Norman

Two other men, both of them criminals, were also led out to be put to death with Jesus. When they came to the place called “The Skull”, they crucified Jesus there, and the two criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. One of the criminals hanging there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” The other one, however, rebuked him, saying, “Don’t you fear God? You received the same sentence he did. Ours, however, is only right, because we are getting what we deserve for what we did; but he has done no wrong.” And he said to Jesus, “Remember me, Jesus, when you come as King!” Jesus said to him, “I promise you that today you will be in Paradise with me.”

Luke 23:32,33,39-43

A man came into the vestibule of our church every Sunday morning. Never early, never quite on time, he came in after people had settled into their seats. He never went into the sanctuary. He stood alone, said nothing, then left before pastor dismissed the congregation. Over the weeks, I got a name, Norm. I always offered a seat. He politely said, “No, I’ll stand.” Norm was an older man, the crags in his face, the thick forearms, the leathery hands; they told the arc of his story, a life of toil. But the details of Norm’s life remained a mystery.

Each Sunday I watched the doors waiting for Norm to show up. I made a point to look him square in the eye, smile big, and grab hold of his hand, “Norm, great to see you.” When I got my first smile I knew I had him. He still refused to sit in the sanctuary but he now sat. I sat beside him, he no longer stood alone.

I asked Steve, our pastor, “What’s up with Norm? He won’t go into church. He comes late and leaves early.” Steve paused, chose his words carefully, “Norm has a story most people can’t handle. Every time he tells his story, churches ask him to leave and not return. His own family shuns him. He’s done prison time. He seeks redemption but fears it is too late. The reason he doesn’t go into the sanctuary? Norm is convinced he is unworthy.” My family moved to another community soon after. I often wondered, “How is Norm doing?”

Two years passed and we were in town for a family visit. I went to a Saturday morning men’s fellowship meeting at the church. To my delight, Norm was there. We gave each other a hug, the feeling mutual. A time of sharing commenced. Nothing dramatic, men spoke of the goodness of God. Norm sat silent, his arms crossed, he listened to each man talk. Norm then raised his hand. A pregnant pause, he panned the room of men with his eyes, “I think you are all full of shit.” Nervous laughter broke out but everyone got the message. That was Norm’s way of saying, “Stop playing church, get real. Don’t waste my time or yours with nonsense.” The meeting took on a refreshing honesty. That was pure Norm. Sunday morning I looked for Norm. He was already in the church sanctuary. I smiled. Norm found mercy, acceptance. He now lived in grace.

The last time I saw Norm was on a Sunday morning.. He stood with arms raised on the front row of the church. The man who dared not enter a sanctuary now stood lost in worship to his Great God, infinite goodness. Less than a month later, Norm passed away. He did not die alone. The men of his church loved Norm as much as he loved them. Sweet times passed in that hospital room. Norm knew where he was going. Like the thief on the cross, Jesus told Norm, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Weeks after the funeral, Norm’s wife brought a gift to Pastor Steve. “Norm wanted you to have this.” It was Norm’s bible. Pastor Steve saw beyond Norm’s horrific past. The warp of sin did not obliterate the divine investment in Norm’s life. The church took a broken defeated man into their lives and loved him as their own. Jesus did the rest. Norm’s last act, the gift of his bible. How precious, what a thank you, what a friend.