2014.02.07 FriBerkeley, CA
The ground sighed. Too familiar it was with the arid wind of fall, too familiar with the crumbled dirt and burnt leaves. Now, at last, refreshment from the heavens! As tendrils of the vine creep into every crevice and cranny so too the cool water flowed into the recesses of the earth, filling the voids, bringing life anew. Drizzle turned to mist, and mist turned sprinkle, and sprinkle to downpour until the ground was thoroughly drenched. Like a child rediscovering the love of puddles, nature emerged from its shell — hesitantly at first, and then with boundless glee and shouts of joy. Leaves unfurled, trees drank deep, dirt turned to mud, and the ground breathed again. Life was bursting from its seams, and everything danced like a little girl in spring, as it remembered how to be wet.
But as creation danced, a scurried. For them, a pleasant stroll around the UC Berkeley campus had quickly become a frantic quest for shelter. Let us make their acquaintance. Her name was Ms. M. First, and foremost, is her smile. Happy by choice and brilliant by design, her grin shined like a light against her dark complexion. On this night, she dressed warmly in a faux fur robe, matched with a carefully combed up-do. Her companion and husband was Mr. S. He smiled less eagerly, like a man who had seen that all that glitters is indeed not gold. He donned a sweater vest, a bright red scarf, and hair somewhere in the realm between ‘too messy to be intentional’ and ‘just messy enough to be considered stylish.’ They were both somewhere in their late 20s — young, restless, and free.
Little did they know, God would have His way with them tonight. They would be wandering, but He would be orchestrating. They would not have sought His voice, but He would be speaking. And they would be acting, but He would be sovereignly guiding. Why? Because tonight, unbeknownst to them, they would hear the Word of God. And tonight, they would hear the gospel, not once, not twice, but thrice. Oh! it is good to tell the story. Some have never heard.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's get back to the story. To escape the rain, they entered the closest building they could find: the solid and sturdy lecture hall, the Valley Life Science Building. After wandering over to the benches inside to rest their feet, they found themselves in a conversation with a student from UC Berkeley named LM.
"Hello," LM said as she introduced herself. Soon, she asked, “Would you like to come to our Bible study?”
Ms. M. beamed at the thought. Without a care, she answered, “Sure, why not?”
What a simple question! And what a seemingly tiny answer ! Yet, with this small deviation from their plans, their entire night would change. Every detail is in the Lord’s hands. Every single one.
So down the hall the two become three walked. LM, of course, knew what to expect. But they had not a clue. The door opened. Was that music, and singing, they heard? Without a chance to hesitate, they entered the strange scene: a room full of college students worshipping their God — bass thumping, guitar strumming, keys humming, voices belting. What a sight! They had sought shelter from the rain. But the Lord gave them much more than that. What they found was Evangel Christian Fellowship.
And so, Ms. M. and Mr. S. began their night. They listened to a sermon on Proverbs 1 from Pastor JS, and then proceeded to hear a Bible study on Acts 13 from Mr. JMW. During the Acts study, Mr. S. asked one question, “Why does a good God allow evil?” I’m not sure about his intent, whether it was to challenge or to inquire, but I do know this: there was no better person to ask than Mr. JMW, my church’s apologetics teacher! So, as Mr. JMW answered, Mr. S. listened intently to the explanation, about God’s perfect justice and superior wisdom and incomprehensible plans and divine love. The result? Mr. S. was satisfied. This indeed was good teaching.
Now, up to this point, I had not been part of the story. I had been in the Genesis Bible study, not Acts. I had been packing up praise equipment, not making our newcomers' acquaintance. In fact, I was happily enjoying fellowship with two of my brothers in the college fellowship, minding my own business, and would have continued that way too if Mr. JMW hadn't walked up to me. Here is where their story and my story collide.
“Have you met our guests tonight?” Mr. JMW asked.
I shook my head. “No, but I’d like to! Are they here?”
“Yes, they’re right over there.” He pointed to them, about a dozen feet away. I jumped up and started to walk over. “Actually,” he said, stopping me. “Our friends need some help. They’re looking for a place to stay for the night.”
One of the college brothers, TT, lit up. “They can crash at our place! We have a couch!”
“They could stay at our place too,” DT said.
