I saw his familiar form sitting on the bench where we had had our first conversation over four years ago.  John had called me earlier today and asked if I could meet him around 6:00 p.m. at the park where this journey began.   Driving there I thought of all that John and I had been through over the last four years and smiled, grateful for how he had been so helpful.  Our relationship had certainly changed during that time.  I had long since lost the desperate need to pepper him with questions and had come to simply enjoy his friendship.  But what a friendship it was!  I came away from every encounter with John feeling as if my trust in Father had grown tremendously. 

I got out of my car stepping into a spring breeze that swept across my face bringing the sweet scent of citrus blossoms from a nearby orchard.  As I walked toward John he was in an animated conversation with a young man who seemed to be in the middle of his workout.  He continued to jog in place while they talked.  As I got closer they shook hands with a smile and the jogger continued on his run.  John jumped up from the bench to welcome me. 

“Hi, Jake.  Thanks for being free.  I wanted to see you again before I left.”

We hugged.  “Before you left?  You’re always leaving.” 

“Fair enough,” he smiled.  “But not usually so far away.”

“Really?  Where are you going?”

“I’m going overseas for while, to visit some people in Africa and I don’t think I’ll be back this way again.  I wanted to touch base with you one more time.”

My heart sank.  I couldn’t imagine he wouldn’t be a permanent if infrequent fixture in my life.  “I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.  “But my loss is certainly their gain.  I’m sure they will be as blessed to know you as I have been.”

“You didn’t always feel that way.”

It was easy to remember how frustrated John had made me in those early days.  The more I listened to him the more my life kept falling apart.

“Well it wasn’t easy at the beginning.  You really got me into trouble.”

“Oh, no I didn’t.  I never told you to do one thing.  I simply made some observations, asked some questions and gave you some options.  The choices were all yours.”

“I realize that, but they didn’t always turn out so well.”

“How could they?  You had two desires that conflicted with each other.”

“What do you mean?”

“You had this incredible hunger to know God and follow him.  But you also wanted to be circumstantially secure and well-liked.  Those just aren’t compatible with following him.  We are safe because he is with us not because our circumstances are easy and trying to get everyone to like you only made you less a person than God made you to be.  When you started following what God put in your heart, the other kingdom had to collapse.  It was inevitable if not enviable.  It is never easy watching people go through it.”

“But those are good days to have behind me.”

“That they are, Jake!” John said with a chuckle

“I had no idea how real Jesus could be to me and my family.  I had no idea how much of my thinking about following him was backwards.  I love the way things have sorted out.  As painful as it all has been, I can truly say this is the life my heart has always been searching for.  Even my best days inside of religion left me feeling a bit empty at times and always frustrated that I should be doing more and that God should too.  I don’t have that now.  Even on tough days I am grateful for what God is sorting out in me so that I can live more freely in him. There's not a day that passes where Laurie and I are not incredibly grateful at God's working in us and the people he is bringing into our lives."

“That’s wonderful.  Contentment is one of the best gifts on this journey.”

“And yet it is more than that.  Before I was so focused on what I wanted from God and how I could get him to fulfill my desires.  Now I just want to know him and let him change me so that his reflection can be seen in me.  It’s hard to explain.  Before I tried to act like a Christian.  Now, I find myself doing and saying things that even surprise me.  He’s changed me, John, and I can’t take any credit for it.”

“That is as it should be, Jake.”

“I am just sorry it took me so long to get this all sorted out.”

“Time isn’t Father’s focus, Jake.  He enjoys setting things right in us, even if it does take a bit of time. What you’ve learned now will never be stolen from you, no matter where God asks you to walk and whomever he asks you to walk alongside.”

“This life in Christ is everything Laurie and I had ever hoped for, and yet none of it fits in the packages we had always expected it.  I had an incredible encounter yesterday, John that leaves me in awe at the ways in which God works.”

“What happened?”

 “I had jury duty and I wasn’t even looking forward to it.  While we waited in the assembly room I was reading Time magazine.  I was alone in a row of empty chairs when a young, beautiful woman walked up and sat down in the chair right next to me.  I had no idea what she wanted, but turned to greet her.  She told me her name was Nicole.  After a bit of small talk about our jobs, families and frustrations with jury duty, I had no sense where the conversation was going so I turned back to my magazine.

“The next thing I know, she grabbed my arm.  As I turned to her she began to cry and told me she thought her dad hated her.  When I asked why she told me about this horrible fight they had had the night before.  As the details spilled out, it seemed to me like she had misunderstood what her father was telling her.  I could hear words I had said to my own daughter and knew I hadn’t meant them the way she was taking them.  I suggested that she might be misunderstanding her father.

“I tried to help her look at it from her father’s perspective and she was surprised to think she might have gotten it all wrong.  So you think my dad loves me, she asked.  I told her I didn’t know him at all and only she could answer that, but it was worth finding out.  She told me she would stop at her Dad’s house after she got out of jury duty to find out what he really meant. “

“That’s great,” John said.

“That’s not even the best part.  A few minutes later she got called out for jury service.  She gathered her things and stood up to follow the others to her courtroom.  As she said good-bye, on an impulse I reached up to put my hand on hers and found myself asking her if she would answer a question for me.  She nodded.  ‘How are things with your Heavenly Dad?’ I asked.

“You could tell she had no idea what I was talking about as her face twisted in confusion. Finally she asked if I was talking about God. I told her I was.  I’ll never forget her response as she almost snarled.  ‘I grew up with all that.  I hate him.’

