by Dwight Beal
Back in November, during our sneak preview of winter, I was rehearsing late at the church on a Saturday night. I was tired from a long day, and distracted with many things. As I often do when my brain gets overloaded, I forgot where I parked my car. So instead of going out the east exit where my Jeep was, I went out the north exit instead, which led me to a cold and empty parking lot. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw an unfamiliar person on a bicycle. I approached him somewhat cautiously and introduced myself.
He shook my hand vigorously and wished me a Merry Christmas. Then he leaned toward me, close enough that I could smell the alcohol on his breath, and asked me, “Where are we right now?”
I told him that we were standing in the parking lot of Central Weslyan Church on West 40th street. He lifted his arms in the victory position as if he had just scored a goal in the World Cup. I’m not sure why he was so elated, because he was way off course and had no idea how to get back home.
He was living at the Econolodge, a few miles from the church. I offered to give him and his bicycle a ride and he reluctantly accepted. He seemed very cautious of me, but probably not as cautious as I was of him, and whatever it was that was in his backpack.
When we got to my Jeep, we put his bike in the back. I suggested that he put his backpack in the back as well, but he didn’t seem to like that suggestion. “Don’t tell me what to do,” he said. “How would you like it if I told you how to drive?” When I opened the passenger door for him, he paused and said, “How do I know I can trust you? You might be planning to kill me.” I chuckled at the twist of irony and said with a wink, “Good point. Now get in the car.”
On the way to the Econolodge, he asked me if I wanted to come up to his apartment for a beer. He said that he had a story to share and that it would take some time. I wanted to hear his story, but I was nervous about going up to his apartment. The Econolodge was a pretty seedy joint, often frequented by cop cars and stakeouts. So I offered him a compromise. “How about… you get a good nights rest, and I’ll pick you up for church in the morning, treat you to lunch, and then you can tell me your story?”
He paused for a few seconds, as if he were processing something maniacal, and then he reached down into his backpack. I turned on the domelight, partly for him, but mostly for me, to keep my eye on him. My heart raced as I imagined what might be inside his backpack. I wondered if I would be able to defend myself if he pulled out a weapon. So, for 30 agonizing seconds, I waited as he fumbled around inside his backpack for God knows what.
Eventually his hands emerged from the backpack with nothing in them, and he said very matter of factly, “I will NOT be joining you for church tomorrow morning”. “Why not?” I said. “Because I have four beers left and I intend on drinking them all tonight.”
By that time we had reached the Econolodge. As I pulled into a parking space, he said to me, “I want you to know something… I believe in Jesus Christ.” I said, “That’s good. Do you know how much God loves you?” He looked at me with disbelief and a hint of disdain and said, “Boy… have you been listening to a word I have been saying?” I said, “Sorry. Yes I’ve been listening. Can I pray for you before we part company?” He said, “No. I wanna pray for you!” Then he grabbed both of my hands and prayed a very short and very slurred prayer, which I trust that God understood. After the prayer, he pulled me close to hug me. It was awkward and surreal, and definitely not how I had expected to spend my evening.
We stepped out into the frigid air to retrieve his bike from the back of my Jeep. “You sure you don’t want to come up for a beer?” He asked. “Yes, I’m sure. But thank you,” I replied. And just before we parted company, he grabbed my arm and pulled me close again, looked me straight in the eye, and spoke to me with unnerving clarity and authority. He said, “You need to slow down… and just enjoy your life… busy, busy, busy….” And with that, he wheeled his bike off into the darkness and disappeared into the Econolodge.
When I got home, my clothes reeked of alcohol and body odor, but it was physical evidence that what I had just experienced was real. I was in the wrong place at the right time and was able to help a guy get to where he needed to be. But he helped me get to where I needed to be, too. I mean, how did he know that my new year’s resolution was to slow down and simplify my life?
Since that memorable evening, I have slowed down. And I am learning to enjoy my life a little bit more. And the man on the bike? I haven’t seen him since. And I can’t help but wonder if God chose to speak to me through an inebriated angel. I wouldn’t put it past him.