My heart soared. Such eagerness! What a heart of love and service! And an instant later, my heart sank. How devastating it would be! How foolish to invite strangers from Berkeley into your home overnight! Who were these people? Could we trust them? Why were they here? Where were they from? Where were they going?
“Please.” I turned to TT. “I really, really hope that they don’t stay at your place. It would be so unwise. I mean, I would stay up all night worrying if they did.” I didn’t want to quench his good desire to love strangers, but oh the tragedy if something happened!
Mr. JMW jumped in. “I think we could look up a motel, maybe the YMCA.”
I breathed in relief. “Sure, I could drive them.” I said. “I don’t have any plans tonight.”
“I can come too,” chimed TT.
Mr. JMW smiled. “Thank you, brothers, for serving. Now, here,” he said as he pulled out his wallet, “I have some money.” He counted the bills. “I have… nineteen dollars.”
Mr. DL, the Genesis Bible study teacher, was eager to do the same. But after searching his wallet, he said with a sheepish grin, “All I have is a twenty.”
Now, here would be a proper place to comment on Mr. JMW and Mr. DL. They have a lot going for them. They love the Lord, they are godly, they have wonderful families, they are absolutely brilliant, they serve the church well, and they are well qualified for the tasks the Lord has given them. But, they don’t have one thing: full wallets. Thirty-nine dollars between two working men is hardly something to boast in. It wasn't even half the amount necessary to rent a motel for the night. Whoever said that happy people have fat wallets obviously doesn't know anything about true happiness. Here were two godly men of exemplary status, happy in the Lord, and with not even enough money in their pockets to treat their families out to dinner. Riches can't give happiness; only the Lord does!
But let's get back to our story. I smiled at these men. It was one of those rare moments I was fully thankful to have a job. [More on my discontentment in a later post]. “I have money too!”
Mr. W offered to pay me back for whatever the cost for motel was. I refused. “I have a job,” I replied.
He laughed. “I have a job too.”
“Yes, but you also have a family to support. I have no financial obligations at all!” Sometimes it’s easy to see the downsides of being single. And yes, I admit there are downsides. But I can at least take consolation in this perk: it costs so much less to be generous.
So it was settled. With our forces combined we had a staggering ninety-nine dollars in cash. Surely that would be enough to secure a room for the night, right? The only thing that remained was to find a motel and drive them! Simple. (Or so I thought. We went through five smartphones until we found one that had service and wasn't dead.) After a furious five minutes of frantic Google-ing, I found it! A motel with a room for two, $79 a night and only a five minute drive from campus. Praise the Lord!
During this time, I met Ms. M. and Mr. S. They informed me that they were married, traveling musicians, and originally from the East coast but in California to visit family. Apparently their room for the night had fallen through at the last moment, so they were stuck without a place to sleep. According to them, they had a place for the next day.
Immediately I doubted them and everything about them. Traveling musicians? Like I’ve never heard that one before. They had no instruments, no bags save for a small purse and a backpack, and no definite timeline for their visit to their family. There story was dodgy and full of vague generalities, about as concrete as smoke, and I smelled a rat. How did they afford to get out to California from the East Coast, and yet not be able to afford a motel for the night? Why didn't their family take them in? I would not be a happy if they were trying to con my brothers and sisters. There would be none of that — not if I could help it!
Nonetheless, we proceeded to walk out to my car. TT and I had formed the plan, and I figured that the worst thing that could happen is that I expose their false story and leave them as we found them. So, as we walked, I launched, as innocently as possible, (which I admit, is not very innocently), into a torrent of questions: “How did you find the Bible study? What state are you from? Where did you go to college? What did you study? What kind of instruments do you play? How long have you been in music? Do you have a church background? Where is your family? What did you think of the preaching? What are your plans for your time in California?”
I figured the more I learned about them, the more likely I was to find a contradiction, a hole, and be able to expose their falsehood for the lie that it was. Plus, it was interesting to get to know them. They were unlike anyone I had ever met. They both professed to be Christian, and to have studied music in college. Her parents were pastors on the East Coast. She had grown up in the church and had always loved singing gospel songs. And, after a few minutes, I was actually enjoying myself. For all their shady story, they seemed genuine enough.
As we walked, I started wondering if this was such a wise thing to do. I was going with two strangers, at night, in the rain. We would be alone, in the car, and if something were to happen, I probably wouldn't be missed until morning at the earliest. I'm not sure how much of it is courage and how much is just plain dumb, but I seem to get myself into these kind of situations fairly often. Yes, we are called to walk by faith, and not by sight. But there really is no merit to closing your eyes where God has shined biblical light.
