December 6, 2013


“Have a pleasant evening, sir.”

The male voice from the darkened driveway startled me as I rounded the corner on my evening walk—2,200 paces per mile, 3.8 miles per hour. I’m not used to being greeted so civilly at 10:00 p.m., when mostly dogs and ne’er-do-wells are out.

“Thank you,” I muttered, noting that there were no features visible in the darkness. Only the timbre of the voice suggested an identity: calm; reassuring—like a soldier might sound in a nighttime greeting to an officer of unknown rank.

Military, I thought to myself, and made a mental note to check the license plates next time I came around the block. Must be a soldier home on leave.

Wilderness is how this movement came to be.

Two nights later the red Intrepid was still in the same spot in the driveway, and a quick inspection revealed Marine Corps plates above the bumper. Next morning, I studied the car more closely as I slowed my stride: late model; probably ’10 or ’11; well maintained.

Just then the Spirit whispered, or so it seemed: “Leave a business card to say ‘thanks’ for the kindly greeting and a promise to pray for him.”

I pushed the impression back into that region of my mind where I store implausible ideas. Leave a note? Offer to pray? Far too forward for a staid, suburban neighborhood like ours. That’s the kind of thing Jehovah’s Witnesses do—or Mormons do—or Adventists used to do. It might be misunderstood: there could be consequences. What if this unknown soldier thought I was trying to convert him?

Late walks in oak-filled, leaf-strewn neighborhoods allow an editor unhindered passage from the personal to the global. Shadows flit, grow large, then dissipate as motion-sensitive lights go on, glow briefly, then recede. Thoughts that never could withstand the glare of noon now linger, loiter, like the burnt-brown smell of fallen leaves.

Why was I reluctant to act upon the impulse of the Spirit? And more to the point, why would 95 out of any 100 Adventists I know be equally reluctant? What cool timidity has crept so far into our collective consciousness that we may easily dismiss the actions that our grandparents—and our parents—might have thought the normal stuff of daily Christian life, or evening walks? When did our “witnessing” become the task we give to children, collegiates, or the zealous—leaving all the rest of us the gracious anonymity of strolling through the neighborhood unknown?

Is it too “forward” to leave a note, promise a prayer, say a word for Jesus in due season? Respectability is a lovely thing, much coveted by those who tread the wide, smooth road that leads to nowhere in particular, but probably to Babylon in the end. And so we flinch at those who utter truths too clearly, “image” Adventism too brightly, or underline the rich prophetic past that made this movement grow and flourish. We want a cool and savvy faith, one known for understatement and finesse. Camped on the upscale borders of the Promised Land, we would just as soon forget the things we did—and learned—while traveling through the wilderness.

But wilderness is how we got here; wilderness is what we’ve been through; wilderness is how this movement came to be. God be praised there were—and are—men and women unafraid to travel light as those without a country here, saints intent on filling up the Promised Land with neighbors, strangers—even drivers of late-model Dodges.

Five nights along, the red Intrepid was still parked, as though the driver couldn’t move until I did. I fumbled with a business card, sketched out a line that offered prayer, and wedged it into the window frame. Pulse pounding as if doing something illicit, I offered an opening to eternal life to one who likely doesn’t have it.

“Your turn,” I said to the Spirit, and struck off down the block.

If, by some grace, we lose our pride,

Christ’s kingdom will be deep and wide;

If His is all the laud and fame,

The world will quickly love His name.