It was around 10 pm when Bill’s headlights swept through my yard and across the front of the house as he was turning into the driveway. He couldn’t pull all the way in since I was already halfway down the driveway waiting for him. So he just stopped his car in the middle and I got in.
We drove in silence for a minute. I wasn’t sure how to start. Have you ever felt so awful you were afraid to start talking about it with someone for fear of what might come out of your mouth?
I had called Bill around 9:30. There were other people I might have called ― other members of my men’s group, for instance. But for some reason I picked Bill. He tends to be gentle and non-judgmental, and from all indications, the man is on fire for God. So I called him up and asked if he had a few minutes to talk.
Bill told me later that something in my voice told him it was going to be more than a few minutes, so he suggested coming over to pick me up. While I was waiting for him to arrive, I thought: How many people would volunteer to do that in a situation like this? It was late. Bill works days and rises early. He was totally putting my needs ahead of his own. I haven’t even known him all that long, maybe two months. But here he was, his headlights slicing through the yard as if to prove that everything was going to be okay.
Followers of Christ are supposed to trust that they are safe in God’s hands no matter what, but I haven’t quite gotten that down yet, at least not on a consistent basis. The turmoil I was feeling this night, which had led me to call Bill, was a heavy mixture of financial stress, extreme displeasure with my circumstances, displacement (my closest family member lives 2429 miles away) and frustration. I felt like a homeowner who is watching his house burn. I have been unemployed for 10 weeks, save for a few small telecommute jobs that weren’t even enough to cover my basic expenses. Before that, I worked for six months as an intern for Teen Challenge on a minuscule stipend. For most of the last year, my checking account has been almost a formality, like an oak chest in my living room that I don’t store anything in. I have prayed for substantial work with fervor and humility, often stating out loud and resolutely that God is faithful and will provide for my needs, that he is not hindered by the lousy economy.
However, the weeks have been adding up. My savings have evaporated. My creditors have more than once sent me pointed letters and e-mails. Once, I was two days away from getting my phone service shut off. That was the day I sat in my bedroom on hold with Verizon for forty minutes, bristling every time the patronizing message repeated:
“Your call is very important to us…”
Sure, that’s why I’ve spent the last 45 minutes getting bumped around on your automated system.
Somehow, the ordeal with Verizon made me snap. After I had secured an extension on my phone service, I launched into an angry prayer in which I informed God that I wasn’t praying for my health. I was in fact addressing the Creator of the universe, who is sovereign and can give me a job immediately if he wishes, or fill my bank account with a flick of his finger, for that matter. But I hadn’t asked him for any miraculous intervention. And notwithstanding the economy, there was no reasonable explanation for my extended unemployment. I had vigorously pursued employment through many avenues. I have an education, a strong resume, excellent communication skills and a winning attitude.
“I’m asking you for a job, Lord, not a Mercedes Benz. Am I asking the wrong person?
Did I end up at the wrong window?” My prayer was quickly growing louder, and I later learned that, out in the living room, my roommates were listening to me blow up at God. Steven told me he thought I was praying for a Mercedes Benz. I can only imagine what they must have been thinking. I’m surprised none of them called the local nuthouse.
But it was a lot more than the job. I was beginning to question the purpose of my existence. I felt as though I had nothing, that the modest blessings and possessions I had were consolation prizes for people who had screwed up royally and wasted too many years. I was keenly aware of my defects and shortcomings. I was like Mother Teresa’s moral counterpart, and yet I had the unmitigated gall to call myself a Christian. My heart was sick with hope deferred, and it occurred to me that endless deferments eventually amount to a denial. The feeling of hopelessness that had come over me became so pronounced that I could hardly muster the energy to discharge my basic obligations. I wasn’t giving up, but I wasn’t moving forward either. I was standing in one place, leaning into the wind.
I related all this to Bill in much more graphic terms as we ate desserts at Shari’s. I think I put a lot on him, because when I had finished, it took him a minute or two to collect his thoughts. I could see him struggling to find words. When he did speak, he started half a dozen sentences without finishing them.