But, I digress. Back to the story. Halfway to my car, I got a phone call.
“Hey, Keith, where are you?”
“Oh no!" Immediately I realized I had gotten so caught up in the conversation, I entirely forgotten about TT! He was supposed to drive them with me, for company and safety. "I totally lost you. I’m so sorry.”
“No problem. No problem. But where are you? Do you still want me to come with you?
I thought for a moment. “No, it’s okay. I’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure? Is it safe?”
I slowed my pace to walk behind my two companions. “Yeah, I’m sure.” My voice fell. “It will be fine. I’ll call you later.”
We said our good byes and hung up. And then, I started to doubt myself. What if they tried to steal my car? Or hurt me? Or kidnap me? I started to regret not asking TT to join me. But I didn’t have long to worry. My phone rang again.
“Keith? This is JMW. Are you walking to your car right now?”
“Yes, I am. I’m almost there.”
“Okay good. Don’t turn around, but I’m walking a little ways behind you.”
“I’m going to follow you until you get into the car. Where was the motel again?”
“On University just past Sacramento.”
“Okay.” He paused. “I want you to take a picture with them. Be nice about it, but get their picture, just in case. Try to get their contact information, too.”
I was stunned. Here was a living example of a man as innocent as a dove and yet as shrewd as a serpent. Thankfulness swelled in my heart. “Okay, JMW. I will. See you tomorrow.” I hung up.
By now, Ms. M., Mr. S., and I had reached my car. And, as I pulled out from spot, I spied JMW on the sidewalk, watching us the entire way. There was a shepherd, a protector, a guide, a friend, doing what Christ the Chief Shepherd had commanded him to do: "shepherd the flock of among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness" (1 Peter 5:2). Shepherding/pastoring? Yup. Oversight? Check. Voluntarily? Hello, it was past 11pm. According to the will of God? Absolutely. And with eagerness? Assuredly. I'm thankful to be part of this church, thankful to have this man as my elder, blessed to be considered one of the flock. That alone made my night. But, again, let's get back to the story. We drove for a couple miles, making small talk and sharing more of our lives. After about five minutes, we arrived at the motel. But the prosecutor/lawyer/secret service agent within me still wasn't satisfied. I had to test them, to see if their practice matched their profession. So, I turned to Ms. M.
"You said that you studied music, right?"
"Yes! I love music." She had already shared that she started singing as a child in the gospel choir at church.
"Do you play instruments as well?"
"Yes, yes, I do. I play guitar."
I turned to Mr. S. "And you?"
"I sing." His voice seemed confident, but I thought I detected a quiver. I decided to push.
I turned to both of them. "Hey, can I ask a favor? Would you mind singing for me? I mean, I don't mean to put you on the spot, but I'd just like to hear."
"Sure!" she said enthusiastically. He didn't answer. After some deliberation, they decided to sing, "Amazing Grace" by John Newton. She sang sweetly, with an air that wasn't professional-level , but was definitely above average. She seemed believable, good enough to be a traveling musician. But, if I might say this as kindly as possible, he was a different story. If singing is dancing translated to sound, he danced like an awkward goose, jutting his head in and out sporadically, unsure of what to do with his webbed feet and flapping wings. It's true, he attempted some harmony here and there, and sometimes got it right, but it was always in a self-conscious voice, barely audible — and I was sitting right next to him. Towards the end of the song, he actually stopped singing and let her finish solo.
I clapped and smiled as they finished. My curiosity had been satisfied; he was the weak link, and I had every reason to doubt his story. But, I decided not to expose him blatantly. I had accomplished my goal ofknowing enough of strangers before sharing the gospel with them, and now I had fulfilled my preliminary task. With absolutely no segue, I turned again to Ms. M and asked, "Hey M, what is the gospel?"
A bit taken aback, she quickly regained her composure and said, "Uhm, the gospel is God's word."
I nodded. "Mm. What do you mean?"
As she stumbled her way through an answer, I was able to deduce that when I said "gospel," she thought, "Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John." I pressed forward. "But, what is the message of the gospels? What is it about?"
She smiled. "There's that one verse, John 16, I think? Or maybe, John 4:16?"
