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Night with a Perfect Stranger
The Conversation That Changes Everything
By David Gregory
WORTHY PUBLISHINGCopyright © 2012 David Gregory Smith
All rights reserved.
You'd think that meeting Jesus face to face, as I did six years back, would give you a leg up in the Christian life.
I'm still not sure why Jesus chose me to dine with him one night at Milano's Italian restaurant in Cincinnati. Maybe God knew that my resistance to him was a mile wide and an inch deep. I was thirty-three, outwardly successful, with a beautiful wife and two-year-old daughter. Behind the veneer, our marriage was in shambles, I doubted myself as a parent, and I wondered where in the world anyone could find the secret to life.
I received an anonymous invitation to dine with Jesus. Surely a prank by the guys at work. So I showed them. I arrived at Milano's and sat down to eat my free meal—across from a guy who claimed to be Jesus. Only thing, it actually was Jesus, patiently answering my questions, waiting for me to set aside my relentless skepticism and open my heart to the reality of a God who loved me and who died and rose to save me.
The encounter transformed my life. In the span of one evening I traversed the chasm between cynical agnosticism and faith in God. Three weeks later my wife, Mattie, had a similar encounter with Jesus on an airplane. Except Jesus didn't identify himself to her. He just let her figure it out.
Ever since those encounters we've been followers of Jesus.
For two years afterward, life was great. How could it not be? I had met Jesus. He had explained everything. Well, not everything, but a lot of things. Life made sense. It had a purpose. I was full of joy, peace, and all that.
But I slowly lost it, whatever "it" was. My closeness to God, my excitement about Jesus, the sense of purpose and meaning he brought. I'm not sure when it started fading. I hadn't lost my faith. Far from it. But the life that faith was supposed to produce—where was it? I thought meeting Jesus would energize me for a lifetime. But for the past four years I had been slowly coasting downhill.
The distressing thing was, I'd been doing all the "right" things to be a good Christian. After our Jesus encounters, Mattie and I decided to join a church. Wasn't that what Christians did? Naïve as we were, we chose the closest one: a nice, mid-sized suburban church. The preacher talked too long (a quarter of the people had their eyes closed and I'm pretty sure they weren't praying) and the worship band played songs that didn't exactly make me feel worshipful. Admittedly, meeting Jesus himself may have jaded me; I constantly found myself thinking things like, "Jesus wouldn't go for this song."
Fortunately, the church had plenty to offer besides Sunday services. Mattie and I joined a home group. If any place offered an authentic experience of Jesus—beyond what we had already experienced, of course—it would be a small group dedicated to that purpose. After all, that's what the twelve disciples were, a small group experiencing Jesus together.
Our first evening there, the leader invited us to tell the group a little about ourselves. I was happy to oblige.
"I became a Christian five weeks ago when I had dinner with Jesus at Milano's. Mattie sat next to Jesus three weeks later on a flight to Tucson." I turned toward her. "You two even ran into each other during a layover in Dallas, didn't you?"
"At Starbucks," Mattie chimed in. "It was the weirdest thing, this guy sitting next to me on these flights. Have ... have any of you ..." Her speech slowed. "Actually met Jesus ... like that?" Apparently not. The group stared at us as if we were from another planet.
We found a new church, vowing never to mention our Jesus encounters again—not to Christians, at least.
Our second church was smaller, a bit more diverse. We joined another home group and, through our silence, felt welcomed. Unfortunately, this group seemed more intent on addressing "felt needs" than on actually experiencing Jesus. One night, after watching our second video series on parenting (following a series on marriage and family finances), I remarked to Mattie, "If people were walking closely with God, wouldn't some of these issues take care of themselves?"
I joined a men's discipleship group, but I encountered the same problem I felt everywhere: I didn't fit in. Men in the group were consistently sharing opinions about God that contradicted what I had personally experienced with Jesus at Milano's. When I said things like, "I know Jesus wouldn't see things that way," they looked at me like I was nuts. Who was this guy, a new Christian, to presume to know what Jesus would and wouldn't think?
The last straw for me was an exchange with the group leader. He was teaching about John 15, Jesus' message on the vine and the branches.
"The key to living the Christian life is abiding in Christ," he declared.
"And how do we do that?" I asked. Jesus must have forgotten those instructions in our time at the restaurant, because I didn't have a clue. I was always the one asking, "What does that mean exactly?" when it came to spiritual platitudes that, I discovered, were tossed around churches like beanbags at a school carnival.
"We abide by keeping Jesus' commandments," he responded.
I pondered that assertion. "So you're saying that to live the way we should, we abide, and to abide, we have to live the way we should."
The leader smiled patronizingly. "It's just one of the mysteries of the faith."
It wasn't a mystery of the faith at all; it was circular reasoning.
