Sitting in our comfy, green chair to pray or “waiting for God” in my bed usually leads to dreaming or drooling, so if I get the chance to walk and pray, I do it. I walk out the door with my hoodie and plastic sandals, and I’m barely conscious of the fact that I’ve even gotten out of bed yet. The birds and the sunshine feel like the warmth of God’s smile, so I step onto the sidewalk and pass our neighbor’s leafy oak. That’s where I flip my hood over my bald head and tell God that I think He’s awesome: “Thank you, Lord, for being the God who created those mountains and gave that sun its power. . .” The prayer is usually the same, a little mechanical, but God is patient with me. The story of the prodigal son keeps me praying and walking. He was a mess, but he didn't have to take many steps toward home before his dad hiked up his robe and came running to him. God just wants to see me try.
Like the prodigal, after taking just a few tired steps one morning, I found myself surprised by the Father’s love just up the street from my house. Passing the gravel path to the park, I rattled off, "Please, God, use Deb, the kids, and I to shine for you,” and just as I finished, I looked up through the trees hanging over the sidewalk and saw a woman spraying weeds. The introvert in me sounded the alarm to divert course. All of the excuses hit me like a Wal-Mart grocery list: I shouldn’t bother her. She probably just wants to enjoy her own quiet morning. It’s just me and Jesus now. The excuses came quickly because I already knew what God wanted. I asked Him to help me shine, and He was answering that prayer. He wanted us to talk, but I didn’t. My heart started pounding, and the questions replaced the excuses. What will I say? Is this really God speaking to me? As I came through the trees, I pulled off my creepy hood and slowed down. Spray-stick in hand, she walked toward my end of her driveway, and we made eye-contact. We said good morning, talked about the relentlessness of weeds, and then she did something brave. She asked if I would help her, and I heard myself say, "Sure”.
"Could you unclog my gutter." She pointed to a certain spot where the water was pouring down, leaking into her basement, and said she was a little afraid of climbing her ladder. This was the point of no return, especially for one who calls himself a Christian. It seemed like a set up. It wouldn’t have surprised me if some Religion majors from CC were hiding in the bushes with cameras, secretly researching how Christians really treat their neighbors, or maybe it was a set up that only God could orchestrate. I gave her a big “Of course”, and we grabbed her ladder.
She told me she lives alone as I pulled myself onto the roof, legs dangling, and flopped my left leg and plastic sandal onto the rough shingles. Little shockwaves of panic worked their way from my finger tips to my toes, but I played it off, half smiling but desperately clinging to the roof like a cat that won't get in the tub. I looked into the gutter and pulled out a handful of black sludge. My neighbor looked up at me with wide eyes, probably praying she wouldn't have to watch my flailing body fall into her bushes. She stepped back to avoid the black splatters of gutter scum being tossed into her grass. Clearly, we were bonding, so I asked a more personal question: "Where do you go for community? Have you found a church?" I winced as that last line came out. It was a question that can lead to awkward silence, but her reply came as natural as a conversation about the weather. She grew up going to a Catholic church but stopped when a scandal surrounding her priest blew everything up.
"I miss it though,” she said. Her face was bright, and when I invited her to our church, she got excited. God was setting this up. We were his characters, and He was our Author, an author who saw us beyond our neighborly facades. Smiling and holding the ladder as I started to come down, she yelled, "I asked Jesus to help me with this drain. I didn't know what to do, but I'm going to thank Him." I almost fell off the roof. What? If there was any doubt about whether God really wanted us to talk, her words, like sunshine, drove those clouds away. We carried her ladder into the garage, and before we said goodbye, looking down at the ground, she told me her daughter died in 2003. She was missing her.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. In the silence, I tried to look her in the eyes and said, “When I was walking, I felt like God wanted me to talk with you.” She allowed my words to settle, waiting just a moment. Then, she looked up. The last piece of the puzzle had been set in place, and the beginnings of a smile proved God was at work. Clearing out the gutter probably took 15 minutes, but in that time, God pulled back the curtains of an ordinary walk to show us His heart. A woman prayed about her drain, and the God who knows our names heard that prayer, but He also saw a deeper need. He saw past the water filling a basement to the heart of a woman struggling in a desert of loneliness. With a laugh breaking through her smile, she thanked me for climbing on her roof.
“I think God wanted this to happen,” I said smiling back at her. Walking back through the tunnel of trees, the silence felt like music, and I wanted to sing. My neighbor and I had seen God weave in His wonder, and my ordinary walks and mechanical prayers would never be the same.