During our years in Europe, Jan and I spent a lot of our time traveling in and out of our home base in Berlin. We most enjoyed traveling by train. The pace was relaxing, and the passing scenery was beautiful. On one of our train trips, we were returning from Eastern Europe where we had visited pastors and churches. It was a good trip, but we were tired and ready to get back home.
When we boarded the train, it was almost empty. We made our way to our compartment and slid open the door. These compartments seat six people and were large enough to stretch out and relax. Glad to have the space to ourselves, Jan and I smiled and settled down to begin our long train ride back to Berlin.
About an hour into the trip, the train stopped at a station in the Czech Republic. As the train
began to move once again, we heard a knock on the door of our compartment. I looked up to see a man opening the sliding door and entering. We greeted each other in German, and he took his seat.
I could tell the man was successful. He displayed his wealth in the quality of his clothing and the expensive brand of travel luggage he pulled behind him. His shoes looked handmade.
Right after taking his seat, he began speaking in German. I asked if he spoke English. He said yes and continued speaking in English like it was his first language. For the next few minutes he introduced himself, telling me how successful he was. He shared that he owned several factories in Eastern Europe.
The man continued to talk about himself until it began to feel a bit uncomfortable. The more he talked, the more I realized he did not see how shallow his one-sided status report sounded. After a long while, he finally paused his monologue to ask what I did for a living.
In times like these, I am very careful how I respond. In some conversations, I will hold off providing a specific definition of what I do if I think we need more time to develop a relationship before I say, “I am a pastor.” Some conversations end when I reveal my work and calling. This time I said right away, “I am a pastor.”
It was like a curtain came down and covered the man’s face. His expression went from congenial to angry. The atmosphere in our compartment shifted. He spit out the words, “There is no God! Only weak-minded people believe in God!” He said God is not real and how foolish we were to believe in Him. As he spoke, he began leaning forward into my space. I was not sure what might develop.
This intense response went on for a few moments. While I listened to the man spew his venom, I was also praying and asking the Lord what I should do. The Lord said, “Tell him I love him and I forgive him.”
I raised my hand in an attempt to get this man to pause his tirade long enough for me to speak. He was not used to someone interrupting him, and it took him by surprise. When I raised my hand, he stopped speaking and took a breath. I said, “The Lord just told me to tell you that He loves you and forgives you.”
I had never seen a response like the one that took place. When the man heard those words, his facial expressions changed in rapid succession. He first manifested a look of shock. Then a stream of tears squirted straight out from his face onto the floor between us. He broke down and began to weep. I looked over at Jan. We were witnessing a man having a divine encounter with God.
After several moments of deep, emotional sobbing, the man was finally able to gain enough composure to speak. Jan and I sat in silence as he began to pour out his heart. He said he used to be a divinity student, training to become a pastor. Because of disappointments in his life at that time, he felt God had turned his back on him, so he turned his back on God. His sorrow about his life had become a deep bitterness toward God. In that moment on the train, God reached through his bitterness and reminded him he was not forgotten, and he was still loved. We were watching the return of a prodigal.
For the next hour, the man shared his heart with us. He talked about his marriage problems and his struggles in life and business. He was no longer speaking from behind the veil of his success. He was talking like the hungry prodigal son who came to his senses while examining the contents of a pig’s feeding trough. He was getting freer with each confession he made. His entire countenance was transforming before our eyes.
The train approached a town in the eastern part of Germany where the man needed to change trains in order to continue his journey home. He stood and gathered his bags. He thanked us and departed. After he got off the train, Jan and I looked at each other in amazement, realizing we had been honored to witness the miraculous restoration of a broken man.
We heard a knock on the window. Below us on the train platform was the man staring up at us, waving and smiling. As the train pulled away and his image dissolved in the distance, I was struck by how, in a single sentence God is able to relay of His love and transform a life.
Author of The Prophetic Voice