The fact that the sobbing visitor chose to sit on the first pews from the pulpit, in the church’s empty sanctuary, was not lost to Pastor Evan. No one ever sat so close – not even members, the pastor thought. People usually parked themselves several pews back, and he figured that it was a decision based on reverence, fear, or just habit. But, clearly enough, none of those inhibitions mattered to the young man.
Pastor Evan took a seat next to the visitor, and he spoke in a comforting tone. “What is on your heart, son?”
John Harris raised his head and wiped his tears, making a solid effort to pull himself together. Then, with a long and deep sigh, the young gangsta fixed his eyes onto the shrouded cross positioned prominently at the back of the altar. “How do you know that He is real?” he asked, while only looking ahead. “How do you know that He is even here?”
“What a fantastic question that is,” Pastor Evan said with a bit of a smile. His also turned to look at the cross. “You know, it is difficult to believe in an all-powerful presence that you cannot see. It doesn’t seem to make much sense, does it? I think we all have moments when, for one reason or another, we questioned whether or not He is real. I think that is even true for the most devout believer. No one can easily say that they’ve never considered the possibility that He is not real. After all, that would mean that their faith is blind, rather than informed and critically researched or considered, right?
“So I am going to go back to your question: How does someone believe in Him – a god who knows all, loves all, and is all? How can such a god really exist? It is a perfectly legitimate question, and it deserves a good answer.” Pastor Evan stroked his fully grey goatee for a moment. Then he extended his hand to the visitor. “I am Evan Robichaux. I am the head pastor of this church. And you..?”
“I am John…John Harris.” The two shook hands.
“It is nice to meet you, John,” Pastor Evan replied. “Thank you for coming today. It is a blessing to have you here.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well, think about it. After everything we have been through in the last twenty-four hours, it only seems right to have you here, so that we help anyone seeking answers. In fact, I would have thought more would have come. Maybe they are still processing their losses. Maybe they will come later.”
John took a moment to look around the sanctuary. Indeed, the two men were alone. “Maybe they’re having a hard time believing it, like me.”
Pastor Evan nodded as he pondered that possibility. “I guess that could be true, too.”
“Sounds you have a lot of work to do, a lot of people to convince,” John said.
“Well, in that case, John, I’ll start with you.” Pastor Evan rose to his feet, and reached to the back of the pew, retrieving a copy of the Holy Bible. Then he returned to his seat. “I probably could try to quote some great scripture from this book, just to claim proof of the existence of God, but to you – a man with doubts, a man who is like I was – scripture, itself, is a questionable basis upon which to begin an answer. So let me try to start with something else.
“How does someone believe in God? Well, I cannot answer for anyone else, only because our experiences and perspectives are all different, and so, what brings us to this point is different for everyone. For me, for example, the answer is rooted, first, in faith and then in love.” Pastor Evan tapped the cover of the Bible with his thick fingers, as he thought through his next words. “John, faith is an interesting thing. It is unquestioning belief, sure, but it is also all about trust. The beliefs we have usually come as the things that we are taught, the things that we are told are true. I suspect that, since you are here, right now, then, growing up, you were probably told or taught the same things that I was. You were told that Jesus Christ died for your sins, and that there is a path to salvation for each of us. Well, these beliefs, alone, do not give us faith. No, faith is, in my opinion, beliefs given energy through trust. Get it?
“When I am up, at that pulpit, on Sundays, I often find myself quoting a man named Stephen Covey. He said, ‘Trust is the foundational principle that holds all relationships.’ That is also true for a relationship with God; trust is key,” Pastor Evan continued. “If you believe what you are told, and if you’re willing to take the chance that there is this higher power, then you have to trust in Him. You trust in His Word, you have to trust in His Purpose for your life, and you have to trust in His provision for your life, knowing that, yes, you do matter a great deal to Him. This becomes the anchor of your faith.
“Then you go a step further. You consider love – and I mean, His love for you.” That pastor could see that the visitor was attentively processing these words. “You take stock of the many things that He has done for you. As for me, when I look into the eyes of my daughters and my wife, I can feel what that love is, even if, to be honest, I cannot describe it. I also feel it when I spend time with the members of this church. All of this reminds me that God does love me, and has shown so much favor on my life. I was not a perfect man; I will never be perfect. But He loved me, no less. He loved enough to deliver me, as I was a condemned felon addicted to the bottle and facing decades in prison for vehicular homicide. He loved me enough to see me through a world of changes. John, from the evidence of this love, I have to believe that He exists. Too many miracles and so much love make it impossible for me to deny Him now.”
John lowered his head. “I have not seen much of that love, Pastor.” His words were bitter. “Where has He been in my life? Where was He when my daddy died? Where was He when my momma brought one man after another into our lives? Where was He when I had to quit school to care for us? Where has He been all these years when I needed Him most? Where was He yesterday? I mean – damn. How does a god that is so loving, as you say, let so many people suffer so much? How could he let them just die?”
