The High Anxiety of Answered Prayer
I attend a local, monthly open-mike story slam patterned after NPR’s The Moth. Here’s my story from two months ago. The theme was ‘High Anxiety”
So it’s 1992 and I’m a young pioneer pastor in Nova Scotia, Canada. My wife has just given birth to my second son, Noah, in a Halifax hospital. Because of strange international legalities and the fraudulent financial dealings of certain big-name ministries and charities in the past, I’m barred from working a regular job, so I’m on a monthly stipend. Me, my wife, and now my third child.
My job description is ‘Missionary/Inner-City Ministry’, which sounds more spiritual than it is. I’ve got this little store-front church, which used to be a local credit union. There’s smelly, threadbare commercial carpet, a large room with small offices to the side, and a huge vault in the back. I spend most of my days evangelizing, visiting people, talking with them, praying for them, preparing sermons and Bible studies. I’m trying to see the grace of God touch people, transform lives, preach the Good News. I’m looking to build a congregation not with ‘transfer growth’ from other congregations but from scratch – with new believers, genuine conversions.
Despite the distance from friends and family, the challenges, the fixed income, the odd foreignness of the place, I’m excited. I’m still relatively young in the faith and definitely a newbie pastor, but I’m raring to see souls saved, see the Kingdom grow in hearts and lives. Very sincere, enthusiastic. A true believer.
Now as a Christian and spiritual person, I firmly believe in divine appointments – crucial, specific moments in time when you have the opportunity to reflect God’s grace and redemption to another person, either by what you say or do. All these decades later, I still strongly believe in them, and recognize they’re more common – and crucial – than I could have guessed.
Problem was at the time, my concept of them was very small. Whenever I prayed about them, for them, imagined them, even taught and preached about them, they resembled caricatures – these painfully scripted scenes in Christian books and movies,. They were Chick Tract dialogues where the Believer and Non-believer have this escalating conversation, this perfect Question and Response Ping-Pong of spiritual ideas. They’re short, direct, sprinkled with Scripture, have tears or choked-up moments, and usually culminate with the Non-believer falling to their knees asking, “What must I do to be saved?”
So that’s my mental picture, and here I am, earnestly contending for and on the lookout for just such a creature.
Now back to Noah and my family… After Noah arrives home, I decide I’m going to have a vasectomy. Three kids are fine by us. My wife is a wonderful woman and mother. It’s a relatively easy procedure, much less complicated for me than her, and by the grace of God and the Dominion of Canada, foreign ministers and missionaries receive free health care. So I book the appointment.
I have a brief, initial consultation where my doctor – a very professional, well-mannered Indian man (sub-continent, not native American) – answers all my questions, after which I schedule the procedure.
The day of arrives, and I show up early. A nurse leads me to a room where I strip from the waist down, then go lie on an operating table under one of those big round florescent medical lamps. I’m waiting for the doctor, alone and semi-naked on a metal table like something out of a crime drama morgue scene, or a fetish cyberpunk book.
Kinda weird, but hey – it’s free, for my wife and family. I’m good with it.
After what felt like a long time, (it was getting chilly) my doctor arrived in scrubs. We exchange the usual weather/traffic pleasantries before he donned a surgical mask, told me to relax, and got to work.
Now understand a couple things; the very first thing he did was display the instruments he’ll be using: hypo for the local anesthesia, a very sharp scalpel, a handful of wiry, pokey probes that resemble heavy-gauge dental cleaning picks, and what looks like a pair of needle-nose vise grip pliers. Second thing is he apparently had two plus cups of coffee that morning and is in a very chatty mood.
And you think it’s awkward when the dentist wants to talk.
Well let me tell you this guy was downright garrulous. He started in and didn’t stop. He wanted to know everything about me: where I lived, the neighborhood, my wife, my kids. When he learned I was from the States, he asked where I had moved from, where I grew up. He asked about my parents, did I have brothers or sisters… my life story.
The kicker came when he asked what brought me to Canada.
He’s so intrigued when I mention ministry, he gets more talkative, if that were possible. And right then and there, starts engaging me in this huge philosophical, theological debate.
I’m lying there, doing my level best to respond. He’s asking about my ‘journey to faith’, my conversion experience, the validity of the Biblical record… like everything Christianity 101.
So much so, as it continues I break into a sweat because the conversation is starting to sound like something ripped out of a TBN or Cloud Ten script. His questions are so earnest and direct, I’m looking to see if he’s joking.
But he isn’t. In fact, as he keeps talking, it dawns on me: ‘Oh my God… God is answering my prayer. I’m getting my ‘Perfect Witness.’
And I don’t like it. Not one bit.
I mean, the doctor’s talking, I’m trying to answer, but inside I’m praying:
“Really, God? Now? Here?”
“Can you make him shut up? Please God. How about changing the subject? Hockey? Politics?”
But noooooo. I’m riding this train to the end of the line.
Imagine if you will the doctor speaking in stereotypical convenience store clerk Indian-accented English, and understand he’s sprinkling our discussion with updates on the procedure.
He’s saying things like:
“I have always been interested in the teachings of Jesus Christ, but I’ve never fully read the New Testament. Hold on – I’m about to make another incision, so you might feel a bit of a tug.”
“Tell me more about the claims of Jesus. Did he really say he was the only son of God? Ah… wait a second – let me find and cut the right tube here.”
“So Jesus died for the sins of all mankind? How is that possible? *snip, snip* (holds up tiny piece of me in the needle nose vise grips.) There we go. Got it.”
Now I’m a good evangelical. I know my Scripture: John 3:16, Romans 8: 28, 2 Corinthians 5: 17, Revelation 3: 20 and loads more…. but I’ll be damned if I can recall any of them just then. My mind is empty as a broken bucket. Every time the doctor asks about Scripture, all I can think of is that song:
“Jesus loves me, this I know…”
I must have told him God loved him seventy times. Seventy times seven, in fact.
It was awful.
I mean the whole procedure couldn’t have taken more than 30 or 40 minutes, but it felt like an eternity. The Doc finished up, still talking away. I remember groping for answers (mentally, that is) but can’t recall anything definite or special on my part. Certainly not inspired or anointed.
When it was done, I got dressed, went home and ignored his recommendation to take it easy for a couple days. But that’s another story.
Now I’ve told this to a few select friends and the more evangelical ones always ask, “Did it work?” To which I reply, “It must have. We haven’t had any more kids.”
“Not that,” they say. “The witness. Did you lead him to the Lord?”
That doctor could have informed me he was a neo-Nazi, skinhead, Satanist who read Mein Kampf as a devotional, and I’d have been like “Well hey, you have to start your journey somewhere.”
So that’s my ‘High Anxiety’ story. It was twenty-two years ago and I’ve learned a couple things since then. Like what divine opportunities really look like, and to be more careful about what I pray for.
Thanks for listening.