He was, I would guess, in his early-to-mid-twenties—a thin, clean-shaven, well-dressed young man who could have been anybody’s son. He turned up in our inner-city Calgary church office today, asking to see the pastor.
“Hello, I’m the pastor,” I said. I told him my name and he told me his. I could see that he was anxious, and somewhat out of breath. I took him into my office, and immediately his story poured out.
He was being followed, he said, by deadly enemies who wanted to kill him—and so when he saw my church, he ran in looking for sanctuary. But he was sure his pursuers had seen him enter, and so he was afraid to go back outside.
But there was much more to his story. So much more. He could tell that someone had been inside his home—someone who shouldn’t be there—because his door wasn’t locked when he knew it should have been locked, and so someone must have a key. And then, of course, he had been followed all the way from his house to the church. Plus, just the night before, he had been the subject of an “intervention” by members of his own church in Toronto, and they were telling him to come home at once.
Toronto, as the crow flies, is over 2,700 kilometres from Calgary. I asked him what he meant by an “intervention.”
“You mean you spoke to them on the telephone?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “It’s … it’s hard to explain.” He told me it could only be understood as a manifestation of the Spirit.
As distraught as this young man was, nothing about him struck me as being in the least threatening. He was polite and well-mannered, and I would have been happy to greet him at the door on Sunday morning, or sit down with him for a chat. And yet …
I thought to myself, “If his story is true, he needs the police; if his story isn’t true, maybe I need the police.”
“From the sounds of it,” I told him, “you need police protection.” And he agreed.
“Do you drink coffee?” I asked.
“Yes, I would love some coffee.”
So I led him to our library room, where fresh coffee was brewed and ready. He poured himself a cup, and our office secretary got him some cookies. I told him to wait there and relax, and I would sort out getting him some assistance. Then I went back to my office and dialed 911.
In very short order, a police constable arrived at our front door. I explained the situation, and led him into the library room.
Immediately, the policeman recognized my visitor. He had dealt with him several times before. They knew each other. On several occasions, it turned out, this man and his partner had conducted a “sweep” of this fellow’s suite, looking for intruders who were never present. On other occasions, one or both of them had rescued him from situations of imminent harm.
The young man’s relief showed on his face. The arrival of the officer drew from him no visible trace of fear or discomfort. Nor was there any reason why it should. That quickly became apparent. So did the fact that, yes, there were mental health issues at play in this situation.
Skillfully, with compassion and tender kindness, the constable engaged the young man. The “intervention” had come in the form of clearly audible voices . And although these voices were disembodied, arriving somehow out of the ether, he could recognize them as the voices of friends at his Toronto church—voices of persons he knew and could name, and they were urging him to get out of Calgary, warning him that his life was in danger. That it was time for him to turn his life around, and to stop snorting cocaine, and quit hanging around with dangerous people.
“I believe in God, too,” the policeman said. “And I know that you believe in God. But don’t you know that God loves you? Don’t you know that he won’t let any harm come to you?”
The three of us remained in the library for close to half an hour, as the constable drew out more and more information from the young man—patiently and attentively listening to his story, while also pointing out inconsistencies and contradictions within it.
“I believe that some of what you’re experiencing is real,” he said. “But I also think that much of it is hallucination—and I think, deep down, you know that, too. Nobody is following you. Nobody is hunting you.”
Finally, the troubled young man agreed to go with the policeman, who promised him, “Everything is going to be all right.” He said he would take him to a location where he would be perfectly safe, and where he could see a doctor … and get things sorted out.
Then the strange episode was over, and I was bidding both men farewell on the church steps. I watched as the young man opened the door of the police cruiser and sat down inside. There were no handcuffs. No tazers or pepper spray. No drawn weapons. Just … grace.
Yes. Grace. On this occasion, that was the only instrument required by the Calgary Police Service.
As I watched the cruiser disappear down the street, it struck me that this coming Sunday is the fourth of Advent, and the gospel lesson served up by the Revised Common Lectionary is this one:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favoured one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
Luke 1:26-38 (ESV)
A supernatural being with a divine communiqué. Voices from beyond warning of danger, and calling you home. A heavenly messenger saying, “Do not be afraid.” An authoritative guarantee that “Everything is going to be all right.”
A young woman in faraway Nazareth, centuries ago. A young man in a Calgary church, just this morning. These are, in one way, hauntingly similar stories. Skeptics would claim that they are entirely the same. And I’m not sure I can come up with an effective rebuttal to that. Except, perhaps, to note that the outcomes were quantifiably different. In the latter case, it was one young person who was rescued and delivered; in the former, it was all of humankind.
I’ll have to think more about this. But for now, what looms largest for me is one of the similarities—the fact that, in each case, an angel showed up. And an anxious soul found comfort.
Thanks be to God.