It was June 1997. I was 17. I looked up at the man and studied him. He stood awkwardly with his hands in fists and stared at me. He had a golf course tan and wore a striped polo shirt. He looked old to me then, but he wasn’t – probably a few years older than I am now.
My boyfriend, Blake, sat across the table, and I glanced at him. He looked at the man, mouth agape. I was wearing my favorite black dress and heels. Blake had on a button-down shirt. We were at the “fancy” restaurant in town . . . a place that served steak and baked potatoes. We couldn’t really afford it, but this was a special night. It was our last evening together before I left for six weeks of summer camp. At seventeen, six weeks seemed like forever. We might break up. This could be our last date. Blake was good looking and I believed I loved him. The evening was a big deal.
The man’s face was ruddy. His eyes shifted back and forth between the two of us. An eternity of awkward silence went by. Blake turned all of his attention to me, and the man did the same. He asked the question again.
“Do you? Do you believe God talks to people?”
The 1990s were the heyday of Pat Robinson and Jim Bakker Christianity. There were a lot of evangelical Christians back home, and you had to be a little careful not to caught in the crosshairs of someone’s ministry. I didn’t dislike religious people, or even have much issue with their beliefs. But I thought their approach was a little unsophisticated, and I always wondered if it was effective. It seemed that we’d been cornered by one. I was not raised to be rude, but decided that the best strategy for extracting ourselves was to project a spirit of teenage entitlement.
“Only religious kooks interrupt strangers’ dinners to ask them if they believe God talks to people.”
That’s what I intended to say.
I opened my mouth, and said “He’s God. Why not?”
A smirk took over my face as I said it. They were not my words, but I liked the way they sounded. The tone of it was brassy and confident, like a dare.
Wait. Did I even believe that? I sounded like somebody who really knew what God was about, but did I? I thought about my confirmation class in the Lutheran church. Was that in the catechism? God talked to Noah and Moses and Abraham and other old men in the Bible, but that was a long time ago. Would he still do it now in a restaurant in Paducah? To a guy in a polo shirt? It seemed absurd.
The man looked stunned. He did not expect that response, either.
“Well,” he said, flustered, “I didn’t. but I’ll be damned if God didn’t tell me to come over here and pay for your dinner.”
He threw a $50 bill down on the table. Ulysses S. Grant stared up at me, with his round nose and his funny bow tie. I was not raised by superstitious people, but in my family $50 bills are unlucky. We don’t carry them. My dad wouldn’t even touch them. If God told this man to give us a $50 bill, was this some kind of prophecy? I felt a brief moment of darkness. Foreboding.
Blake sprung to life and scooped up the bill. He didn’t feel the heaviness in the air. He was thrilled.
“Thank you sir! Thank you so much! This is generous of you!! Kelly, we can get dessert!”
Fifty dollars was a lot of money to two teenage kids in Paducah, regardless of the format. I smiled politely and thanked the man. He nodded, turned to walk away, then paused. When he turned back around, he locked eyes with me. His eyes were a deep and rich brown. His voice sounded shaky and almost pleading, “There is something very special about you. Do NOT let the world take it away from you. Do you understand?”
Blake kept the $50 bill. He tucked it away in a drawer for safe keeping.
I kept the blessing, tucked away in my heart, with a memory of that stranger’s pleading eyes.
There is something very special about you. Do NOT let the world take it away from you.
Six months months later, the world began a full-on assault to take the it away from me. The world sent my baby brother with a gun. The world sent reporters with cameras. The world sent attorneys with subpoenas and depositions. The world sent experts to explain the ways I am broken. The world sent people – some well-intended and some nefarious – to tell me all the things I could and should never be.
The world took my belonging. It took my safety. It took my sense of being loved. But I kept the blessing.
I still have the blessing.
He’s God. Why not?