Sunday, Mar. 10, 2013
Gods next assignment for Joey Butler: dying
By LEE HILL KAVANAUGH
The Kansas City Star
Joey Butler woke early on his last Sunday as a preacher. And as he has done from the first time he believed God, his prayer was the same.
Whats my assignment today? Who do I need to spend time with?
But on this morning the Blue Springs pastor already knew. And it was tough.
Sometime during the Sunday service, after teaching from a Bible story, and a dozen baptisms, he would announce it. Hed look out into the familiar faces at Gateway church, take a deep breath
Not an ending, exactly, he would remind them once more hed still come to worship, volunteer where he was able but it was time to transition to Gods next assignment.
Butler, 50 years young, is not a quitter.
The biggest battle leading up to this is that Ive never quit anything in my life, he says. So I had to work through with God that Im not quitting.
He loves baseball and once dreamed of being a pitcher. He often compares the ministry to the game.
A lot of it is pouring your life out to someone, he says. Its like the count is 3-2 every time you show up. So this pitch I make, it matters. You dont get to say, Well, that didnt work for you in this situation, so can I try again?
More often than not he was facing a Sunday service or getting a call during the week, but he had no energy to give.
Sapping his strength is a stage 4 renal cell cancer that showed itself a week before Christmas 2011. The shocking diagnosis: One to three years at best. His wife, Dawn, took it hard at first.
But this past Christmas Eve when Dawn and the three children gathered for their family tradition, where they each tell what the best event was that happened in the past year, they all were in agreement.
The best thing was his cancer. Because their family is closer than ever before, and they are leaning on their faith more than ever.
This circumstance is teaching my family and friends to trust God, he says. This is not all there is. You know theres more to come after this life. This is not our final destination.
Despite an operation that took his left kidney, numerous treatments and trips to the University of Kansas Cancer Center and to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, nothing worked. He has decided there will be no more treatments.
Its been a raging hand-to-hand combat internally with discouragement. Because you know your body is not the same. It cant do things that you used to do.
What the Bible teaches is that the enemy comes to discourage you, sayin youre not worth anything. I have to remind myself every hour this is what Gods asking me to be. This is who he says I am. Not what the world or the enemy says I am.
Im not a victim, he says. I cant do what I used to do, but I can still do something.
Whats inspiring about something thats easy? I dont think theres anything more inspiring than seeing people thrive in adversity.
Hes quiet for a moment. But there is no shadow of sadness crossing his face. No distant stare of angst or worry. Just something that even strangers have noticed. How this man be so
At peace. He just smiles.
Look, I could have never orchestrated these last 14 months more perfectly with the amount of people Ive been able to talk to, he says. People ask me, How can you go through this heavy trial and not be friggin mad at God? Or scared out of your mind?
And there is that tiny opening for him to tell them why.
This cancer, he says, nodding his head, has been a blessing.
The first impression of Butler is that he would have been perfectly cast as a wiseguy from an old movie.
At 6 feet tall and some 230 pounds, he has arms like trees and a handshake you remember. Hes a constant gum chewer. He can be loud, boisterous. Theres a wisp of a goatee, piercing blue eyes and a shiny bald head. One college roommate described him as Darth Vader with his helmet off.
Butler grew up in the South, and with that Delta drawl he pokes fun at himself, saying that hes too fat, that hes a true Southern-fried, sweet-tea-drinking redneck. His words on everything are simple and direct, without too much theology. Few know he graduated magna cum laude at East Texas Baptist University and has two masters degrees from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
He loves to tell jokes, especially in his Sunday sermons. Two weeks ago he opened his sermon with Did I tell you I have a broken dog? He barks at the snowman.
From there he eased into the brokenness of other things: the economy, families, people.
The week before that he told the congregation how his doctor, by the name of Doolittle, had told him there was nothing else they could do. He said he looked back at the doomgiver and asked: You can at least talk to animals, cant you?
For months, Gateway members have joked that every time their pastor went into the hospital it wasnt because he was really sick God just needed him to talk to someone there, too.
Used to be when I made hospital visits, Id stay maybe 15 minutes, then leave, thinking that was the polite thing to do, he says.
Now he asks if he can sit with a patient a while.
I ask them, what are you thinkin of all day? Tell me. And if they dont want to talk, I just sit with them. Hospitals can be lonely places.
He knows peoples angst and fears because hes felt them himself.
From the first day he founded Gateway church, he has had one clear mission: No matter where you find yourself in life, everything can be made new in Christ.
Broken people. Broken families. Gateway has embraced them all, again and again.
That singular message has changed the trajectory of hundreds of lives. But it especially changed a man who once lived under a bridge.
