As I write this, my head is still spinning while trying to make sense of what has happened during a few hours on Friday. But before I try to make sense of any of it, I need to tell the story. You may think that this is just one of those “Pastor stories,” but I am still sorting through what exactly this evening was.
I decided earlier this week that on Friday night I was going to take stock pictures in downtown Athens since my Europe pictures were not high enough resolution to blow up to poster size. I had the opportunity to go to Restoration (a sing/dance event put on by many of the Christian organizations on campus), but I really did not want to go and opted for the photo excursion.
After eating dinner, I headed down to Prince Avenue where I knew there was an old Coca-Cola mural that would look good as some stock photos. But right as I was about to turn on to Milledge Avenue, I found out that I had no SD card in my camera. Frustrated and flustered, I drove back to Russell and grabbed a memory card. By this time, the sun was starting to slip behind the trees and the natural lighting was almost gone. Frustrated, I parked the car and jumped out to get a few pictures before it got past twilight.
After snapping a handful of pictures, my camera informed me that it’s memory card was full. A 2 GB card only holding 22 pictures, seriously? This frustrated me more because I was planning to take some night pictures downtown, but that did not happen. But I think I would trade what happened tonight for some forgettable pictures of Downtown.
I was attempting some artistic shots when a man approached me and asked what I was taking pictures of. I cordially told him what I was taking pictures of and my reason for doing so. He seemed interested, and I showed him some of the different shots I had taken. He commented on some lighting but caught a glimpse of my ring (which says: יהוה הוא אוהבה “God is love.”) and asked what it meant. He actually stopped me from and read it for himself. He proceeded to explain that he had lived in Israel for the past three years. I told him I was going to walk Downtown and needed to grab a different lens, so he followed me to my car talking about his experience and just making conversation. He introduced himself as Ru’al.
On the way Downtown Ru’al asked me why I had that quote on my ring. I explained to him that, in my opinion, it is the perfect combination of the Old Testament and the New Testament. He asked why I was a Christian and what it meant to me. I have to be honest, I was caught of guard by the directness he asked many of his questions. I stumbled around the question, fumbling for the right combination of words that would accurately convey my heart without using the all to easy “Christianese” language. After I stuttered out something about love, grace, and God, the conversation moved to something that seemed more up my alley: the church.
We talked about how the church should act, what they should be involved in, and how they should treat others. Ru’al said little while I shared my views, my qualms with the way the church acted today, and my thoughts for solutions. He was very respectful and listened to my seemingly frustrated rambles. I’m not really sure how long we talked about the church, because it kind of came and went amidst our many conversational topics.
Ru’al then began to talk about how he had been wounded by the church and those who claim to be Christians. It was heartbreaking to hear how his parents were Christians, but would fight constantly; how he had struggled with his sexual identity, went to a youth pastor-mentor-by-default, and was looked down on by the church community. I cannot describe the conversation more than it was was abruptly real. There were not niceties or skirting issues, but gut level honesty. Ru’al’s words were not laced with bitterness or hatred, but his calm, gentle voice was tinged with hurt mixed with compassion (something very,very unique since most people who are wounded and leave the church are turn 180 degrees the other direction and hold on to their bitterness with a death grip).
He asked me about my life. It was not just small talk, but he genuinely wanted to know what my story was. Learning in college that I needed to be more open with people, I shared the journey I had been on up until this point. I explained about both the divorces and how those had shaped who I am. I talked about growing up in a Christian environment and what all that entailed. I was transparent because I could tell he wanted to know more than just the surface, but wanted to know how my soul was doing.