I left the men's group, redoubling my efforts to draw near to God on my own. After meeting Jesus, spending time with God had been easy. I knew he was right there with me, just as Jesus had been at our dinner. I could sense him speaking to me directly from the Bible.
After a time, however, that sense disappeared. God seemed distant. I got distracted by life. Paying the mortgage and attending kids' events took precedence over being alone with God.
How could I reconnect with him? Through the Bible and prayer, I figured. But the Bible didn't encourage me anymore. Instead, it screamed at me from every page: YOU AREN'T MEASURING UP! GET YOUR ACT TOGETHER! WHY AREN'T YOU A BETTER CHRISTIAN?!
And my prayers? They just bounced off the ceiling right back at me. I wasn't communicating back and forth with Someone; I was just mouthing syllables. My times with God felt hollow. I didn't feel like praising or thanking, to say nothing of confessing or supplicating.
Nor did I feel like doing any of the other things I was supposed to do as a Christian, like witnessing or going on mission trips. What was I supposed to tell people about the abundant life Jesus offered? I hadn't found it myself! I wasn't loving enough toward my wife, patient enough with my kids, or trusting enough about the future. The worst part was knowing I'd actually regressed. Not long before, I really had been laying down my life for Mattie, patient with the kids, trusting God, and telling people about Jesus. I had been excited about him. What happened?
The bottom line was, I was no longer living the kind of Christian life I wanted to, and I didn't have a clue what to do about it. I had followed all the spiritual formulas and I had gotten nowhere.
I was stuck.
Life events didn't help my frame of mind. After two miscarriages, Mattie was six months pregnant with our third child. We'd been nervous about trying again, but at six months at least we were starting to breathe easier. This pregnancy was going as planned.
I was excited about having another child, but my enthusiasm was tempered by my spiritual state. I had so wanted to pass along a vibrant, living faith to my kids. I had actually met Jesus! What an advantage my kids had spiritually! But Sara, eight, was now old enough to witness how little clue I had about what it meant to walk with God. Jacob, three, would see it himself one day. Was I bringing another child into the world only to witness his father's spiritual charade? Our church was already full of couples whose kids had failed to see the reality of Christ in their parents' lives and had walked away from the faith. I was afraid our children would soon become a similar statistic.
All of this came crashing upon me as I drove past downtown Chicago, heading south. I'd traveled this route many times. In daylight, I would look admiringly at the skyline set against the majesty of Lake Michigan. This time, it wasn't the lack of sunlight that kept me staring at the road. It was the dimness in my soul.
Where is God in the midst of all this? Why doesn't he answer my prayers for help? Am I doomed to a life of mediocre Christianity? I have everything going for me, but I feel empty on the inside. It seems like I'm just stumbling around in the darkness, without so much as a flashlight to give me direction.
My despair shouldn't have surprised me. I had just left my folks' house on Chicago's north side. Spending time with my folks—especially my dad—always made my thoughts spiral downward, even when our visit was cordial. This one wasn't.
I had only agreed to go to Chicago under considerable duress: the logic of Mattie.
"Nick, it's your parents. They want to give us furniture as they downsize. We should take it."
She'd walked to the kitchen table, sat across from me, and smiled that impish smile I never could resist. "We could all go—make it a four-day weekend to Chicago and back."
I rolled my eyes. "Are you crazy? Four days with my dad? I'm already down on myself enough these days. I don't need Dad adding to that."
"Nick, you're just ... struggling. We all do."
Right. Mattie was the only person I knew who didn't seem to struggle with her spiritual life. It all came so naturally to her.
"Besides," she continued, "your dad's not so judgmental anymore. He's mellowed."
"Being around him still makes me feel like I did as a kid. I never can measure up."
I finally relented. I flew up on Friday and rented a U-Haul Saturday morning. Dad helped me load the furniture for my Sunday morning ride back to Cincinnati. The first twenty-eight hours there, all went smoothly. In the twenty-ninth, Dad blurted out one of his infamous queries.
"When are you finally going to get a real job, Nick?"
We were watching a Cubs game. He didn't take his eyes off his HDTV.
"Dad, I have a real job. I'm a consultant." I could feel the tension crawl up my neck.
"Uh-huh." He reached for a tortilla chip and dipped it in some salsa. "Where's your office?"
"My clients don't care that I office out of the house. I go to their workplaces."
He was silent for a few moments. Alfonso Soriano hit a double. Dad didn't blink. "So how's business since the recession?"
I shook my head. He wouldn't give up. "It's taken a while to pick back up."
He leaned forward slowly and extracted another chip from the bowl. "I figured. Income's down too, I bet. Are you two making it?"
I turned to him. "Yes, Dad, we're making it fine." My tone was curt. I knew he could tell I was getting annoyed.
"Uh-huh." He dipped his chip and ate it. "I'll tell you who really is doing fine."
Oh, brother. Here it came. Comparing me to my sister, Ellen, an attorney for the Environmental Protection Agency in DC.