“That, son, is the most pause-worthy question in all of human history,” Pastor Evan Robichaux conceded, before taking a deep breath. “Since every good question deserves a great answer, I am going to make an effort to answer this one. And I’ll be honest; I used to ask the very same question all the time. I will never try to give anyone the impression that I know the reasons why people struggle through this life, but I think, as I have grown as a person of faith, I have a better understanding of the trials we all face.” Pastor Evan finally opened up the Bible in his hands, as he watched John Harris wring his own. “I always tell my congregation to remember some important concepts when they think about their struggles: acknowledgement, scale, and hidden purposes. The first concept – acknowledgement – suggests that we should not confuse this life with the eternity to come. In this life, we will always encounter struggles. In fact, this book is filled with acknowledgements that we, even as some of God’s most devout people, will face trials, and all too often, in these pages, like in the First Book of Peter, we are reminded that, after we grieve about those trials, we need to lean in more, pray more, and find comfort in the notion that even these bad times are not permanent. They will pass. They always, ultimately, do. Acknowledgement is just the first point to consider – that our struggles will come, yes, but that they will also pass, because He’s still in control.
“John, what comes after asking you to pray and trust God more, particularly in times of struggle, is probably the biggest test of any man’s faith. You see, after the acknowledgement, then you must understand the scale of these trials. You must accept that, while some of the trials that you face can really big and very difficult, not one of them is bigger than any of us, because we serve an awesome God,” the pastor added, while quickly flipping pages in the book. “In the sixth chapter of Matthew, The Lord talks about your value, saying clearly that there is no reason for worry. Though there are troubles in this life, to be sure, God is not indifferent to your needs. After all, if He has done so much to provide for the birds in the sky or the lilies on the ground, then why would He not do the same for you? Aren’t you more value to Him than both of those things? So that point – scale – helps us understand that He is with us, even in times when we believe the opposite is true, and that He is laboring on our behalf without measuring if we are worthy of His Grace.
“And that brings us to the third point – hidden purposes. When we understand that our troubles will not endure forever, and when we accept that no one problem is ever bigger that our God, the next thing that we must consider is, what can we take away from these trials?” Pastor Evan handed the Bible to the visitor, and he waved his finger above a set of specific verses. “This is what is important for every one of us, John. The fifth chapter of Romans tells us that suffering is not without meaning. Our trials – they change us. The bad times in our lives produce perseverance, which forges our character, and then transforms our hopes. You see, here, man, while you and I may not fully understand God’s Will and the role of that all of these struggles play in our lives, what is for sure is that God knows what is to come. He knows that these things are critical to making us the people we are destined to become, in order to fulfill the purpose that he made us for. Now isn’t that a heavy thought – to know that our trials are part of our testimony about our deliverance and His Greatness?”
John finished his reading of those verses, and then he simply closed his eyes and shook his head with disappointment. “I do not think He had much of a purpose for me. I am no good for Him. Man, I have done so much bad shit – I mean, so many bad things.”
“Nah, that is a lie!”
“But – “
“No, John, it is not the truth, because no man is beyond redemption – not a man like Paul who persecuted and killed Christians, not a man like me who did anything just to not be sober, and not even a man like you. John, no matter what you have done, God still loves you, and He can still use you. In fact, if you are breathing, then you should know that He has a very real purpose for you in this life.”
Solemnly, the troubled visitor rose to his feet. His eyes were still fixed on the cross, but after a moment, he turned to the pastor. “Thank you,” he muttered, as he sought to return the Bible.
“You are welcome,” Pastor Evan replied, while also rising from the pew. Then he waved away the book. “I want you to keep that.”
John made an admission: “I am not sure if I fully believe yet.”
“I would not expect you so easily. It takes time for the seed to grow into more. Otherwise, what manifests will not be strong and enduring.”
“You are a wise man, Pastor.”
“Well, I thank you for saying that, but I am only a vessel, really.”
“Can I give you some advice, though?” Pastor Evan placed his hand onto John’s shoulder, as the young gangsta agreed to receive it. “You need to get out of the game now, John. This streets are no way to build a life, and after everything that has happened in this city, they will never be the same again – only worse. No matter what you have done, son, God has loved you enough to have brought you through this, so far, but it is time to walk away from it. For your own sake, John – do that. Let go, and walk away. Finally find peace in your life.”
Though he initially had no words, John figured that this was a good time to add levity to the moment. “Did God tell you to say that to me?”
Pastor Evan was not smiling. “No, I told myself to tell you that, because I do not want to see you killed,” he said. “That – and you needed to hear the truth. If you stay in this, you will die.”
Once again, tears streamed down John’s face, as he quietly nodded his head. Though he still openly questioned his faith, John knew that the pastor’s words were an affirmation, and that now he had to take heed.
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