It was Christmas Eve 2004.
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” and drove off.
I turned to another uniformed fellow. “Can someone give me a ride? I have a meeting in thirty minutes.”
“Sure,” he said. “Speak to that guy over there. He’s our shuttle driver. He’ll take you wherever you need to go.”
An elderly man wearing jeans and a green ball cap with yellow John Deere stitching stood at the bay entrance. With a broad gesture he pointed 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 of that story of the man who murdered his wife?”
This was a reference to the highly publicized trial in California where Scott Peterson had just been sentenced to death for the murder of his pregnant wife Laci.
“Don’t you think he deserves the death penalty?” he asked.
“Yeah, sure,” I said, only half listening as I looked at my phone. 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 Matthew 10:20. Lord, give me the words!
“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. “She owned a restaurant here in Birmingham. Her body was found buried by the Cahaba River.”
He fell silent. 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 son-of-a-bitch who murdered my daughter was standing in front of this van right now, I would drive over him and feel not 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 early remarks. Give me the words, Lord, I prayed again.
Arriving at my lunch engagement, he pulled the big van up to the curb to drop me off. His face showed no signs of its former—how does one describe it?—agony, rage, grief. Indeed, a grandfatherly smile hung naturally upon his face as he bid me a good day.
I turned to him resolutely. “Sir, I am a Christian and, if you’d permit me, I’d like to pray for you.” In apparent confusion, he said nothing, only nodding his consent, and together we bowed our heads.
“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 Jim ‘N Nick’s BBQ.
Gathering myself, I walked to a nearby window and looked out. From my vantage point I could see that the van was still there. After a lengthy interval, he 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 (I am aware of no commentary that speaks of it) 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 rest stop, 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 preceding 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 “ministry” points—that I might otherwise overlook. I asked Him to use me 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.
Let us ask God to open our eyes to all of the hurting people sandwiched in between the “important” events that choke our calendars. I think you’ll be surprised by the results.
The next day I went back to the dealership. I carried with me an envelope addressed to this grieving father. In it was a Christmas card on which I had written scriptures reassuring him of God’s love, mercy, salvation, and justice. I simply left it at the desk.
Today, I believe that man is in heaven where his tears, his sorrow, his crying, and his pain have ceased, for the former things have passed away. (Revelation 21:4)
That is our promise.
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