As is often the story with me, I can’t seem to remember a person if I only meet them once. I will recognize a name in conversation or a face in a familiar context. But I often have to meet someone on a couple of occasions before I can put a name and a face together. So, when I met Paul I was supposed to be meeting someone I already knew. Only for me, I really wasn’t.
Here I was in the South end of Philadelphia meeting the pastor of The Port, a new church plant. Paul was originally from Louisville, the city where I spent most of my life. We knew all of the same people and had been involved in many of the same ministries. He knew who I was, and I could only say that, at best, I had heard his name a few times before somewhere.
Paul was a kind and warm man who made me feel comfortable and accepted. Looking back, I remember there also being something about him that was distinct and transparent. I didn’t quite recognize it at the moment except to say that something was in the air when he walked into the room. I now recognize it was simply his authenticity and genuine love for God.
A group of us had gathered that Sunday evening to have a worship service. As goes with a lot of young church plants, it was a small group. I played guitar and lead the group in a few worship songs before Paul shared some words. After Paul was done speaking, we went into a period of prayer. Slowly, Paul went around the room and prayed for each person individually. I don’t remember it being anything out of the ordinary. Each person was setting their hearts and minds towards God, listening and receiving Paul’s generous prayers of petition to God. I had been in a similar situation before and had prayed hundreds of times in a group setting. That’s why what happened next took me off guard so much.
As Paul began to pray for me, he suddenly stopped. He raised his bowed head and slowly looked up at me and said, "I don’t know if this means anything or not, but I’m getting an impression of an old shoe, like one that’s been worn until it’s almost fallen apart. Only the shoe is being asked to walk further, to be used more." My initial reaction was a blank one. I was taken off guard by this off-kilter remark in the middle of prayer. I also found no context to place it in my life. I just sat silently and shook my head no with a look of bewilderment. Paul continued to pray but neither he nor I could let it go. There was something in what he said that was true. I just couldn’t find it. My soul knew. It’s just that my head couldn’t figure it out.
That’s when it dawned on me. I had been friends with two sisters for a very long time. Both had been wonderful friends to me and provided me with a lot of love and support in my life. They had seen my through some extremely trying times and had stuck by my side with words of encouragement and a listening ear. But they had also tapped my energy at times. They would often ask for me to be involved in their lives on a level that surpassed that of a typical friendship. We would often end up in discussions where I was made to feel that I was not giving enough to that relationship, even though I felt I was giving more to them than almost any others in my life. When disagreements would occur between us, some of their responses would have more anger and built up frustration than could have possibly been attained from the issue at hand alone. This had been going on for a couple of years. So when the argument of the previous week took place, I was upset but not surprised.
This ran through my head in a matter of seconds. I looked up at Paul shocked. Whether he knew the full story or not, the image in his mind was a situation pressing on my life. No one in the room knew about it. I hadn’t had the opportunity to share it with anyone. In fact, no one in my life except for the two sisters, even knew about the situation that had occurred. I had been so busy in the previous few days that I hadn’t had the time to sit down and think about it, let alone discuss it with anyone.
But Paul knew. God had whispered it in his ear. Paul had listened. He prayed for me more effectively in those moments than anyone else could have known to. He was the first person I had ever met that possessed this gift. I didn’t know what to make of it except that I had read about it in the Bible but never seen it in real life, but was very glad to be receptive to it.
My week with Paul was not over that Sunday. I met with Paul one more time that week in Philadelphia. We had gone to South Street, an eclectic strip of shops where Philadelphian eccentrics, subculture and tourists all intermingle. Paul and other people from The Port would often go there on Wednesday nights to pray for the city. They would walk up and down praying and often would end up in conversation with shop owners and Philadelphians along the strip. They would share the Gospel and often express Jesus’ love to people in various fashions. Many people were receptive to what they had to say and quite a few people had come to know who Paul was and why he came to South Street. Most people, even those that were not believers, welcomed Paul because of his warmth and kindness.
As Paul and I were walking along the street, he looked over and grew quiet. I saw his face grow intently fixed. I followed his eyes and saw a man walking on the other side in the opposite direction. As Paul looked back at me he found a look of inquisition on my face. "We need to stay away from him," Paul said. "We don’t want to talk to him. He won’t listen." Figuring Paul must have talked to him on a previous Wednesday night, I simply nodded my head and we went on our way.
A short time later our entire crew of people gathered on a street corner to have some final time in prayer before we went back to where we were staying. As we stood there talking, the same man from earlier walked past us. He stopped at the store we were standing next to and stood looking in its windows less than five feet from where Paul and I were. Suddenly, he opened his mouth and began speaking in a voice loud enough and demanding enough that our group was compelled to be silent and listen.
"Once, I saw a painting of Jesus down by the river. He had duck tape over his mouth. Do you know what that means?" He turned and looked at us with great intensity. "It means, ‘Shut the f— up!’" The man quickly turned and walked away.
After a moment of stunned silence, I turned to Paul and asked, "What did you say to that guy?" Solemnly and with sadness, Paul replied, "I’ve never seen him before tonight."
"Well, then how did you know…?"
"I don’t know. I just knew. The Spirit told me."
Paul and I have grown to be good friends since my experiences with him that week in Philadelphia. I have now moved here to Philadelphia and become his partner in ministry. God’s presence in his life overflows. His gifts of the Spirit have blessed both myself and many others in the time that I have known him. Even though it is Paul’s uncommon gifts that many may come to know him by, it is his honesty, compassion and humility that most likely made God bestow such gifts on him in the first place. Paul reminds me that miracles are not dead. God is not confined to the ordinary. Things still happen that can only God and God alone could ever take credit for. And that there are people out there who are still willing to have the faith to allow God to move in such extraordinary ways.
One night as I was swimming with a friend, our conversation turned to issues of faith, God and Christianity. He told me, "I’ve never seen anything supernatural like the things the Bible talks about. I’ve never seen evidence that God or Jesus are really alive and involved. I’ve never seen anything that can’t be explained." I looked down and thought for a moment and then said, "I have." Then, I told him this story.
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