"Who?" I asked, as if on cue.
What a shock.
"Just got a promotion, you know."
"No." I stared at the game.
"And set financially. Did you know she has a guaranteed pension? By the way, how have your 401k's done the last few years?"
I could feel the vein in my neck throbbing. "They tanked in the downturn. I already told you that."
"Yeah, and you sold low." He reached for the beer on the end table and took a sip. "Mattie and the kids are counting on you providing some security, Nick. Especially with another one on the way. If I were you, son—"
I rose from my chair, seething. "You aren't me, Dad, and I'm not you. If you were me, you'd still be working at Pruitt."
"It was a good job for you, son."
"Right. And they were falsifying environmental data for client reports. That's a federal crime."
He turned back to the TV and watched another pitch, ignoring me while I stood in the middle of the living room. He finally reached for another chip. "It just seems to me that Mattie would be happier if you were a little more ... stable."
"No, Dad—you'd be happier." I strode toward the kitchen, then turned abruptly, my voice rising. "And I am stable. I've only had two jobs in nine years. That's stable."
I reached for my keys and wallet on the kitchen counter just as my mother emerged from their bedroom.
"What's all this yelling?"
I forced my face to soften. I wasn't mad at her, although she never did stick up for me when Dad was putting me down. "Dad thinks what I do for a living isn't good enough."
"I didn't say not good enough!" The reply came from the living room. "I said too unstable. Plus your investments—"
"That's enough!" I shouted. I stomped down the hall to my bedroom, threw my stuff in my bag, and walked back to the kitchen.
"Bye, Mom. Thanks for the furniture." I kissed her perfunctorily on the cheek.
"But Nick, it's nine o'clock. You can't drive home at night."
"Sure I can. Did it in college all the time." I walked to the side door to avoid the living room. "I'll call you next week."
She glanced nervously toward the living room. "Aren't you going to say goodbye to your dad? And thank him for helping you load up?"
"I said thanks earlier." I opened the door and stepped out, then turned back to her. "If he wants to apologize for anything, he can call me."
I closed the door, climbed in the U-Haul, and drove away, leaving my dad behind. What I couldn't leave behind was the effect he had on me. I was forty years old, for goodness sake. Why did it matter what he thought of my life? But it did. It always did.
I felt doubly bad because of the way I had reacted. My dad knew exactly how to press my buttons and get me to overreact. And when I did, all of my Christian veneer vanished. I was the same old Nick blowing up at my dad like I always did. It was never his fault, of course. He never lost his temper. Just asked questions. Innocent questions.
Ever since I'd met Jesus, my dad believed I was just going through a religious phase. It would blow over. Or (worse, from my perspective) it wouldn't change anything about me.
Getting mad, stomping out after nine o'clock at night—I could just see my dad walking into the kitchen, getting another beer, and saying to my mother, "He must have left his religion in Cincinnati again."
Butting heads with my dad filled me with both anger and guilt. Heading south, I looked in my right side mirror and saw the lights of Chicago fading behind me. Despite the beauty of the city, I felt empty every time I drove away from this place.
My next move didn't help matters. I picked up my cell phone and called Mattie to tell her I was on my way home. I gave her the short version of what had happened at my folks'.
"You did what?"
"I walked out. Look, Mattie, I don't need you getting on my case too. My dad is bad enough."
"I am not getting on your case, Nick." She sounded stern with me. "I just think you're going to have to apologize to your parents."
"Me apologize? Are you kidding? My dad is the one who needs to say he's sorry. He's been treating me this way my whole life. And now you're standing up for him."
There was silence on the other end. "Are you finished?" she finally said.
"Then I'll see you when you get home. I'll pray that God keeps you awake. Bye."
Great. Now everyone was mad at me.
I needed a distraction. I turned on the radio and slowly scanned the AM dial, landing on a health talk show. Someone called in about low testosterone. Maybe that's what I need, more testosterone. I could use a boost. I listened to the host's response. Okay, maybe that's not what I need.
Someone called in about toe fungus. My mind wandered. I scanned highway signs and billboards and caught myself starting to play the alphabet game, a family favorite that Sara always seemed to win.
I wallowed in my funk through Gary, onto Interstate 65, and past Merrillville. I glanced down at the U-Haul's fuel gauge. Almost an eighth of a tank. I didn't feel likestopping yet. This gas tank is huge. Rensselaer is only twenty miles. There's a station there. I drove on.
I knew I was in trouble when my engine started sputtering ten minutes later. I pressed on the gas pedal. Kerplunk. Kerplunk. I glanced at the fuel gauge. One-sixteenth of a tank. Can't anyone make an accurate fuel gauge anymore!
Excerpted from Night with a Perfect Stranger by David Gregory. Copyright © 2012 David Gregory Smith. Excerpted by permission of WORTHY PUBLISHING.
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