First Encounter



Ed left church just as the service ended and headed to the nearest liquor store. He didn’t wait until the ushers came along to release people row by row. He didn’t wait until the Pastor was ready at the door to shake hands with each parishioner as they left. He just left. He needed a drink.

Ed Tillman, 44 years old, divorced, behind in his child support, absentee Daddy to 16-year-old Tiffany and 12-year-old Johnny. Yeah, his life was messy, really messy. One of the other Postal Carriers he worked with said he needed to find God. His friend Mark told him God could be found in church.

Ed was desperate enough and dumb enough to believe him.

As Ed pulled into the parking lot of the strip mall off of Meridian Road, he was still trying to figure out if God ever went to that church.

Oh, the people were polite, they were descent, they all got along. They went to the same picnics, attended the same Wednesday night Bible studies, and some even went on vacations together.

They were all so nice and squeaky clean. Ed wasn’t anything close to that. If God requires that you put on a suit, shake hands and introduce yourself to the people around you in your pew, and sing a bunch of really boring songs, then maybe God didn’t want Ed to find Him.

Standing in front of the display of the different brands of Vodka, Ed opened his wallet and checked how much cash he had left. Just barely enough. He’d memorized the price of a cheap 750 millimeter bottle including sales tax.

“How’s it going, buddy.” The guy behind the counter must have been about Ed’s age, maybe a little older. Long, dirty blond hair, ragged beard, tattoos on both forearms disappearing under his shirt sleeves, definitely not squeaky clean.

“Not bad.” Ed looked around. “Business is slow.”

“Yeah, no shit. You’re my first customer.”

“Guess Sunday is kind of slow around here.”

“Until later. People like to sleep in on the weekend. You look all dressed up. Just get off work or out of church?”

“Church. How’d you know?”

“Don’t get many customers through here in a suit and tie on Sundays.”

“Oh yeah.” Ed quickly pulled the bills out of his wallet and fished around in his pockets for the change. “I forgot I was wearing it.”

“Well, you’re among friends now, so why don’t you at least loosen that tie. You look like you’re about to choke to death.”

Ed handed the money to the cashier and as the guy rang him up, Ed took off his tie, shoved it in his jacket pocket, and unbuttoned the top two buttons of his shirt.

“Want your receipt?”

“Nah. I’m not going to want a refund.”

The liquor store cashier crumpled it up and dropped it in the trash can near his feet. Then he grabbed a paper bag for the bottle.

“Save it.” Ed held out the palm of his left hand.

“Sure, no problem.”

Ed was about to leave when he realized he had no pressing need to go. He lived alone in that run down apartment. He didn’t really want to get drunk at half past noon, especially now that church was over and the pressure was off. He figured he’d wait until afternoon and wind down the weekend by slowly getting plastered.

“Mind if I hang around for a while?”

“Not at all. I could use the company.”

“I’m Ed.” He held out his right hand.

“Phil.” The guy reciprocated. “Pleased to meet you.”

“Been working here long? I haven’t seen you here before.”

“Close to a week now. Glad to have the work.”

“Tell me about it. With my child support, car payments, rent, and whatever, I’m glad to have a job, too.”

“Sounds like you have it rough. Divorced long?”

“Coming up on two years now.” Ed felt a lump in his throat. Two years now. He hadn’t realized.

“Divorce was her idea?”

“Yeah, how’d you know. You psychic or something?”

“Or something.” Phil winked. “Nah, but I could hear it in your voice. You’d have stayed married to her if you could.”

“Cynthia and I were married young. She thought I’d turn into someone I’m not. I didn’t get the career she wanted me to have, the house she dreamed of living in, all the stuff she thought made up the perfect marriage.”

“Nothing’s perfect.”

“You see, that’s what I tried to tell her. She just got tired of listening.”

“Do you really think it’s all her fault, being unreasonable and all that?”

Ed stopped for a second and thought about it. He already knew the answer. He’d known it for a long time. He’d known it even before she asked for a divorce.

“No.” Ed looked down at his shoes. “I really am a failure. No ambition, she says. She’s right.”

“Did you think you were going to find ambition in church?”

Ed suddenly felt defensive. He’d only been going to that little Baptist church for six weeks or so, but he didn’t want anyone putting it down.

“Hey, they’re good people.”

“Not saying they’re not. Most church people are pretty nice, but that’s not the point to going to church, is it?”

“I’ve got this friend, Mark. We work together. He knows I’m going through a tough time. He said that if I found Jesus, things would start getting better.”

“Did it?”

“Hell, no. Everything got worse. I found out that God thinks I’m a giant screw up as well. All those commandments and all that sin. I mean, I try to be a better person, but I keep falling flat.”

