WORLD’s 2018 Books of the Year
The first time I met John, he did not care for God. “Where is God?” he cried, looking up into the smog-washed Los Angeles night sky. “Where is He in all this chaos?”
His life, he knew, was not an upstanding one, even though he had once donned a blue-and-white sailor suit to sing in his church’s boys’ choir. Today, at age 61, John is homeless, pickled with decades of alcoholism, and alternating between anger and apathy toward God. He wonders how, if there truly is a God, He could sit back and watch all the devastation unfolding in the world He created.
But when I suggested John ask God himself, he shrugged and reached for the bottle of vodka tucked into his jacket pocket. Sure, sure, he can ask God ... someday. But not today. Today, he drinks. His mind can’t handle both mind-dulling liquor and existential questions at once. So, he chooses vodka. God can wait.
Then something happened that caused John to call out again, “Where are you, God?”
This time, his good friend Robert had disappeared. Robert was John’s only friend at Venice Beach, where John has slept on the sidewalk or by the beach for five years. Robert can’t walk very well, so whenever volunteers would show up with hot burritos, John always requested two burritos: one for him, and one for his buddy Robert. For John’s 61st birthday, I got him a birthday cake with white frosting, rainbow sprinkles, and lit candles—and he asked for two forks: one for him, one for Robert.
Now Robert was gone. The last time John talked to him, Robert had been worried about death threats from a local gang. The next day, Robert packed up all his stuff and left without a word.
“He didn’t even say goodbye!” John told me that night. He looked dazed, still in shock, and his speech stuttered although I could tell he wasn’t drunk. “I don’t know where he went, I don’t know where he is. ... I hope he’s OK. And ... he didn’t even say goodbye. He didn’t say goodbye!” As he spoke, John’s eyes glistened and he turned his body away, as though in shame.
I stared at his back, my heart wringing for him. In all the months I’d known John, I had never seen him so despondent and disoriented, not even during the times when he remembered his dead ex-girlfriend, or when he was so drunk he couldn’t remember my name, or when he talked about how he’d probably die a homeless alcoholic. I didn’t know what to say, how to comfort my heartbroken friend. Then John surprised me, asking, “Will you pray? Will you pray for Robert?”
“Of course,” I said, and led him off to the side, away from the noises of the streets. I laid a hand on John’s shoulder, and prayed out loud for Robert and his safety. But I mostly prayed for John, because I don’t know how many people in this world are praying for him—and I knew he wasn’t praying for himself.
There’s a song I love from singer Regina Spektor called “Laughing With”:
“No one laughs at God in a hospital
No one laughs at God in a war
No one’s laughing at God
When they’ve lost all they’ve got and they don’t know what for.”
I have yet to meet a person who refused prayer during his darkest moments, even if he was a skeptic and laughed at God during fair times. I’ve prayed with a homeless woman who left her boyfriend after he hit her (and then went back). I’ve prayed in the middle of a ghetto parking lot with a middle-aged homosexual man with HIV. And I’ve prayed for myself too, at those moments when God felt far away in another universe. As alone and despairing as I feel at those times, there is always an instinctive reaction in me to lift my head and call out, “Abba God, are You there?”
Prayer is primal. It’s encoded in our spiritual DNA as image-bearers of God. We naturally call out to our Creator, like a babe that naturally cries for love, touch, and comfort. The sad truth is, most people don’t know who they’re crying out to—and so they shout out with desperation into unknown realms, hoping that someone out there will answer. And they do this without any assurance or confidence that their prayers are heard or answered.
I knew that was how John was as I prayed for him. In my prayer, I mentioned that it was a miracle that John was still alive, because even the doctors had told him that, with the way he drinks, he would soon die—and John laughed out loud when I prayed that, as he had laughed every time he mentioned how he should be dead. His chuckle wasn’t from mirth, but from incredulity mixed with a nose-thumbing at life, a twisted pride that he had defied natural laws, even if he knew not for how long. Then John turned somber as I prayed for a second miracle—for John to know God intimately and personally as his friend, his Father, his Savior, and his Lord.
Unlike John, I prayed with a confidence that this prayer was in line with God’s heart of wanting John to know and delight in Him. And unlike John, I prayed with boldness, knowing that such prayers tug at the ears and heart of God. I know the God to whom I call out, and I know my God cares for someone even as stubborn as John.