Doug Benjamins shame went deep.
For 12 years hed been a drug user. He dropped out of high school when his girlfriend, Kristal, got pregnant. He became homeless, living in his truck until he wrecked it. Then he slept under the bridge at U.S. 40 near Manchester Trafficway.
My life was horrible, Benjamin recalls. The worst was when I lived under the bridge and all I did was walk, stealing hot dogs from QuikTrip, picking up used cigarette butts to smoke.
He got sick. His father came to get him, then turned him over to a parole officer. A judge took pity just 120 days in prison, shock time.
His son was 8 the first time Benjamin really hung out with him. But he reconnected with Kristal. Still the relationship was shaky. He still craved drugs.
It was his son, encouraged by a teammate of the Blue Springs football team, who got the family to Gateway one Sunday.
Butlers sermon seemed to be directly talking to Benjamin, as if the guy could read his mind. He became a believer, but he didnt feel any bolt from the sky. And his life didnt get easier.
Just a week later, all his carpenters tools were stolen. No tools meant no job, no money. The next morning at church, Benjamin told Butler about the theft. With tears of anger and shame, Benjamin spilled out how emotionally messed up he was.
Joey told me, Its the Lord. Hes got you, and you keep trying to backpedal. Its all right, man. Well spend some time together.
Mentored by Butler, he started really hearing that message of his worth. How his past was in the past. How he had so much potential.
All this was happening just as Gateway was preparing a team for mission work in Jamaica. For nine years, church members have visited the same place, a week in the interior, far from most tourists eyes. Living conditions there are so awful that most people turn away.
Butler wanted him to go, to see this poverty in person. The cost, more than $1,000, seemed to rule out the trip. Then an anonymous donor stepped in to pay for the ticket. Still, Benjamin told Butler that he felt unqualified, that he didnt know enough about being a Christian. He felt like a fake, especially around people with a lot of Bible knowledge.
On the plane over there, I thought, Man! What have I done? Im not feeling anything except guilty because somebody paid my way.
They reached their destination, an infirmary next to a hellhole prison. Around it Jamaican societys castoffs some blind, some insane, many naked struggled to survive.
Just love on em, Butler told Benjamin.
So he read Psalms to one man with cataracts. The man then recited some from memory. At the prison an inmate asked Benjamin about his T-shirt.
I told him Id been in prison too, how Id been homeless, on drugs.
The Jamaican listened and was moved. Benjamin was surprised. His story seemed to help the stranger.
Butler told him to keep sharing his life.
Benjamin found his value on that trip. He and Kristal are married. He dotes on his oldest son, now 18, and his two stepdaughters, and a few years ago he and his wife had a baby girl. Benjamin and his wife bought a modest house.
Benjamin is clean and sober, earned his GED, works full time as a truck driver. He runs a prison ministry for Gateway, trying to reach out to others who feel lost and ashamed, without hope.
Joey taught me how to be a man, he says. That guy lives what he believes. He is, to me, the closest person Ive ever met to Jesus Christ.
Gateway started because of Butler.
For years he was the youth minister at the First Baptist Church in Independence, then the same job at First Baptist in Blue Springs. Married and a father of three, he was happy.
But a decade ago he felt there needed to be another church. He credits the Book of Acts for grabbing me and not letting go. He saw a need. One member said that Butlers church ministers to people who are blue collar, people who are white collar and people with no collars.
Ive been the shepherd of these people for 10 years. I know them, Butler says. I know their stories.
Gateway meets at 10 a.m. every Sunday inside the Hall-McCarter alternative school just off Woods Chapel Road in Blue Springs. Volunteers set up 400 folding chairs. Others drape lights from basketball hoops. It kinda sorta makes the wood-floor gymnasium seem more intimate.
No collection plate is passed. At the gyms doors is a white birdhouse with a basket underneath where envelopes quietly go. No building fund. This church builds people. The donations help struggling families in three homes the church owns, feed hungry elementary school children and bestow anonymous gifts on families facing bleak times.
Lots of jeans and T-shirts, baseball caps and sneakers. The dress code is comfort. Sit back and listen. Some in the folding chairs are clean-chin football players from Blue Springs High School. (Butler has been the unofficial chaplain for the high school team for years.) Others in chairs are victims of human trafficking, former inmates and recovering addicts.
Butler knows most everyone. He has a gift, members say, for remembering names. He also seems to possess a sixth sense. From simple conversations he seems to know who really believes in God, who isnt sure and who needs to hear how God can love them no matter how imperfect or jaded they are.
God brings us people who dont know him, or people who grew up in a church when they were kids and hated it, he says. We have grace and truth in our DNA. Grace that everyone is welcome; but truth, you will be changed by coming here.