After I finished sharing my story, I asked him about his, not only as a cordial gesture, but also because I had done a lot of the talking up until this point and wanted to hear more about him. He began to talk about how he did not “fit in” to the family or community he had grown up in. He had always felt different in some way, but he could never really put a finger on it. He explained how he always asked questions, and this caused many people to disown him because he never seemed satisfied with the answers they gave him. He shared how his experience with Christians had been one of judgements and backstabbing. He commented on, how in the South, people can be good-natured to your face, but slander you once you turn around. This was his experience with Christians. Ru’al admitted that he was wary whenever someone said they were a Christian. He explained that he would put up some kind of forcefield because he expected the hostility he had experienced before. Then he said something to me, it seemed like in passing because he kept talking as if it was just another statement. Ru’al said, “But I can see that you are the real deal.” That simple statement blew me away. Am I really the “real deal?” Was there something I said in the past 30 minute conversation that made this clear? This was baffling, yet encouraging in the same breath. That a complete stranger would comment that my life is different that other Christians he had interacted with has got to mean something. Not to sound prideful at all, but it was refreshingly encouraging.
We were still walking and talking about Christians when we passed a kid walking down the street with a highlighter yellow shirt and shoes. Ru’al commented that he liked the shoes and made quick small talk with the kid. The guy did not say much, so we kept walking and talking. I forget about what exactly, but we ended up seeing the kid again. This time Ru’al stopped and said something to him. I could not hear exactly what it was but the kid looked kind of skeptical and weirded out. Ru’al caught back up with me and made this statement that threw me through another loop by commenting, “I have the ability just to see when people are hurting. I don’t know how, but I can just tell when people are hurting. Like that guy in the highlighter shoes. I could tell he was hurting.”
I was slightly skeptical, but the more I thought about it the more it made sense. Some people just have the ability to tell when something is wrong. It is those kind of people who ask you what is wrong and you cannot fool them by saying, “Oh, I’m just tired.” They just know that there is something brewing below the surface, and they genuinely want to help you because of it. That is the persona Ru’al gave off. It was not a surface level sincerity but true, honest caring spirit.
We started to circle downtown Athens a second time. Our conversations still centered around Christianity and the Church, with slight tangents explored when brought up. He began to reveal more and more of his story as we walked further and further. He had come from a Christian family but from parents who fought constantly. So much so, that sometimes he wished they had divorced. I turned the conversation to something that I perceived to be a lighter subject: why he was in Athens. He went on to explain that he had only been in Athens four months and was still trying to find his way around town, which had been the primary reason he was out walking around Downtown that evening. I asked him why he had left Israel to come to Athens. He responded that he had been looking for work and had visited Athens before and thought it was a nice town. He also had a friend that had a job lined up for him here. He then proceeded to tell me that he was fired from his job earlier that day.
Again, I was hit by a wave of reality. I know my face did not show it, but I’m pretty sure my eyes were as big as golf balls and my mouth was hanging down far enough for a train to drive through. I had been walking with this man for close to an hour and a half, hearing all the things that appeared to fall apart around him for his whole life, and the icing on the cake is he lost his job that day? I felt like Ru’al’s life was not a real life but rather something from a movie. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. And to make matters worse, he informed me that he had been fired from his job by a Christian boss. The reason, he explained, was that he had made a decision that was for the good of everyone, but one his boss did not like. While it was a gutsy move, it was the right one. Ru’al also said that he had confronted his boss on multiple occasions to point out areas of leadership that he was having trouble with. Again, a bold move, but the right one. Especially since his boss was a Christian. He explained how his boss had no accountability to anyone and was running the organization for his own well being rather than really thinking of others. Ru’al stood up against his boss, and eventually he paid for it with his job. He was cussed out earlier on the phone that day, ending with his job being reclaimed. Chalk up another reason why he should be bitter at Christians. Yet, he forgave.
By this time, Ru’al said he could feel his blood sugar dropping and needed something to eat. We wandered around to Taco Stand but ended up at Barberitos. He grabbed a burrito while I stood quietly by just trying to wrap my mind around who I was talking with. We found a table outside and sat down. It was way past dark and downtown Athens was just starting to come alive with the nightlife it is notoriously famous for.