“Almost everyone does at first.”

“Not them, not those people in church. They’re all picture perfect. Compared to them, I’m covered in shit.”

Phil crossed his arms and chuckled.

“What are you laughing at?”

“You. You let them suck you in.”

“What do you mean?”

“If you could see them as they really are, read their minds, watch them when they think they’re alone, you’d see that most of them aren’t all that different from the way you see yourself. They just think Jesus covers their sins with grace and it’s all good.”

“What makes you think that?”

“Oh, I’ve known all kinds of Christians. I’ve known Christians here and there for longer than you’d imagine. Believe me brother, you won’t be the last churchgoer that’ll show up in here today.”

“So, they’re hypocrites just leading me along?”

“No, they’re human, just like you.”

“But that means going to church and all the hymns and the Bible studies are worthless.”

Ed was indignant. He thought the world of Mark. Mark seemed to have his life really together. He’d met Evelyn and Mark Jr., his friend’s wife and eight-year-old son. They seemed like they really all loved each other. Had they been lying to him all this time? Was it all just an act to draw him in?

“No, they’re not worthless, but they’re not the reason for going to church.”

“Then what is the reason?”

“To encounter God. To meet up with Him, make a relationship, get to know Him. He already knows everything about you.”

Ed blushed at the thought that from God, he had no secrets.

“How do you know so much? Are you a Christian?” Ed became suspicious, as if this casual conversation on a lazy early Sunday afternoon was a set up.

“Like I said. I’ve known Christians all over the place for a long, long time. I’ve talked with tons and tons of them. I’ve gotten to know them really well, and you know what? Church isn’t magic. You don’t change just by going. That’s why most of the people you just spent a couple of hours with haven’t changed much, either.

Ed put the bottle of vodka down on the counter, turned away, ran his fingers through his hair, and then turned back toward Phil.

“Then it’s impossible. The whole Christianity thing.”

“Calm down, Ed. It’s not impossible, it just requires hard work.”

“I thought you were saved by grace, not works.”

“I don’t mean that kind of work. You see, that’s the kind of propaganda that misleads a lot of Christians. Any relationship requires a lot of work. You’ve been married. You know that.”

Ed took a deep breath and let it out. “I didn’t work hard enough.”

“Are you saying that you could have done more to save your marriage?”

Ed paused. Looked at the bottle of vodka on the counter, his salvation from having to think and feel. “Yeah. Yeah, I could have. I just didn’t.”

“A relationship with God is the same way except that God’s already done His part, and He’s come most of the distance. You just have to hold up your end by making the effort to get to know Him too.”

“How do I do that?”

“Study the Bible. That’s God talking to you. Pray. That’s you talking to God.”

“I can’t make heads or tails of those Bible studies at church.”

“Give yourself a chance. This doesn’t happen overnight.”

“Some people in church say it does.”

“Bullshit. They say it. Some of them might even believe it. But it’s not true. Getting to know God isn’t something you do for a couple of hours on Sunday and another couple on Wednesday night. It’s a lifestyle. You do it all the time.”

“But you said they don’t really do it. That those Christians in church haven’t really changed.”

“Most haven’t. The ones who have put their time in. They worked at it, even though they don’t call it that. No one’s perfect, even if they want to look like they are, but some have turned their lives over to God.”

“I don’t even know how to do that. I answered the altar call, but I still feel the same.”

“You don’t turn your life over to God at an altar call. It’s not something that happens in an instant.”

“Then what is it?” Ed was leaning forward on the counter not realizing he’d raised his voice.

“It’s a habit. You pick it up a little at a time. First try making one little change. Get good at it. Get comfortable with it. Then try another. Heck, in a year, you’ll look back and wonder how life got to be so different.”

“Did your life get different?”

“You only transform your life when you make a commitment. I’m not talking about backbreaking labor. I’m just talking about getting to know someone one step at a time. Just in this case, that someone is God.”

Ed stood up straight again, pondering Phil’s words. Then he looked at the cashier again. “Where do I begin?”

“Anywhere you want. Totally up to you.”

“C’mon. That’s no answer.”

“Okay, let’s start with this. How often do you pray?”

“I pray in church.”

“No, how often do you pray outside of church.”

Ed blushed again. “I guess not enough.”

“Most people don’t.”

“But it’s hard. I try to pray, but then my mind starts to wander, especially right before bed.”

“It’s harder to pray when you’ve been drinking.”

Ed was shocked he was getting a lecture about booze from a liquor store clerk. “Are you trying to lose business?”

“Not at all. I’m just saying that being dedicated to talking with God requires paying attention.”

“Even when I’m not drinking, I still have trouble not drifting off.”

“That’s really common. Pray as long or a short as you need to. There aren’t many rules to talking with God.”

