The summer after my freshman year of college I moved back to the Philadelphia area in order to work and save up for a gap year in Central Asia.
I ended up finding steady part-time work with an elderly cancer patient named Mr. Joe. Because of his age and the weakness brought on by chemotherapy, Mr. Joe needed a lot of help around his suburban property. He paid me a very generous hourly wage to help him with random projects, even paying me for the time it took to go to long lunches with him at a local Jewish diner. He also loaned me one of his cars so that I could easily commute to his place from the mission house where my mom and I were living at that point.
Mr. Joe was a character. He spoke with a New York accent, loved to tell long funny stories, and could never seem to actually finish a project – or even let the young guy working for him finish one. This understandably drove his wife crazy. The yard especially was a minefield of almost-finished projects that Mr. Joe had moved on from. She did her best to keep the house inside well kept-up as her refuge from the various project zones. Alas, at this she was only moderately successful. May God reward her faithful endurance with a project-free abode in the age to come.
“He’s payin’ you to be his friend and listen to bad jokes, tuhts!” his wife would sometimes say, laughing. This wasn’t entirely untrue.
Mr. Joe and his wife knew my parents from years ago where they had overlapped at the same church. This was the church where my dad had come to faith, married my mom, served as an associate pastor, and was eventually sent to the mission field. Mr. Joe and his wife were part of a large contingent that eventually left the church after a long and fruitful season, “the glory years,” came to an end with a pastoral leadership transition that never seemed to stop transitioning. What had been a strong and more traditional Baptist church led by a gifted pastor through the 80’s and 90’s later struggled in the confused church growth movement of the late 90’s and early 2000s.
I hope that Mr. Joe indeed had genuine faith, and he particularly emphasized the importance of finding joy in God. But he was also a contrarian who enjoyed theological provocation, so he would say lots of edgy things to get a rise out of people – or at least to get a laugh. He was originally from a Catholic background, as many of the evangelicals in that part of the Philly area tend to be. But like many from our former church, he never settled again in one local church after the transition fallout.
In one way Mr. Joe was a very traditional older white American man of the mid-2000s. He despised Muslims. And for the life of him he could not wrap his mind around why I wanted to move to Central Asia in order to befriend Muslims and share the gospel with them. The question would come up over and over again as we sat down and enjoyed hoagies, reuben sandwiches, and coffee at his favorite Jewish diner. Why would you ever want to give your life for them?
We had countless conversations over the course of that summer where Mr. Joe tried to square what I was sharing with him about God’s heart for Muslims with what he was watching on TV and reading from the “Clash of Civilizations” literature of that period. To be honest, I didn’t think these talks – heavily interspersed with Mr. Joe’s rabbit trails and stories – were having any effect on him. I was, after all, a 19-year-old kid who hadn’t even grown up in the US, an idealist who could talk a lot about reformed theology and missions but who couldn’t seem to stop ruining Mr. Joe’s yard and doing my fair share of botching his admittedly quixotic list of projects. He was about 50 years my senior. And we had frankly lived in very different worlds.
At that point I was fresh from a year of studying at Bethlehem, John Piper’s church, so we found some common ground when discussing the pleasures of walking with God. And of course we developed other common ground as I learned about the pleasures of long lunches at Jewish diners. But Mr. Joe knew that I was saving the money he paid me so that I could afford my year overseas in Central Asia. And from the beginning he told me he was absolutely against the idea of me going – and that he thought I was crazy and foolish. Apparently his need for help was greater than his opposition to what I planned to do with the money.
But God was at work over the course of those several months where we started countless projects together and even managed to finish a few. As summer transitioned to fall, one day we went out for a final lunch together at his favorite diner. And there Mr. Joe, with tears in his eyes, told me something I will never forget.
“A.W., you know I think you’re crazy for wanting to go over there. But I’ll tell ya what, if I were a younger man and weren’t about to die from cancer, I’d go with ya… You be safe over there and ya tell them about Jesus and how he loves ’em.”
I nearly choked on my cottage cheese.
It was, for me, one of the more miraculous heart changes I had ever seen. I remember thinking to myself, “If God can change this old man’s hatred toward Muslims, and replace it with love, well then maybe I’m not crazy for thinking God can change Muslims’ hearts as well.”
Mr. Joe sent me off with a very generous gift of financial support, asked to be on my update list, and that was the last we ever saw of each other. He passed away shortly thereafter from cancer.
God changes hearts. He did it for me. He did it for Mr. Joe. He can do it for any person in our lives who seems absolutely unchangeable.
The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.
(Proverbs 21:1 ESV)