“The Devil Lost One of His Best Soldiers”
I realize that I tell a lot of stories like the one that follows here on this blog. I even realize that a lot of them probably sound very similar to each other. At least my retelling of them does. I sometimes hesitate to throw up another “post like this” for these reasons among others.
In the end, though, despite whatever misgivings I might have, I think that I tell stories like this because there are so many people whose stories are treated as disposable, unreliable, or somehow unworthy of being told. If nothing else, perhaps “posts like this” can be a space to hear them, to encounter people who often find themselves on the wrong side of life’s ledgers.
He shows up around 12:30 pm on a Sunday morning. Maybe deliberately so, the cynical side of me thinks. He knows that the worship service will be safely over, that the foyer will be emptying, and that the pastor, or whoever controls the purse strings of the church will still be there. I hear his voice before I ever see his face. “Hey, is there a pastor here I could talk to?” I look over and try to stifle a sigh. I know what’s coming.
He’s probably in his mid-thirties, lean, tough looking. He’s got tattoos running up both sides of his neck. “Hey pastor,” he says, pumping my hand enthusiastically, “I’m Tyler… Tryin’ to get myself back to Nova Scotia… I been out here in Alberta looking for work, but I ain’t had no luck… I got a little girl, she’s two… her mom ain’t in the picture anymore… walked out on her… I thought if I came out west with some work boots and a clean drug test, I’d get a job no problem, but I been out here for a few months and got nothin’… I’m just tryin’ to get back to the Trans Canada to maybe find a ride… Do ya think anyone would be able to give me a ride a few miles east? I got no money, but you know I believe in God… was baptized a while back… I’m on the right side, that’s for sure…Ya know, I need to get back to Nova Scotia… I miss my home so much…” The words keep tumbling out, an incoherent amalgam of plaintive desperation.
I look around. There’s only a handful of people left in church, and none of them live in the direction he wants to go. I look back at Tyler, standing off to the side talking to some folks from our church. I’m trying to stifle the self-righteous and lazy resentment I feel at always having to be the one to decide upon the merits of “requests like these.” “I’ll tell you what, Tyler,” I say, “I live about fifteen minutes east of here. I can give you a ride as far as I’m going. It’s not much, but it will get you a bit closer to where you’re trying to go.” He smiles widely. “Oh pastor, that would be great, man.” He grabs his black gym bag, and after saying a few goodbyes, we head out.
Over the next fifteen minutes or so, Tyler fills me in on his story. The basic contours are as familiar as they are tragic. His parents were addicts and he bounced around foster care for most of his childhood. He got involved in drugs early on and it was all downhill from there. “You know, I’ve spent most my life making stupid choices, being a total loser, you know? Most of the friends I grown up with are dead or dyin’ or in jail.” I ask if he’s ever spent time in jail. “Yeah, man… Four years in Nova Scotia… Maximum security, just like up in Edmonton.”
I ponder, for a moment, the surprises that life can throw one’s way. Safe to say that when I was shaving and prettying myself up in my Sunday best a few hours earlier, I didn’t anticipate that I would later be driving down the highway with a guy who had spent time in a maximum-security prison. “What did you do?” I naively ask. “Oh you know, the usual stuff… Weapons and drugs, mostly.”
Right. The usual stuff. Mostly.
We talk about prison life for a bit, but Tyler’s determined to tell me about how he’s turned his life around. “Yeah, you know my life’s been hard, but since I accepted Jesus… Well, it’s still pretty hard actually, but I got God on my side now, and if it wasn’t for him… You know, I’m all cleaned up now… No more drugs and drinkin’… Well, maybe a beer with supper sometimes… And I still smoke cigarettes, but damn, I’m tryin’… The enemy really tries to drag me down… He comes at me when I’m weak and he tells me lies about who I am, tries to bring me back to my chains, to where I was… But I do my readings every night and I fend him off.” I ask him what he’s reading. He excitedly shows me a large well-worn bible talks about Jeremiah 29:11. I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future… I look at Tyler and his black gym bag. I think about how many weeks it’s going to take him to get back to Nova Scotia at this rate. I think about the prospects that await him there. Plans to prosper you… hope… a future… Tyler’s looking out the window with a smile on his face.
We’re close to the end of our time together when Tyler looks across at me and says, “I gotta tell you, pastor, that I’m a changed man… The devil lost one of his best soldiers when he lost me… That’s why he’s doin’ his best to get me back… But I won’t let him… I have Jesus now.”
An hour earlier I had preached from 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, where the Apostle Paul talks about how the gospel is “veiled to those who are perishing” because “the god of this age has blinded them.” I had offered a bit of a case for the existence of supernatural forces at work in our world that influence our capacity to see and accept God’s work in our world and in our lives. Most of us are too sophisticated to believe in things like literal devils and demons and angels anymore, I thought. Most of us would chafe at the notion that there is anything out there that could affect our decisions and actions as free, autonomous, unconstrained human actors. And so I had tried (rather limply, I suspect) to get us to consider that there really are nasty forces at work in our world, forces that seek to lead us astray, to close us off to the life that God offers.
And then I met Tyler. And, not for the first time in my life, I was reminded that it isn’t necessarily sophisticated, well-educated, upper middle class postmoderns who have the most accurate grasp of the way things really are in the world.
I drive Tyler to the eastern edge of town. I pull a $20 bill out of my wallet and offer it to him. “It’s not much, I know…” I begin, but he cuts me off. “Oh, pastor, that’s great,” he said. This will get me a lotta coffees at a lotta Tim Hortons down the road!” He grabs my hand and shakes it vigorously. “Thanks for the ride, man! It was really nice to have a chance to talk to someone for a bit.” “Yeah, Tyler. It was good to hear your story,” I reply. “Take care of yourself. And take care of your daughter.” “Yeah, man,” he says, “I will for sure. I got God on my side.”
I watch him in my rearview mirror as I head back into town. He pulls his hat down over his ears, throws his bag over his shoulder, and begins to walk down the highway on an unusually warm day for February in Alberta. I’m glad he has God on his side.