During our week at the Good Neighbor Settlement House down in Brownsville, I was involved in everything from stocking groceries to playing basketball with volunteers and a couple of homeless guys. One day, I even helped paint flowers on the hallway in front of Good Neighbor’s main office.
These flowers weren’t anything special by any stretch of the imagination. They had a nice little brown center and several looping brush strokes of red paint composing the petals. In spite of the relative absence of art critics, I stopped when I heard a man’s voice behind me saying, “Not bad for an amateur.”
I turned around and laughed when he continued, “It looks a little like a bullet hole with the blood coming out.” That kind of comment is usually enough to draw me into a conversation, so I took the bait. We went back and forth talking for a minute, when he began to ask me about our team. In no time, the conversation turned to God.
He looked at me and said, “I don’t believe in that stuff. I tried praying to God, I tried going to Church, and none of that worked. God didn’t respond, and I’m still the same guy.” When I pressed a little bit, he went on to explain that he had attended worship a couple of Sundays and had expected an immediate transformation that simply didn’t happen. He told me about the bad things that continued to happen in his life.
Usually I don’t preach to people off the street, but maybe spending a month in an intensive class studying Job affected my thinking a little bit. So, I began to talk a little bit about suffering. I said a few things about Christian faith not being an exemption from suffering or struggle. I talked a little about the process of growing in the faith and persistence when God didn’t seem present. The man nodded and acted really interested, so I continued by saying, “You know, not even Jesus was exempt from suffering. He was nailed to a cross and died.” He nodded in agreement, so I went on. “The good news is this. God didn’t abandon Jesus, but raised him from the dead. God can bring good from any evil. God is with you no matter what you’re going through, and even if you don’t realize it. That’s what the gospel is all about, life after death.”
At that moment, he looked shocked. I thought maybe I had said too much. He said, “I have to show you something,” and proceeded to turn around and lift up his shirt, “I just got this.” On his right shoulder, he had a tattoo that said life after death.
I had chill bumps in spite of the 95 degree heat. I felt compelled to say more. “Maybe this conversation is God’s way of telling you he’s listening. Do you think this is a coincidence?” He shook his head, “No.” I said, “That’s the reason we came all the way from Oklahoma – to let people know that God loves them and cares about them. I’ll bet that’s why God let us have this conversation too. God’s telling you he’s listening.” He looked down at his feet and said, “You’re saying I need to just keep trying? I need to keep going to Church and praying?” I said, “That’s right. Stick with it. God’s with you no matter what, even when you don’t feel him there. He can bring something good out of whatever you’ve been through.”
I don’t know what effect this conversation will have on that man. I don’t even know his name. What I do know is this: God is incredible, and I really feel privileged to get to stumble into conversations where I see the Spirit at work in someone’s life.