part i: something happened
In 2008, I tried a case with three of my then law-firm partners. You need to know something about an out-of-town trial: you spend essentially 20 hours a day with them and there is no part of the legal practice during which you work harder or longer. Anyway, at some point early on, I overheard two members of the team talking about their pastor and what he had said about this or that. My ears perked up immediately at this and I wondered how it was that these two smart people who I admired and respected so much went to church (I was skeptic and cynic, mind you). I didn’t pay too much attention to the substance of what they said, getting caught on the words “pastor” and “church.” I also didn’t ask any questions or disclose my skepticism. After two and a half weeks in Delaware, our trial ended and we all went home. You need to know something about returning home after a long, out-of-town trial: you feel totally exhausted and restless, maybe even slightly depressed (win or lose). This is a result, from the extreme high of activity and emotion to no activity and a return to normalcy. Ask any trial lawyer, it’s universal.
When I returned, I was experiencing this post-trial depression sort of state. For some reason I may never know, I reached out to one of my trial-team members and asked him what church he attended. He told me it was called Willow Creek Community Church, so I decided to check out this place on the internet. I looked up the website, researched its pastor, and listened to a couple of the messages that were posted on-line. I was intrigued, so, on Sunday, November 16th, I decided I would go to check out this church. Me. I was going to church. Turns out this was a decision that changed my life and eternity forever. Before November 2008, I usually spent my Sundays reading and watching football. This particular Sunday, though, I was going to church.
When I arrived, people in red shirts welcomed me. This seemed pretty standard. This church undoubtedly had lots of people coming for the first time. The inside was airy, escalators were 30 or 40 feet inside the entrance and led to the second level. I figured I might as well get an up-close look if I was serious about this. And apparently I was. So, I walked into the main level seating area and found my way to the tenth row from the front, left of center. Music greeted me. Everyone was standing and clapping to the beat. Some people swayed. I stood with them and mumbled the words to the songs, which, thankfully, for the rookies, were displayed on large screens throughout the auditorium. So far so good. This was different than anything I’d experienced in church before. Some announcements were made, but they did not seem to apply to me. And then a young dark-haired man with an Australian accent and jeans came on stage with a small, almost invisible microphone attached to his head. I noticed it, of course, they weren’t going to slip anything by me. I needed to know how everything worked to make sure I wasn’t getting fooled into anything. Whether I liked this place was going to be my choice. The name of the message was “When God Whispers: Whispers of Conviction.” Sitting here today, I have no idea what the pastor, Darren Whitehead, said that day. The message started with reference to a particular Bible passage, one I hadn’t heard before. I remember that, generally, he talked about how God speaks to us.
About three or four minutes into the message, my eyes started to water. But not just water like when you turn a corner in the Chicago wind and get blasted with cold air. I had that feeling in the back of my throat, that swelling when you’re about to start crying. And then tears ran down my cheeks. I wasn’t actually feeling anything in my heart. I wasn’t feeling sad, or happy, or overwhelmed, or angry, or really anything. Something was happening deep inside me and I could not identify it. There were no words for it. I wasn’t sobbing. My chest was not heaving. Simple, quiet tears ran down and landed on my jeans and my hands. After Darren finished his message that day at Willow Creek, I sat down and watched as the auditorium emptied. Tears ran down my face. I thought over and over to myself: “What just happened?” My hands shook. My heart raced. I was full. I wanted to stay in that room forever. Then, I had an overwhelming need. I needed to tell someone that something had happened. This was not normal. I had to tell someone.
Bill Hybels stood near the stage as the congregation filtered out. He was the only person in the room I “knew” because, of course, you know people you see on the internet. (No?) Well, I caught Bill before he walked out, introduced myself, and told him it was my first time at the church. He asked what I thought and all I could muster was: “I don’t know. I’m still processing it. All I can say is that I cried through the entire service and I never want to leave.” He smiled, put his hand on my shoulder and said: “Sounds like today was your day.” What he said took no explanation. Even though there was no way I could have put it into words at the time, I knew exactly what he meant and in my heart knew that he was right. I did eventually leave the auditorium, but didn’t want to. I thought they might kick me out if I stayed as long as I wanted — forever. Somehow I knew I was in the presence of God and I knew it was where I belonged.
Turns out, that day at Willow Creek was only the beginning. I have since learned that the Scripture Darren taught that day in November 2008 was John 16:12-15. God knew I’d be in church that day: “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.” Indeed.
part ii: “take the marine to lunch”
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 and 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 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 peek at him and plan what I’d say when I proposed lunch. I had time, of course; it was only eight in the morning. 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)
All morning, I was distracted by the knowledge that at noon, I would be asking the Marine to lunch. What would I say? Would I tell him why I was asking him to lunch? Coincidentally, 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. A friend accompanied me, and we went looking for him. But, he was nowhere to be found.
I was crushed. I asked God what this meant. Was “take the Marine to lunch” just something I made up in my own head, wanting to believe God spoke to me? 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 that I saw. I began to believe that he was a figment of my imagination. I doubted God had asked me to take him to lunch. I doubted that God whispered to me. I doubted that God whispered to anyone 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 hello. 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, and, well, 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, 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.
He continued, “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, several rounds of cancer and cancer treatment (for him), job offers, spiritual hunger and mentoring, difficult conversations, celebrations, miracles, anniversaries, stories of war, grace, forgiveness, pain, and 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.