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Almost 30 years ago I wanted to give up on life. Desperate and alone in a strange city, I wandered into a Sunday evening church service. I needed something to do, someone to care about my hopelessness. I didn’t know Jesus. Church was a way to fill another lonely night.

There was singing. Familiar songs, though I hadn’t attended church since high school. Someone selected a hymn, and everyone sang, accompanied by a piano. The person choosing the song often requested prayer or shared an experience. They discussed intimate personal issues freely and sometimes quite emotionally. Obviously these people were involved in each other's lives.

I sat alone in back, fighting the urge to leave. Their comfortable familiarity enhanced my loneliness. Why were these people surrounded by friendship while I sat alone and hopeless?

I’d convinced myself to approach the pastor, but the preacher that night was a substitute. I watched him closely as he spoke. He seemed sincere enough. Maybe he could help. I couldn't return to that bleak apartment.

After the service, people began drifting to their cars, arranging to meet for coffee while I desperately awaited my opportunity to speak to him. When the last group left, he moved toward the parking lot. I wanted to run into the night, but fear and despair overcame embarrassment. As he opened his car door I stuck out my hand awkwardly.

“Hi, I’m Rich.”

“Hello, I’m Hank. I saw you during the service.”

“Yeah. Um—do you have some time to talk?”

Indecision flashed across his face. He was headed home to his family. His day was done.

“Right now?” He wanted to put it off, and I swallowed the urge to say no big deal. But I’d finally reached out. I needed to grab something.

“Yeah, if you can. I’m having a tough time. I need to talk to somebody.”

Eternity balances on such small moments.

I don’t know how he decided that evening—perhaps a waver in my voice or considerable experience reading troubled faces—but somehow he said yes.

“Okay. Can you wait while I make a phone call?”

Then this stranger walked back to the church to use the phone, to tell someone that tonight I needed him more than they did.

The minister locked the church door.

“It’s a great evening—let’s walk while you tell me what’s on your mind.

The evening was winding down. The sun dropped behind the mountains as kids and parents ended another summer day. I didn’t know where to begin. Attempts at small talk drifted into awkward silences.

After a few blocks, Hank said softly, “Rich, you seem really troubled. What's going on?”

I hesitated. How could I possibly convey the chaos of my life to a stranger? Slowly, haltingly, I began to relate my struggles during the last couple of years—bad decisions, messed-up career, failed marriage, my mom’s death.

As we wandered through the quiet neighborhood, I wandered through dreams, fears, mistakes, and guilt. Occasionally Hank commented, but mostly he just listened as I poured out the tangled mess I’d created.

Dusk descended; yards were deserted as families retreated inside.

I thought I needed to resolve some specific issues, but what I really needed was to acknowledge the pervasive senselessness I felt. I couldn’t seek to fill the void until I first acknowledged the emptiness.

We’re all in prison, I once read, but we don’t realize it. That walk along those peaceful streets were my initial steps on the road to recognizing my personal prison. As long as I couldn’t see the door to my private jail, I remained locked within my own fears and disappointments.

Eventually I learned that the door was locked from the inside—I’d always owned a get-out-of-jail-free card.

“Adam, where are you?” When Adam heard God in the cool of the evening, he hid in shame. But God still walked with him in the beauty of the garden.

On that warm Colorado evening, I heard a call as hushed as the murmur of the breeze. As traffic noise faded, as we walked in the stillness, I heard—no, felt—God’s call:

“Rich, where are you?”

For one brief moment, as the world outside calmed, so did the world within. In that moment I felt the peaceful, patient voice of God inviting me to walk beside him. I needed time to understand that God had been relentlessly calling me all along.

“Rich, where are you?”

God was encouraging me to step through the prison door, to leave behind the fear, confusion, and loneliness that locked me in. The invitation was obscured by the clamoring turmoil inside. But my heart felt it—a whisper as faint as the rustle of leaves in the trees, calling me to something different, something better.

Hank asked some simple questions as we meandered along the now-deserted sidewalks. What do you think brought you to this church? What do you believe about God? Do you know who Jesus is?

I believed in God, though I didn't know how this ill-defined faith impacted my life.

My spirit mirrored the nighttime darkness as we approached the church. We’d walked and talked for a couple of hours, and I felt exhausted—weary and beaten down by an apparently meaningless and endless struggle. I slumped down on the steps.

After years of bad choices, I wondered if I had any right to suddenly pray to a God I'd ignored for so long. But I took the first step in a surrender that took far too long to conclude. I asked Hank to help me talk to God.

“God, I need you. I've done so much wrong. I’ve lost everything, hurt so many people. My mom, my friends, they're all gone. Help me, God. Please.”

As I listened to Hank’s affirmation of Jesus’ presence, I broke down. “Jesus, I don't know you, but I’m so lost. Please help me.”

In that moment, I heard a bit clearer that quiet, patient voice.

“Rich, where are you?”

I still didn't comprehend the reality of that call. But on those steps, in that calm Colorado night, I made the response that eventually opened the prison door.

“Here I am, Lord.”

The next day I bought some pine boards and fashioned a simple cross to hang in my bedroom. My crude project symbolized a life-altering evening, the beginning of a jailbreak that would take longer than I could have imagined.

“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert, and streams in the wasteland” (Isa. 43:18-19).

God brought me to that small CRC church almost 30 years ago. The congregation demonstrated Jesus’ love. They nurtured the faith of a confused young man and taught me the significance of the cross.

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