“How am I supposed to do this alone, and don’t tell me I’m never alone because God is with me.”

“I didn’t say stop going to church.”

“But you told me…”

“That most of them haven’t changed since becoming Christians. Well, that’s on them. Any relationship is just as deep or as shallow as you want it to be. You just have to choose the right folks to hang with, the ones who have taken their relationship with God seriously.”

“How do I do that?”

“It’s easier than you think. Just listen to them talk. Watch what they do. I bet you’ll be able to pick out the ones who have changed their lives and are closer to God. How about that friend to got you to go to church, what’s his name again?”

“Mark. Yeah. I hadn’t thought of it but you’re right. I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near a church if it wasn’t for him?”

“Did you see something different about him?”

“I work for the Postal Service, so there’s all kinds there. Mark’s different from most.”

“How’s that?”

“He doesn’t complain. Believe me, the work isn’t easy, and most of us bitch about it. No matter what they throw at him, he just gets to work. He even seems cheerful about it.”

“As much as a person needs God, they also need role models, mentors, someone to show them the ropes, not so much about church, but about living a changed life one step at a time. I bet if you ask him, this guy Mark will tell you he wasn’t always so together.”

“You think? I mean…”

“Hey. We all come from somewhere. Even people raised by Christian parents don’t always carry on the faith. It’s between each individual and God.”

“If you say so.”

“Just pull him aside and ask him. Maybe go out for coffee sometime, just the two of you.”

Ed looked down at the bottle of vodka still sitting on the counter.

“Want a refund for that?”

Ed thought about it. He knew he should ask for a refund. He should rush right home and start praying. He should call Mark and maybe go out for that coffee.

“Nah, not this time around.” Ed picked up the bottle by its neck.

“No worries. More business for me.”

“Hey, look. I really appreciate the talk, you know?”

“Not a problem. I like to talk. Like to listen, too.”

Ed half turned toward the door. “Be seeing you around, Phil.”

“Take it easy, Ed.”

Ed Tillman pushed open the door and walked out into the bright, hot summer afternoon. He unlocked his car door, got in, and tossed his bottle on the passenger seat.

The drive home gave him time to think about his conversation with Phil. He made it sound like life really could change for the better. By the time Ed pulled into his car port and walked up the stairs to his apartment, he thought it might even be possible for him to get to know God, maybe a little bit at first.

He hadn’t realized that he’d been talking to God for the past 45 minutes.

Some people find God in church. Some find Him when they pray in their bedrooms alone. Some find Him while walking in the woods, while hiking near a river, while reading the Bible.

Most people don’t find God in a nice, tidy box, in a clean, decorated church, or even when staring out into the infinity of the night sky.

Most people first meet God in the messy, muddy, shitty corners of life. They first meet God in alleys talking to hookers, drunks, and addicts. They meet Him in jail, they meet Him in hospital rooms, they meet Him at funerals, they meet Him in divorce court.

Some people, like Ed Tillman, meet God early on a Sunday afternoon at the local liquor store. Sometimes God has a lot to say, but mostly, He listens.

A couple of weeks ago, I read an article at called F-Bombs and Bikinis: What It Really Means to Be a “Christian”, about the messy, uncomfortable, confusing, and human side of Christianity, but what really inspired me to write this missive was Rabbi Tzvi Freeman’s brief thought Reality in Untidy Boxes.

There have probably been a lot of stories written about an ordinary person and all their problems meeting God and not even realizing it. Most people think God only wants to have anything to do with you when you have your life all squared away.

I’ve been in churches where most of the people were just going through the motions and only a few here and there really were living what the Pastor called “transformed lives.” It’s not simple and it’s not easy. People are messy, disorganized, confused, and sometimes absolutely directionless.

Knowing God isn’t a matter of being a saint or some perfect person. There are probably plenty of people who’d never be caught dead in a church who’ve met God for the first time in very unconventional places while living very unconventional lives. I think that’s where God hangs out most of the time. Even Jesus said that he didn’t come for the healthy but for the sick.

So where do you find the sick? When you can answer that question, go there, that is, if you want to meet God and see what He’s up to.

Oh, and if you liked this story, you can read the next part by clicking the following link: Ed Meets God in Church.

3 thoughts on “First Encounter

  1. Yes…superb entry to the subject. Cut out the discussion ending ‘forty-five minutes’, and send a copy of it to David Lancaster at Beth Immanuel, and ask him to ask for his publisher’s opinion on the series…where to publish to attract serious attention from the so-called Christians out there. You are far more in that world than I am, and perhaps I am being naive, but the stories might be handy to FFOZ….and other friends. How I envy you your writing background…in a nice kind of way! ;-]


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