Where sin abounds
My best man is not what you would call a “Christian”. We’ve been friends for years and, although he grew up Russian Orthodox, there’s very little semblance of religion in his life. He does as he pleases, goes where he wants with whomever he wants and doesn’t suffer fools lightly. He is an intelligent, classically educated, well-traveled, eloquent, multi-lingual and a very successful cosmopolitan. Although he himself is not religious, he “understands the role it can play in people’s lives”. Our prayer for him has always been that he be bewildered by grace.
All in all, he’s the poster child for a jaded, calculating, cynical yet pragmatic post-cold-war soviet youth. One might even wonder “what does this man have in common with you”? Surprisingly enough, I have to say that he is the only secular friend from my youth God has allowed to remain in my life. And I’m sure He has His reasons. I believe so that he can be bewildered by Grace.
Opportunity presents itself
On one of his many excursions to Europe for a skiing trip with his newlywed wife, they decided to cross the Alps and make some stops in Northern Italy; he wanted to take advantage of the proximity to Milan to take in the sights with his wife. As “luck” would have it, his rental car broke down. He’s not the type to panic so he very calmly called the rental company and arranged to bring his car in for repairs. He arrives at the mechanics’ shop to discover that no one there speaks English. Again, he calmly reaches out to me back in New York, explains the situation, and asks that I speak to the mechanic. He wanted me to communicate to him very clearly what he needed done to the car.
Grace abounds even more
He puts the mechanic on the phone, I introduce myself, explain that the gentleman is my best man, in Italy on vacation and that his car broke down on the road. I extend my availability to translate at a moment’s notice, I thank the gentleman for his time and add “che Dio vi benedica”.
Now, please understand that, although translated into English it means “God bless you”, unlike the ease with which we use it in America, from sneezes on the train to prayers at the altar, in Italian and in Italy, those words are hard to come by. It is not part of our daily lexicon to go around blessing people. For example, for sneezes, we say “salute” which is basically “good health”. Although we are the seat of the Catholic Church, it would surprise anyone to see just how secular Italy has become over the years. Religion and God are making a slow but steady exit out of public life.
Bewildered by Grace
So, just like any other normal phone call, the mechanic and I said our goodbyes. I told my friend it was taken care of. We both moved on with my day. However, what came next was more than just unexpected, it was extraordinary. The next day, after he had gotten his car fixed and left the mechanics’ shop, he called me again and said: “I just have one question: was the mechanic, like, your cousin or something”? Bewildered might be an understatement.
It’s not every day that my best friend is caught off guard by anything, let alone bewildered. He reads people and situations extremely well and has an uncanny ability at hedging himself against any unforeseen circumstance. So when he started our conversation with such a question I knew something very unexpected had taken place. I asked him to explain what he meant by such a left-field question. He went on to tell me how, right after we got off the phone, he noticed something different about the mechanic. I was happy to see that the mechanic was bewildered by Grace as well.
He described him as typical northern Italian: straight to the point and not very warm; courteous but not warm. He continued to tell me that after we spoke he went to work in earnest. The mechanic started bossing people around. He was telling his workers to get working on the car. He took a piece of paper and wrote down the following day’s date and a time (assuming it was the pickup time). Before leaving the shop, they shook hands and the mechanic gave him one of those half tap/half hugs sort of goodbye. But then, he said the mind-blower came the next day.
Where mercy found me
When my friend showed up to pick up the car the mechanic greeted him with open arms, welcomed him in, and personally escorted him to the vehicle: he wouldn’t even accept a tip! He said the mechanic smiled and laughed the whole time and waved him off as he left the shop! “Again, I ask you: are you related”? I assured him that I had never met him nor had ever spoken to him. So he asked me: “then what could you possibly have said to this man that changed his mood so drastically”? I thought about it for a moment and then I remembered, I had said: “God bless you”.
It made sense. The last thing I said to him was, “God bless you, God repay for your diligence and your time”. My friend said that it was as though someone had lit a fire under him. I went on to explain that, perhaps, that man had very rarely come across such a salutation and he really took it to heart and it made a tangible difference in his day. “It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever witnessed”. he said. I smiled, said “yeah, ‘God bless you’ goes a long way!’ and moved on.
Too often we want to preach and push and pull our loved ones into the Kingdom. My friend definitely got his share of it from a few of us when we were younger. After a while, we just loved him for who he is. We decided that prayer might work better. So it’s these rare moments when God shows up and shines out in ways that he understands that make up for years of preaching. He was able to witness first hand how God took care of his needs. Even in such little things above and beyond his expectations. So much so that he thought he had fortuitously landed among relatives of friends.
God doesn’t need us to hit people over the head with the Message: we are called to be “Living epistles, easily read of all men“. For my jaded, calculating eastern European cynical friend, what happened that day made him stop and take notice. Perhaps a few more such close encounters and, who knows, the Lord will lead him to Himself soon. We, as Christians, can only pray. As we pray, let us ask for opportunities for people to truly be bewildered by His Grace.