As he at last began speaking, I winced for a moment, thinking he might issue a few summer-camp cliches about faith. But he didn’t. What he said was straightforward, unvarnished and penetrating: “Tell God, ‘Let your will be done.’”
The advice was a bit annoying, since it resolved none of the hardships I was facing, and instead of soothing my pain, it actually seemed to minimize the legitimacy of what I was feeling. But it had the immediate benefit of simplifying my life. Instead of dealing with 4500 problems (most of which I had no control over), I could just pray that one prayer.
So I did. It was a refreshing time over the next few days as I prayed simple prayers for other people and that one very simple prayer for myself. I discovered that I was beginning to feel great relief. Furthermore, as much as it initially felt like “lip service” to pray for God to have his way, I found that my insides were starting to get aligned with the spirit of surrender in the simple prayer.
Several days passed, and by Sunday, I was enjoying unfettered energy as I went about projects I had left in disarray for weeks. Then I got a message from my friend Peggy.
I met Peggy a few months ago when we both ended up in a conversation thread on Facebook. Someone had posed an interesting moral question to the community, and we had both weighed in. Something in her words caused me to send her a friend request, which she accepted. Before long, we were messaging regularly and sharing our faith in God. There was nothing amorous in our exchanges; it was pure friendship, and something released us both to begin disclosing personal details of our testimony with each other ― things neither of us discussed with most people. I discovered that Peggy had walked a hard road. Her faith had been sorely tested, and to this day, she still has crushing adversity in her life, as do I. We began to pray for each other.
Without tension or incident, our flurry of communication slowed to a trickle over the past several weeks. My scant energy was being allocated to survival tasks. I hoped Peggy didn’t think I was dropping her like a dry hobby or something. Then, just a few days ago, I sent her a message to apologize for being out of touch. Sunday afternoon, I checked Facebook and saw a fresh message from Peggy, inviting me to call her. Something moved me to pick up the phone.
“How are you?” Peggy inquired.
I don’t have the room to recap our conversation, but I told Peggy what an outpouring I had received from God just by asking him to have his way in my life. I told her the storm was over.
Peggy was so happy! I could feel her smiling from the other side of the city. Then she told me something that blew my mind.
“I’ve been praying for you, Doug. God told me you were walking through a great storm and to keep praying for you. He said he had wanted to tell you, Just hang on. You don’t understand what’s happening to you, but after you’re through it, you will. He told me he had already answered my prayers and that he was getting ready to pour blessings into your life.”
I didn’t know what to say. I was astonished at what God had done for me, glad for the storm (even though I had thought it would be my undoing!) and grateful to have such a special friend as Peggy. How could the Creator of the universe be so concerned about me that he would discuss my situation with someone who had prayed for me? How could I have thought God didn’t care about my life?
The very next day, a member of my church hired me to clean her food cart six days a week. Staci owns and operates Ace’s Famous Fish, Chicken and Chowder along Andresen Drive in Vancouver. When I went to talk with her about the job, she fed me coconut shrimp and chatted me up about her recent trip to Israel. While she was there, she walked on the same ground where Jesus walked and pocketed a stone from it. She laments how the locals have turned some of the historic sites into tourist traps. (Something tells me I’m going to like her. I already do.) The job is a small part-time gig, but a welcome development and curiously on the heels of my prayer of surrender to God.
There’s a great big God out there. His hand is everywhere, working to redeem human souls and relentlessly improving those he has won. The growth process hurts terribly, but God is serious about turning our hearts away from the world so that we can devote our lives to him. Come to think of it, I have asked him to do that to me, often with tears in my eyes. I suppose I didn’t expect the process to be so painful, but then I didn’t place stipulations on my request. To the contrary, I told God emphatically, “Whatever I have to lose, whatever I have to go through, just give me an undivided heart!”
I’m going to have to say that prayer more often.