people didn’t consider ministers like him “real” preachers. But sure as he sat there, he knew he’d been called to search the “hedges and the bushes, the highways and the byways” for the hidden and hurt of our community.

He found turkeys for them to eat on Thanksgiving. He found them clothing and showered them with the mercy of God. He cried with them, prayed for them.

He loved them — and I didn’t.

In all his simpleness and simplicity, Randy was right, and I, in my arrogance and pride, was wrong. So wrong about who God can use.

He loved God, and I knew he even loved (wrong) people like me who (wrongly) snicker at poor storefront churches and country preachers like him.

Jesus told the snooty religious people of his day, “When you snicker at Randy Riggs, you snicker at me” (Matthew 25:45, my paraphrase).

I sat there stricken; there’s no other word for it. Never before or since have I met a minister who radiated the love of God as this man did.

That’s when God whacked me. Not in a bad way, although it stung. I couldn’t wait to get out of there, but when I opened my mouth to finish up the interview, I ended up confessing all my wrongness to Randy, about Randy.

He knew, but he loved me anyway.

Funny, isn’t it? When you think you’re so right, but you’re not, you cling to whatever makes you feel important and powerful. And then God shows up, drinking a cup of coffee in McDonald’s, speaking slow and Southern-style. He lets you know that he knows what you think, but because you belong to Christ, he loves you anyway and doesn’t hold anything against you.

When God shows up and simply loves you in all your wrongness, all your petty rightness shrinks before your eyes. That’s when you see there’s only one right way, the way of mercy and grace. There’s only one right person, and it’s not you.

It’s Jesus.

Then when you’ve been in his presence long enough to experience his grace, you let go of the need to be right, because it’s no longer important.

What’s important is going out and extending the mercy and grace you’ve been given, even to those you think are wrong, because now you know you’re wrong, too.

Wrong, but in Christ — forgiven.

Nancy Kennedy is the author of “Move Over, Victoria - I Know the Real Secret,” “Girl on a Swing,” and her latest book, “Lipstick Grace.” She can be reached at 352-564-2927, Monday through Thursday, or via e-mail at nkennedy@chronicleonline.com.