We began to talk more and the conversation turned toward a forgiveness undertone. He explained how the reason he forgave is because he knew that he had hurt other people and wanted forgiveness from them as well. Retrospectively, it looked like he had a pretty good handle on the “Golden Rule” (Matthew 7:12). He asked me questions about who and how I had forgiven and then shared a story about how he felt God had convicted him to apologize to one person on behalf of an entire group of people (think Donald Miller’s Confession Booth in Blue Like Jazz except on a one-on-one, personal level). I was blown away by the sincerity and authenticity of Ru’al. Our conversation turned toward Jesus and his message of love. I made the statement that if we learned how to love more people, and focused on that love, then most of our problems would cease to exist or take care of themselves. A lot could be solved by just loving people; while it is the easiest action to talk about, it’s the hardest one to live out. Ru’al agreed, but then took me on a journey that really shook me up.
He started talking more about Jesus and the sacrifice he made. He tied it back in to the idea that his sacrifice for everyone was the biggest act of love that anyone could have ever shown. He then commented that Jesus (called Yesuha in Hebrew) was a cognate of the Hebrew word for salvation. He tried to explain it with words but ended up tearing off a piece of paper from the bag his burrito was in to write it. Here is what he wrote:
He explained that Jesus’ name is a shortened form of the word for salvation meaning “Savior.” While I knew this, I did not notice before that “Yeshua” is placed right in the middle of the word “salvation.” Ru’al pointed this little fact out to me almost in passing, going on to talk about the importance of names in Hebrew culture. I was suddenly awestruck at the sovereignty of God, and how He put his Son’s name right smack-dab in the middle of salvation. As almost an emphatic reminder that, “Yep. My Son is your salvation. And every time you talk about it, hear it, or write it you will be reminded of my sacrifice.” That blew me away.
Ru’al went on to talk about his name and what it meant. He began to explain that some of the rabbis believed that there were four levels of meaning for a name. The first was a literal translation. The middle two had to do with figurative and cultural meanings, but the last meaning was a more intimate, spiritual meaning. Ru’al shared that his name meant “One who sees God.” But he went a step further to suggest that the spiritual meaning behind his name was “One who seeks after God in search of intimacy.” Ru’al believed that his Hebrew name explained exactly what his life was about. He began to explain how he would wake up every morning and just ask God to show him what to do that day. He argued that there are things that we want to do, and there are things that God wants us to do. When we wake up, we have to choose whose directions we are going to follow. He said that he wanted to just follow what God said, and he would ask God what to do. And God would answer.
I was shocked by the honesty with which he spoke. I could tell he was not making it up for show, but rather that he really, truly believed that God was speaking to him. I was amazed at the amount of devotion and obedience Ru’al had for God. It really made me second guess my pursuit and heart after God. Convicting.
We finished up the conversation and I commented that I should probably be getting back to my car (since I was parked in a parking lot that said: “Bottleworks Patrons and Guests only. People who are not visiting Bottleworks establishment cars will be towed at owners expense), praying the entire way that I did not have a nice, new yellow hubcap with a nice, little notice of the impending decline in my bank account. So we began walking back towards where we first met, still carrying on conversations about God and personal issues. Ru’al asked me about my struggles, and while I hesitated opening to a complete stranger, I somehow felt that there was security and safety in what I would share. So I told him about my struggles with pornography, the perceptions during high school, and the downward spiral those two masterfully created, ending in low self-esteem and self-confidence. He did not say much, but he just listened and affirmed truth.
We came to the spot we first met and we stopped to say goodbye. I had a feeling that I should do two things: 1) Pray for him. So I asked if I could, and he was absolutely open to the opportunity. So I laid a hand on his shoulder and just asked God to show him where He wanted him next. I asked God to not ever let Ru’al stop asking questions or be afraid to probe for answers. I prayed he would keep seeking God and following after him, among other things, and 2) I should get his phone number.