There is no ritual for how services unfold. No traditions based on the calendar. Usually theres some singing, maybe an announcement or two, and then Butler is handed a cordless microphone and talks. People bring their Bibles, take notes, hug their children, visit with friends.
Often, not even one group prayer is recited.
Lees Summit resident Alan Hill reaches out his right hand for a handshake. His arm is thin and scarred. Three of his fingers stay permanently cupped.
In 2006, his life changed. As he was mowing a yard in Independence, three dogs, unprovoked, ran at him as a pack. Within seconds, skin and muscle in his right arm were shredded. He felt fangs sink into his torso and legs, tear an ear and bite his head.
Even now, as he tells the story, he is stunned by how much damage the animals did in seconds. How time slowed. How the beasts had ripped off his clothes. How surprised he was to slip in a pool of his own blood.
I thought I would die. This was it.
Not a churchgoing man, Hill still prayed, asking God for enough life to say goodbye to his family. Crawling beneath his Jeep to finally escape the dogs, he wrapped his head with the remnants of his T-shirt. The dogs ran off, attacking others, until shot dead by police.
In shock, Hill managed a 911 call but gave the wrong address. Eventually he got the attention of an Independence police officer. Near death, he would need 29 units of blood and his arm seemed a prime candidate for amputation. He was in the hospital for four months, on a ventilator for two.
His retelling is vivid. But the attack wasnt as life-changing as what happened afterward.
Hill looks down at his scars as he talks. Finally awake at Liberty Hospital, he had questions. Why did he survive? Why did God save him?
I didnt understand why I was still here, he says.
His wife, Connie, brought Butler to talk with Hill. Years earlier Butler was the pastor who officiated his daughters wedding and conducted the funeral for Hills father. Hill and Butler had talked then about God, with some agreement and some disagreement, he said.
But I remember Joey treated me with respect even though I wasnt a churchgoer.
Butler sat with him. Told him hed gotten a second chance. God had plans.
I remember thats when I asked him about the dress code at his church, says Hill, with a chuckle. I dont like to dress up.
Finally home from the hospital, that first Sunday he and Connie went to Gateway.
A quiet man, Hill shrugs his shoulders when asked what he wants others to know about his pastor.
Im not a real good talker, he says. But I consider him a great friend. He has reached hundreds of people like hes reached me.
Im gonna miss hearing his messages more than anything in my life.
Last Sunday, the last Sunday.
The singing was over. Butler chose to tell the crowd about a story from the Book of Acts, when a great quake shook open doors to a prison. Instead of running away, the prisoners stayed so the jailer wouldnt be executed for their escape.
You know, I prayed that God would shake this gym, he said good-humoredly. The crowd laughed.
Then the punch line: I asked God to shake your hearts
Heres what belief means: It means I put all my belief, all my weight, on Christ. Im all in, he continued. Ive had no regrets.
Just a hint. But he wasnt there yet.
The portable baptism pool was waiting. Butler took off his hooded jacket, revealing his Mississippi State baseball T-shirt. He eased into some fishing waders and climbed into the waist-deep water.
The water is room temperature, he cajoled, as if that might sway someone to spontaneously step forward. The congregation laughed again. Most people had planned their baptism for weeks. Families held cameras at the ready.
One by one, they came forward. He held each of their hands, leaned them back gently until they were under the water, then lifted them up. Children. Parents. And then came one older man, Alan Hill, 66. Butler had just baptized Hills granddaughter, then Hills son-in-law.
Hill decided this would be his moment, too. A decision hed put off for years. This day, he already knew, was extra-special. After his dunking, Butler and Hill climbed out, both smiling wide.
What a cool experience, huh? Butler said, looking at the ground. But he was quiet. He chewed his gum faster.
Three generations today.
Then he straightened, his eyes sweeping the gymnasium. He looked at his wife, Dawn, his three children. His best friends. His new friends. All the lives and stories and histories before him.
Um, I have an announcement to make
He sucked in a ragged breath, leaning a little against the pool.
He told them about his waning energy. About what a leaders role should be for the church. How hes prayed for an answer. How he wants to spend more time with his family, which needs him so much now.
Today we finalize the decision. Im resigning as pastor of Gateway.
Silence at first. Then the crowd stood. Hands reached for tissues. A rain of clapping and cheering.
We love you, Joey! someone yelled.
Whistles erupted like it was a baseball game.
Gateway showing him love.
And the pastor who didnt cry when his doctors told him he didnt have much time to live surprised himself.
He choked back a sob, even as he smiled.
Have a great day, all right?