Montreal, Carter, Argentina, Moscow, Reagan, Spain, Los Angeles, Reagan, Mexico, Seoul, Bush, Italy, Barcelona, Clinton, USA, Atlanta, Clinton, France, Sydney, “W.”, Japan-South Korea, Athens, “W.”, Germany, Beijing, Obama. (South Africa is next.)
It was the summer of 1990. I remember it because the soccer World Cup was in Italy that year; Cameroon was about to play England for a place in the semi-final. World Cups, along with other quadrennial events such as the US presidential elections and the Olympic Games, provide handy pegs on which to hang the passing years of my adult life.
After a hard week at work, Saturday had come and was not being any fun at all. The weather was hot and muggy, our two small daughters fussy and busy. Renata and I too were not getting along that day. I was being – insofar as I am capable – the husband from hell: irritable, selfish, unhelpful. Our small apartment in the east of Amsterdam was feeling claustrophobic and crowded.
Late in the morning I said something like, “Why don’t we just get out for awhile; let’s go to a park or something and let the girls play in the grass.” So, not long afterward, we lifted the baby-stroller and picnic bag into bus 22, heading for Amsterdam’s Central Station. Our plan was simple and incomplete: we would get off at the station and transfer to whichever tram was leaving that would take us near enough to a park.
As we crossed the square in front of the station, the ranks of trams waiting on the far side, my eyes started playing tricks on me. There in the middle of the square was a man who looked remarkably like my older brother, Al, who at the time was thousands of miles away in Africa, working at a mission station in Cameroon. I shook my head and looked again. The apparition persisted. And not only was Al standing there, but so was someone who looked remarkably like my sister-in-law, Anna Jo. They were surrounded by children who looked for all the world like my brother’s children, and were guarding a stack of suitcases that only my brother would own.
Needless to say, it was indeed my brother and his family. They had written a few months earlier to say they would be coming through town and would like to see us. However, at the same time the place where we were staying had been sold and we were required to move out quickly. We ended up living in an abandoned coffee house for a few weeks, and then moving again to our present apartment. Their letter never made it to us. But they did not know anything was wrong and just assumed our return letter (which of course we never wrote) had gone missing in the post in Cameroon.
Upon arrival at Amsterdam’s airport they did not find us waiting. No problem; they would come into town to find us. But we were, naturally, not to be found. And, being a Saturday, they could not find anyone at my workplace.
What to do? They planted themselves on the square in front of Central Station and my brother shot up an arrow prayer: “God, if you want us to see Howie & Renata, you will have to bring them here.”
My understanding of God changed that day. If I had spent the morning in prayer and fasting, singing hymns and melodies in my heart, and living in harmony with my wife, I could easily have explained what happened. It would have fit my framework of how God operates: “draw near to God and He will draw near to you”. But there I was, totally oblivious to any spiritual significance to the actions I was taking, a lousy husband and person, being grumpy, mean, and selfish. I did not “deserve” in any way to be used by God in answer to someone else’s prayer. And yet I can think of no other occasion in my life when I have been so clearly and accurately led from point A to point B by the Spirit of God who lives in me.
My being a child of God, capable of being led by his Spirit, is not dependent on my being nice or feeling spiritual. He may not always choose to, but he is able to get me where I need to be, even in spite of myself.