En route from Aberdeen to Oxford, something happened that I really didn’t expect, but want to expect, and perhaps should expect more often. I’ll get to it in a moment or two. I’d taken the wonderfully necessary Scotrail line down to Edinburgh, which hugs the cliffs and bridges of the East Coast. Sometimes it literally feels like the train is just ambling along a beach a few feet from the water or peering over a steep drop, which doesn’t seem like it should be allowed (in a good way). At Edinburgh, I had a fifty minute wait until my connecting train to King’s Cross. I do have a soft spot for Edinburgh – the city Dickens called ‘a house of cards’ because of its tall, narrow, rising stacks of beautiful sandstone buildings that look as though they should collapse at any moment – so I nipped out to the Royal Mile to sample some of the ongoing Fringe Festival. The finest the Bohemian cultural milieu has to offer. The aroma of bratwurst, which – by law, it seems – must accompany all Bohemian outdoor events without fail – was genuinely spellbinding, even at the somewhat unlawful price of almost seven pounds per sausage. At every conceivable stopping-point flyers were being thrust into faceless hands, and large pockets of crowds gathered around various mini-stages which seemed to have colonised the streets, showcasing acoustic bands, jugglers, and mimes, with each flyer perpetually promising ever-newer and greater theatrical delights if you could only stay a little longer.
What are people really hoping is going to happen this time that will overpower their unquenchable thirst for something else? It would probably take another Whitefield to persuade them, though I pray that God would draw this perpetually bored generation – by any mysterious means – to the one thing that truly will satisfy them (Is. 55:1-3). Still, though, it was interesting to see the latest cultural buzzes; I don’t spend enough time seeing what culture is currently creating; so much of it can be so beautiful and inspiring, especially when it isn’t treated as the idolatrous distraction to contemplating genuine meaning in life (as
unfortunately seems to be the case for the majority of the western world today). This brief sampling of the Zeitgeist did make me quite sad. I really did see that the city was full of idols, and yearned for something to happen, but felt personally inept, cowardly, and powerless to do anything about it (which made me even sadder).
Inevitably, of course, God won the brief argument (my defence case wasn’t all that cogent, after all), and I went back up the hill to interrupt this guy’s quiet cigarette. Naturally, he didn’t look at all impressed. “Hi, sorry man, this is gonna sound really weird, but I’m a Christian and I just felt God tell me to give you this [insert unread pseudo-evangelistic booklet]; I’m honestly not crazy, but I really believe God told me to do this and before I go I just wondered if there’s anything I can pray for you?” The majority of the time I was saying this, the guy’s face was a stone wall like any Scottish twenty-something male’s face would be in such a situation; but the very moment I asked if he wanted prayer, he immediately burst into tears. When he eventually spoke it transpired he has a younger brother with a four-year terminal illness, which is rapidly worsening; that’s actually what he was thinking about when I first walked past him. He was pretty cut-up, and worried what would happen with his family, especially his mum (no dad) and his sisters, who were also despairing, as was he. I don’t care how much of a cliché it is to note here that life really is precarious. Such heartbreaking things happen so often but they only really hit people when they occur in their own life – then, suddenly, their life’s foundations are shaken and exposed for what they really are, which is often a traumatic experience in itself. It’s so tragic that this is the case for an incalculable amount of people in this nation today, who never manage to find the time to really contemplate their worldview until it falls apart.
But God literally knows him, and wanted him to know that and strategically prepared a situation for that to happen. That’s actually mind-blowing. As the crowds in the next street were flocking for another spectacular buzz to connect their fleeting souls with something (anything) of lasting joy, at the fringe of the Fringe something else was happening: the God of the universe, the God of the cross, the God of the resurrection was orchestrating some elaborate plan to bring a glimmer of true hope and comfort into one person’s despair, through very unspectacular means. I remember thinking, as I headed back to the station, ‘imagine if all God’s witnesses were used like that every day?’ There are billions of other ways such encounters may happen, of course, but I can’t help but think how incredible it would be in this spiritually apathetic society if people all over the place were seeing God break-in in such unexpected ways. There would certainly be no cause for boredom.
I don’t think there can be anything more exciting or worthwhile in the entire universe than seeing somebody’s life impacted by God, the utterly mighty God who loves to such insane lengths that he not only comes and dies for his children but actively seeks them out.