I finished praying, we said goodbye, and we began to walk our separate ways since he was parked further down the street somewhere. I felt this nagging feeling (usually the Holy Spirit in these cases) to ask him for his phone number. But I kind of justified it to myself, and kept walking to the car. By the time I got in my car I decided I should get it and figured I could catch him walking down the road a little ways.
So I started up the car and drove down the street, but I could not see him. I figured that he could have turned down another street and walked down a block, so I circled around a couple blocks to see if that was the case. But he was no where to be found. I found this really odd, because surely he could not have just disappeared but had to be around somewhere. Kicking myself, I drove back to Russell and just sat in the parking lot trying to make sense of what had just happened over the past three hours. My head was spinning with questions, tangled with possibilities, and confused beyond many stretches of the imagination.
So what exactly happened? Well, you can read the narrative above and see for yourself. But past the surface level details, what really happened? Who was this guy?
All throughout the conversations, I never once disagreed with any of his stances concerning theology. He spoke clearly, but the only way I can define how he communicated was sophisticatedly simplistic. He relayed the messages of grace, love, and the Gospel with profound clarity. He was never bogged down with interpretations or possible applications but simply explained things the way the Bible appeared to say them. Nothing more, nothing less. It was surprisingly refreshing to hear someone speak with such proficiency without being dragged down by literal or figurative interpretation, but in the same breath, hit the nail on the head with application.
Not only did he speak with candid clarity, he appeared to be a mirror of my own life. Not an exact mirror, but one that showed exposed where I am today and showed me where I should be. All the issues about the Church, he agreed with me on. But when he offered his insights, they all seemed tinged with an unreal love and understanding. Rather than wrathful, vengeful, and revolutionary, he approached the broken Christian world with love and forgiveness. On issues of complex theology, he boiled it down to it’s most simplistic form in order to walk the way Jesus walked. When he observed others who were hurting, he did not throw cold doctrine or offer insidious answers, but he listened and tried to understand where their hurts stemmed from. He invested in others in hopes to encourage their soul.
Ru’al never declared himself “Christian.” He constantly referred to himself as “Jewish” or referenced his “Jewish colleagues.” The Jewish mindset would not be hard to believe if it was not for the important emphasis he put on Jesus and the sacrifice he made on the cross. It would be easy to classify him as a Messianic Jew, but he claimed that neither of his parents were Jewish. This somewhat of a convoluted idea. Jewish, but not Jewish. Thinks Jesus was a sacrifice for humanity on the cross, but not a “denominational Christian.” It appeared that he was everything a Christian should be (believed that Jesus was God, loved his enemies, sought out the hurting, etc.) but did not like being categorized as a Christian.
He genuinely cared for people. He genuinely loved people. He had a heart for the hurting and the least of humanity (what a better place to look for hurting than in the college campuses of America?). He was genuinely interested in more than just the surface of life, but he cared more about their soul.
So who was this guy?
This is the question that has been bouncing around my head all weekend. And I cannot come to a straight conclusion on who this Ru’al man is. It is easy to say that he was just another man, walking around downtown Athens, in search of something or someone. He was just another guy who had his world crash down around him and just needed someone to talk to. He was just another man who was in a whole-hearted pursuit of God in his own life wanting to talk with someone who was open enough to share their own views. He was just another guy who was looking for someone to talk and listen.
But what if he was more than just that.
Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” I understand it may be over-spiritualizing the situation. But the questions come to mind: what is hospitality? who are strangers? how do we know if they are angels if we are unaware?
We may never know the answers to these questions, but we have to believe that God has a reason for all happens and His sovereignty reigns supreme.
Who was Ru’al? I’m still forming my thoughts, but I am not sure that it is worth losing sleep over. All that I know is that God showed up in a three hour conversation I had with a complete stranger. God was glorified through our dialogue and conversation. And for that, I am thankful.