I rattled it off, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. Classic verse."
"Yes! That's it." She flashed that brilliant smile again. "The gospel is that Jesus Christ died for us, so that we would have life."
"Mm. Amen." I affirmed. "But, why did Jesus have to die?"
I could tell she was shaken up. I don't speak lightly or easily in the things of the gospel, and she could feel the heat. Sadly, for all her years of church, she had no idea how to answer my question. She stuttered a bit, raised her head and hand a few times, but always returned to thoughtful silence. After some struggle, she was forced to conclude, "I don't know."
It is truly pitiful to see. How can a Christian not understand why Jesus died? To fail to know this answer is to fail to understand what Jesus our Savior saved us from. And if someone doesn’t even know what they are saved from, the most basic of spiritual realities, can we really believe that they are truly saved? I pitied her lost-ness. But what she said next moved me from pity to compassion.
Like a child, she said, "Can you tell me?" I smiled to myself, and thought of the hymn, "I Love to Tell the Story." Yes, I can tell you. Oh, there is nothing better to tell! So I opened my mouth and said:
"Jesus Christ died to bear the wrath of God against our sin. On that cross He took upon Himself the payment, the punishment, the penalty, for our sin. This is why Jesus died, and it is the only way that we - sinful, rebellious creatures - can be saved. What is sin? It is us rejecting God, spitting in God's face and saying, "No! You are a liar! Your laws are unjust and Your ways not good. I will live my life by my standards for myself. And You have no say in it at all!" This is our wicked and evil heart, and for our blasphemy, we deserve to die forever. The wrath of God against us means hell.
"Yet, God the Father sent Jesus Christ, God the Son, not just so that He could live a good life or teach us or be an example, but primarily to die a brutal, gruesome death. Why? Why? Because He loves us! Even while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us! To purchase our salvation, it cost God His only begotten Son! And now, by His mercy and grace, He places this eternal life in front of us and says, "Believe! Believe in Jesus Christ! Take the gospel!" All who believe that He died, was buried, and was resurrected for all of their sins, repent of their sinful life, and come to Him, He will give eternal life. It cannot be earned by merit; we must receive and believe. This message of salvation is the gospel: there is salvation in Jesus Christ's death for sin. This is what you must believe to be a Christian and be saved from sin. There is no greater story."
And with many other words I shared the glorious gospel of God to them. They had heard the gospel now three times tonight: once from Pastor JS , once from Mr. JMW, and once from me. I don't know if they believed it or not. But, after answer some questions, and spending some time pushing harder on the points that they needed more clarity on, we had to call it a night. I did, after all, promise to pay for their room for the night.
So after a few hugs, a picture, and farewells, I left Ms. M. and Mr. S. I had a quick and encouraging time of thanksgiving and prayer with Mr. JMW (who had secretly followed us the entire way there!), a happy drive home, and then, it was all over. The day was done and I was in my favorite state: tired, and happy, in the Lord.
What a night! Truly, God was present. Now, there are many other things I could have mentioned to show God's hand, like how the motel manager broke their policy to allow for a cash only payment. Or how the night actually cost $100, but that the manager let pay only $99. Or, how their room was the last room available. Or, even how I had been praying for God to give me souls to evangelize.
But, I need only one thing to be convinced that this was indeed God's hand: the gospel was preached. Do we believe that when the Jesus Christ is preached, it is God Himself who is making an appeal for them to believe (2 Corinthians 5:20)? Do we believe that when the word of the gospel goes forth, God will generate faith (Ro 10:17)? We should. Scripture teaches us so. And thus, every time the gospel of God is preached, God is present. His word going forth is evidence enough. He Himself is working, and His mighty hand is not powerless to save.
Until now, I don't think that many people have heard this story. Now, hopefully, a few more saints have been encouraged to see how the Lord worked. But, of course, I hope you realize, this post isn't about primarily about a story of a couple coming to a Christian club at the Berkeley campus. This post is about something much bigger. It's about a Story far better, far greater, far more wonderful, than one post, let alone the world, could ever contain. It is, after all, what I've been saying all along:
Let's get back to the Story.
"I love to tell the story, ‘tis pleasant to repeat What seems, each time I tell it, more wonderfully sweet I love to tell the story, for some have never heard The message of salvation from God’s own holy Word" - I Love To Tell The Story, Verse 2