When a man tells me of his daughter’s murder, my day took an unexpected turn.
It was Christmas Eve 2004. The traffic and the weather were terrible. Worse, I was in a hurry. Pulling my car into the service bay at a local dealership, I gave the keys to a young man who promptly put a card on the front dash reading: “REPAIR: ROOF LEAK” before driving off.
“Can someone give me a ride? I have a meeting in thirty minutes,” I inquired of a man rotating the tires on a pick-up truck.
“Sure,” he said without looking at me. “Speak to that guy over there.” He pulled a pen from behind his ear and indicated an elderly man near the garage entrance. “He’s our shuttle driver. He’ll take you wherever you need to go.”
Wearing jeans and a John Deere ball cap, the driver, with a sweeping gesture, directed me to a van designated for such purposes. Getting in, he asked where I was going and then drove us off in the unhurried manner that often characterizes older men.
Up close, it was clear that he was well beyond retirement age. I reasoned that this had not been his career, but served to occupy his time and supplement a pension. After telling a joke or two—the sort that men tell only in the company of other men—he turned the conversation to current events.
“What do you think about the story about the man who murdered his wife? Don’t you think he deserves the death penalty?” He was referring to the Scott and Laci Peterson trial that then dominated national headlines.
“Yeah, sure,” I said, only half listening. Checking the email on my smartphone, my mind was already focused on other tasks.
After a pensive silence he declared evenly, “Many years ago someone murdered my daughter.”
The words were spoken casually, but they jarred me out of my conversational slumber. My mind was reeling. What? What do I say to that?
It is natural in these moments to resort to trite, stock responses like, “I know how you feel” or “I’m sorry to hear that”—sincere, but otherwise useless replies. Immediately, silently, I began to pray and to ask God to give me the words that this man needed to hear.
“By God’s grace I have been given three fine, healthy boys,” I began. “I hope to never know the pain that you have suffered.” The thought of it ached.
“Oh, well, that was a long time ago and I’ve dealt with that.” He was convincing. So much so, that I believed him and wondered at how calmly he spoke of it. “She was about your age,” he added.
But then something like a cloud rolled over him and his profile darkened ominously leading me to withdraw my initial assessment. Through clenched teeth he continued, “But I’ll tell you this, if that (expletive) who murdered my daughter was standing in front of this van right now, I would drive over him and not feel the slightest remorse. I know I could kill him! Sixty years ago today I was fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and I killed Germans who never did me—me personally—any harm. So I know I could kill a man who murdered my daughter.”
I wasn’t sure if he was conversing with me or simply working out a private thought, so I said nothing, opting for respectful silence instead of a banal quip.
For a moment he sat lost in his own thoughts and then, just as suddenly as it had come upon him, the cloud dissipated and he brightened. Changing the subject, for the remaining ten minutes or so of my ride he chatted about sports and the weather. My mind, however, remained no less fixed upon his earlier remarks. Give me the words, Lord, I prayed again.
Arriving, he pulled the big van up to the curb to drop me off, his face showing no signs of its former—how does one describe it?—agony and rage. Indeed, a grandfatherly smile hung naturally upon his face as he bid me a good day.
I turned to him resolutely and said, “Sir, I am a Christian and, if you’d permit me, I’d like to pray for you.” In apparent confusion, he nodded his consent and bowed his head with mine.
“Father,” I began, “I do not know the depths of the anger and sorrow that this man has suffered, but you do. I ask you to heal his broken heart and to give him the grace to endure. Let him know that you love him. Amen.”
Having finished, I looked up. He sat gripping the steering wheel with both hands. His body convulsed as tears poured down his face. “Thank you, thank you,” he said sobbing.
Not wishing to compound an already awkward moment—with men such moments are always awkward—I prepared to get out. Placing my hand on his shoulder I said, “God’s grace is sufficient even in circumstances like this.” He didn’t move, but held fast to the steering wheel and wept. It was like an exorcism had been performed where all the hatred and anguish that had tormented his soul fled before the light of God’s grace.
As I got out he repeated the refrain “thank you” over and over again. I gave a weak smile and then sprinted through the rain into the building that had been my objective. Gathering myself, I walked to a nearby window and looked out. My appointment walked over to greet me, but I did not look at him.
“Larry, good to see you, man.”
“Jamie, you wouldn’t believe what just happened,” I said. From my vantage point I could see that the van was still there.
“Everything all right?” he asked with a note of concern.
“I’ll explain later.”
After a lengthy interval, the old man released a hand from the steering wheel, put the Dodge in gear, and drove away until I could no longer see him through the downpour.
Shortly before this occurred, I had been studying John chapter 4 and the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. Somewhat ancillary to the story is a fact of some interest to me: the apparent inconsequential nature of this profoundly significant encounter. Jesus was, after all, traveling from Judea to Galilee. Samaria was no more His ultimate objective than the dealership was mine. It was merely a place in between two points of ministry. Yet Jesus used it to reveal His divine identity to this woman in terms more explicit than any before it. As a consequence, she and many in her village believed in Him.
After reflecting on this, I prayed that God would help me to see the people “in between”—that is, the people between my various destinations. I asked God to use me as a means of encouragement in their lives. It was only a short time later that He put me in a van with a gentleman with whom my contact seemed insignificant. God had a plan for him that day. That He used me to accomplish it is, really, the only insignificant part of the story. He could have used anybody or, for that matter, no one at all. But He wants to use us, imperfect creatures, to fulfill his perfect plan.
Later that day I went back to the dealership to get my car. I left a Christmas card in which I had written Psalm 34:18:
“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
I never saw him again, but my life was changed forever. From that moment on, I made a point of noticing the people in the cracks of my schedule, be it a waitress, a cashier, or a taxi driver. Sometimes it seems that I am there for their benefit, often it is for mine. But none have affected me so much as a chance ride in a van on Christmas Eve 2004.