Part 2 of "my story"
-- to my dear friend, Steven.
(Part 1 is here: Did Something Happen)
"Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by." (1 Kings 19:11) Recall the rest of the story? "Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave." (1 Kings 19:11-13)
Several weeks after my experience at Willow, I decided I wanted to commit my life to Christ. But I didn’t just want to think it quietly in my head. I wanted to write it down, say it out loud, read it over and over, tell everyone I knew, and live it. So, on December 20, 2008 (remember this date), I wrote out a prayer as best I knew how in my journal:
Thank you for not giving up on me and appearing to me. I am today turning my life over to you and I am ready for what that means. Even though I know I am not worthy of the sacrifice you made, I accept Jesus Christ and ask that you forgive all my sins. I am coming to you as a sinner and in repentance for past and current sins. I know I am imperfect but I am trying. Please take me in and help me.
I didn’t know exactly what this commitment would entail. I was still learning (still am). I did know, though, that I had never been more sure about anything in my life. I felt like I was on fire, like I could do anything, like God was walking every step I took with me.
On a January morning in 2009, I was riding the train downtown to my office. I settled into my seat and cracked open the book I’d been reading for several days. I had read a couple pages, when five words came into my mind. These five words were clearer and louder in their impression on me than if a voice had said them out loud. They were: “Take the Marine to lunch.” I had not been thinking about lunch. I had not been thinking about the former Marine who sat on the Jackson street bridge on my path to my office asking for money. I'd passed him dozens of times in the last several months walking to work. Those five words were from God, I was sure of it. This was one of those whispers from God I’d heard Darren mention at Willow that memorable day back in November.
I got off the train and walked toward my office, knowing I would pass the Marine. I was excited to get a peak at him and plan what I'd say when I proposed lunch. I had time, of course . . . it was 8 in the morning, I wasn't going to take him to lunch right then. He had his green military-issued bag, straddled by cardboard box pieces that read: “Please help. Former Marine. God Bless You.” As I passed that morning, I looked at him differently. I looked at him like he was someone I knew. He was familiar. I looked at him with Jesus’ words in mind: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Mat. 25:40)
I had several tasks to do that morning, but I was distracted knowing that at noon, I would be dining with the Marine. What would I say? How would I broach the subject? Would I tell him the reason I was asking him to lunch? My office window faced the spot on the bridge where the Marine sat, so throughout the next several hours, I glanced down, trying to get a better feel of how the conversation might go. A couple minutes before noon, I looked out the window one last time before heading out on my mission. He was gone. As in, not there, nowhere in sight, not available for lunch.
I was crushed. I asked God what this meant. Had I failed in obeying him? Was “take the Marine to lunch” just something I made up in my own head, wanting to believe God spoke to me? Or was this a test, a test from God to see whether I would obey? I was so disappointed, but prayed: “I’m here. I will do what you ask.”
For the next four months, I passed by the Marine’s spot on the bridge. He had not returned, not even once. I began to believe that I had made him up, that he was a figment of my imagination. I doubted God had asked me to take him to lunch. I doubted that God whispered anymore at all.
Then, on May 7, 2009, I walked from the train station to my office and the Marine was back – his cardboard sign attached to his bag, his yellow and black cup for money out in front of him. I felt nervous and unsure about what to do. After saying a prayer, I approached him and said hi. He looked up at me with crystal blue eyes, a scraggly beard and a baseball cap. I asked if I could get him something to eat. If he was hungry, I was going to feed him. But he said a man had just come by with a ham sandwich. "Here we go again, watch, he won't need anything," I thought. "What is it that God wants me to do?" I asked if there was anything he needed and braced for a big ask. He asked for a mere $5.00 to cover his shortfall for a room that night at a men's hotel down the street. He was younger than I’d thought, just a couple years older than me and the way he talked reminded me of friends I had. Clear, confident . . . normal. He wore black jeans and black boots and sat with his legs crossed. I gave him a five-dollar bill. We exchanged names -- his is Steven -- and I went on to work.
Our interaction was short, but I felt it was arranged by God and I felt content and joyful knowing that. I said hi to him the next day too. We talked briefly. Then, the following Monday, May 11, 2009, I stopped to say hi again. This time, he was hungry, so I got him a muffin and some coffee. He asked why I was being so nice to him when I didn't even know him. I said: "God told me to." This started a longer conversation. I'd noticed that he had a Bible on his lap. I asked if he was a Christ-follower. He said yes and began to tell me his story.
"I started going to a church on the South side in November. I really liked it. It was different than other churches I'd gone to in the past." My mind started running, thinking of my own experience -- my first time to Willow in November, how different it was from my prior experience at church. "I kept going, each week. And then, one weekend, in December . . ." He kept going, talking about an altar call the pastor at the church made. I stopped listening and started praying: "God, please let him say he came to know you on December 20th. Please, God, just let him say December 20th." My insides starting jumping. My heart was pumping.
" . . . I'll never forget the day it happened. It was December 20th. The pastor asked if I wanted to accept Jesus Christ as my savior. And I did. . ."
December 20th. December 20, 2008. I wanted to shout, to scream, to say "WHAT? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? GOD, ARE YOU KIDDING ME?" I wanted to laugh, to cry. Of all the people in the world, of all the days, of all the months, of all the years. This man, homeless, jobless, hungry, and me, on my way to work as a lawyer, with a home, full from breakfast. Two strangers on a bridge. God found us, picked us out, on the very same day. And not only that, but then brought us together in a most unlikely, unable-to-be-made-up way.
God came to me in a gentle whisper (not in violent wind, or in an earthquake, or in fire), saying "take the Marine to lunch." And that day on the bridge began a whole new story for Steven and for me. A story God had planned all along. You'd have to ask Steven what our friendship and God's intervention has meant to him. For me, it has been an incredible richness of blessing, of obedience, and of understanding what it means to love like Jesus did. Steven has blessed me in ways he may never know. We have been through a lot: birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, cancer, job offers, spiritual hunger and mentoring, difficult conversations, celebrations, miracles, anniversaries, stories of war, grace, forgiveness, pain, love. Steven is so important to me, everything about him -- who he is, what he says, his incomparable faith, his strength, his doubt. I have never met anyone like him.
God has also used that day in May and my friendship with Steven to teach me about who He is. That He uses whispers not only to seek our obedience, but also to show who He is, to demonstrate His glory. If I ever doubt God is with me, that God is real, that God loves me, I need only look back on that day in May 2009 when God showed me in an unmistakable way: I am here. I am real. I love you.