The writer of Hebrews told us, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels” (NKJV, 13:2). But in my case, I think it might have been an angel that entertained me.
On the Friday before Christmas 1986, I found myself in a restaurant bar in the Mall of New Hampshire. Northern New England was still pretty new to me. I had left a job in Manhattan barely a year earlier, I was 100 miles from my coworkers, I lived alone, and I seemed to find myself in bars pretty often.
As guys will do, I started talking with the man a few barstools away, who obviously had a head start on me. We found as much common ground as we could, for one guy with no knowledge of sports and another guy with no knowledge of banking. As an hour turned to two and then three, my new friend admitted that he was there because he really didn’t want to be at home. His sister-in-law was visiting, he said; he couldn’t stand her and she couldn’t stand him. As the restaurant was closing up around 10:00, he admitted something else: he was drunk (which I knew), and he’d missed his meeting.
I felt pretty awful at that point, thinking that I’d contributed to his momentary backslide by buying beers and swapping stories for the evening. I had learned by that point that my new friend lived barely a quarter-mile from me, on the north side of Concord, past the state prison, just where Penacook starts. So on a whim, and because it was Friday and I didn’t have to go anywhere in the morning, I offered to drive him home in his car.
Neither of us talked much from Manchester to Concord. He thanked me a couple of times in that time-honored drunken “I love you man” tone, but for the most part he was preparing himself for what waited at home.
When I took him to his door, it was about 11:00. The lights were all on, the kids were still up. His wife didn’t look angry when she came to the door, so much as she just looked sad. In the days before mobile phones were common, all she knew was that he was hours late coming home – and I’m guessing she knew the condition he’d be in.
She thanked me, and offered to drive me back to Manchester to retrieve my car. I think what she really wanted was to be out of that house until after her husband was asleep. I declined, saying I’d be fine. I walked back toward my apartment, and as I made the driveway I stopped. It was late, it was cool but not cold, maybe 30 degrees. There were no streetlights on that section of the road, so with no moon it was quite dark. With no plan whatsoever, and not giving any thought to the fact that in another mile or so I’d be hitchhiking away from the gates of the New Hampshire State Prison and likely to draw attention, I started walking toward Concord. And when I saw headlights reflected in the mist around me I turned around and stuck out my thumb. To my absolute astonishment, a car slowed and stopped next to me.
The car was a silver 1982 Toyota Corolla two-door sedan. The driver, a guy maybe my age at the time, leaned over to open the door and announced that he never picked up hitchhikers, but God had told him to do it this time. Since at the time I was a follower of the Religion of Tom and believed I was too smart for other faiths, my first thought was…. “Great. Abso-freaking-lutely fabulous.”
The car was comfortably warm, so he’d been driving for awhile. There was a man preaching from his cassette deck (Kids, ask your parents about cassettes!); I don’t remember who the preacher was, but the more I listen to One Place the more I think it was probably J. Vernon McGee. He had small brass plates glued to the dashboard of the Corolla with Bible verses inscribed on them, the size of the plates you’d see on a trophy. The young man asked where I was headed, so I told him the story of the evening, where I’d been, what had happened. I just needed to retrieve my car in Manchester. He nodded and said that he really didn’t have to be anywhere, so he’d take me there. But, he warned me, he was probably going to talk about Jesus on the way.
Today I don’t remember much of the conversation. But I remember his earnestness, his openness. I remember that I didn’t feel preached to, or judged. He pointed out some of the verses on the bass plates and told me what they meant to him. And he said he was grateful for the opportunity to share his heart with me. He asked questions about my faith and my life, but didn’t pry at all.
It’s not terribly far from Bog Road in Concord to the Mall of New Hampshire, about 27 miles, so the ride didn’t take very long. Of course the mall was closed by then and there was only one car in the parking lot, but I’m betting he would have recognized my car if it’d been earlier. The young man pulled his silver 1982 Toyota Corolla two-door sedan up next to my silver 1982 Toyota Corolla two-door sedan. We said a brief goodbye, he thanked me for listening and said he’d pray for me, and we went our separate ways.
We all seem to notice cars like our own, right? Well, at the time I was aware of a burgundy two-door Corolla that belonged to a girl who worked at the Shaw’s in Stratham, and I passed a silver one like mine sometimes in Mount Washington Valley. But I never saw that Corolla again, at a time when I was on the road all day every day in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.
For all the stories people tell about being saved and coming to Christ in one glorious lightning-bolt moment, I think many stories are more like mine: marked by fits and starts and slow awakenings, and by long periods of resistance and doubt. I’ve always been skeptical of any preacher who claims to have brought anyone to salvation, mainly because a preacher may have no idea how many family members or concerned friends or sermons or Casting Crowns songs on the radio might have brought that person to that moment. I certainly didn’t experience that moment in my new friend’s Corolla, and he didn’t press the issue. It would be a few more years until I would accept the gift I’d been offered.
Years later as my complicated journey progressed, I heard Newsboys’ Entertaining Angels for the first time: “So temporary / The things that I have seen / I ran so far / Will you take me back again.” I read the relevant passage from Hebrews as well, suggesting that angels are indeed all around us. I came to realize that, supernaturally or otherwise, I’d encountered an angel in 1986. He led me just another step closer to understanding what my heart, whether I liked it or not, had always known.