“I smiled at her and said, “Nicole as wrong as you might be about your earthly dad, you are dead wrong about your Heavenly Dad. You have a Father who loves you more than anyone on this planet ever has or ever will.’  As her face lit up with wonder, she asked me if it could really be true, and if it was, what was she supposed to do about it.  She had to leave immediately so all I could say to her was, ‘If I were you, when I walk out those doors, I’d ask God that if he is as loving as I just said he is, he would make himself known to you.’  She assured me she would and left.  I know God had his eye on her and it was fun to actually be part of a conversation like that and have no regrets afterwards about the things I wish I would or wouldn’t have said.”

“The more at peace we are with ourselves, the easier it is for God to use us to touch others.  What a fabulous story!”

“And it’s not just me.  There are so many others that are learning to live this journey with freedom and joy.  Remember the home group you met with that evening?”

“I do, and was going to ask you what had come of that?”

“I’m not sure how to answer that.  We still get together though irregularly.  It rarely looks like the meetings we used to have.  We’ve learned to live more as a family and give time to the people God brings into our lives.  My story with Nicole is just one of many that we are experiencing as God gives us away to others.  Laurie and I have just started meeting with a group of new believers on Tuesday nights who wanted us to help them sort out their own relationship with God.  It’s one of the most enjoyable things we’ve ever done.”

“And Bryce?”

“I don’t know how that will sort out yet.  We’re still getting together and having some great conversations.  He’s still growing, but is caught between the reality of his heart and the expectations others put on him.  It’s creating a bit of a division between those who share his hungers and those who are threatened by them.  The next month or so will be crucial.”

“You’ll stay close to him?”

“Absolutely, though the road ahead won’t be easy regardless of what happens.”

“After all you’ve been through, I wouldn’t be surprised if you ran from a situation like this,”

“Part of me wants to.  But there is no way I’d let him go through this alone.”

Just then we noticed a rising tide of voices beginning to spill into our conversation.  We could sense the temper of them before we could hear their content.  They were tense and angry.   We both looked up to see nearly a dozen people headed our way carrying picnic coolers as their children were already scattering to play in the park.  They were headed for the picnic pavilion tucked in the trees behind the bench where John and I were sitting.  As they approached their words became clearer and we found ourselves caught in their conversation.  

 “If I have to sit through one more church service I think I’ll die,”

“You and me both!” his friend responded.

“You’d better be careful with that kind of talk,” one of the women offered.

“Or what?  Is lightning going to strike?”

“No, but it may get back to Pastor and then you’ll regret it.”

“When I first came to this church it seemed so alive and I felt like people really cared about each other.  Now it’s just one dose of guilt after another.  We just can’t seem to do enough for God.  We’re already out four nights a week with all that we’re involved in.  I’m exhausted.  I have nothing more to give.”

“Well, maybe he wasn’t talking about you, then.”

“No?  Then why do I feel so guilty?”

“I don’t know.  He means well and though he may not always get it right, he is God’s anointed.”

“If I hear that one more time…”one man started to say before he was interrupted.

The words were so pained, that I turned involuntarily to see where they were coming from.  It was the smallest lady in their group.  She had been quiet until now, but the words exploded out of her mouth like a dam burst.  “God’s anointed, my eye.  He’s out to build his own kingdom, and elders like you just sit by and let him do it.  It’s destroying me and my family and no one gives a rip.”

Some of those surrounding her actually gasped, their mouths hanging open in stunned silence.  The woman seemed shocked, too, by her own words.  As soon as she realized what she had done, she buried her face in her hands and began to sob.  Two women moved to console her, the rest stood frozen.

I looked back at John.  His eyes were closed as if in prayer and his face grimaced as if in pain.  As he looked up at me the briefest smile crossed his face as he turned to look at me.  “Do you want to handle this, or do you want me to?”

“Handle what?” I asked unsure what he was referring to.

John tilted his head toward the pavilion behind us and the awkward silence that hung over the group as a few of them began to open their coolers and pull out the food.

“We can’t just butt in.”

“At this moment I don’t think they would see it as butting in,” John said.

“You want me to talk to them?” I had a hard time imagining how that would happen.

“Well I think it’s for you to do, if you’re up for it.” John said with a smile.  “I’ve got to be going anyway.”

With that he stood up and I joined him.  “Good bye, Jake” He said it with such finality that tears welled up in my eyes.”

“Will I see you again?”

“It’s not likely,” he said.  “At least on this side of eternity.”

“Thank you for everything you have done for me.”  I said choking back my own tears.  “I can’t imagine how I would have survived all this if you hadn’t been alongside.”

“It wasn’t me, Jake.” John said breaking the embrace and picking up a small duffle bag that had been lying under the bench.   “It was Father all along and he has many ways to do what he does.”

“Just the same, I’m glad it was you.

“I’m also glad it was me.  Now some others need your help, Jake, if you’re willing.”

“I’m willing, but I have no idea what to say.”

“It will come to you.  Just go and love them.”

With that John patted me on the shoulder and started off across the park.  I watched him walk away and finally knew the answer to question that had plagued me for so long.  I knew who John was now and the answer was so incredibly simple.  I shook my head and knowing sigh.

Then I started toward the picnic tables still trying to think of what I could possibly say.   At that moment one of the men pointed his finger at the woman who had exploded in pain, “You should be ashamed of yourself, Sally.  Jesus would never talk like that.”

That’s when just the right words came to mind, something I’d heard a long time ago in what now seemed like another life.

I slipped among their little group and as gently as I could, I asked,  “You really have no idea what Jesus is like, do you?”

And that began another conversation and a story I don't have time for now.