Andrew Baxter’s first mistake was answering his phone.
For the past month, he’d had calls from “Unknown” showing up on his caller ID, and was steadily ignoring them. He had a pretty good idea who was on the line, and he definitely didn’t want to talk.
But today, at the end of a long week, while he was driving home from work so exhausted he could barely think straight, Andrew flipped his cell open without checking the number. Instantly, he regretted it.
“This is a collect call from an inmate in an Ohio correctional institution,” the recording droned. “Press one to accept the charges from …” There was a pause as his friend’s own voice cut in: “Pablo Gozo.”
Andrew sighed aloud and decided it was time to face the music. Steering his car into a vacant parking lot, he pressed “1” on the dialpad.
“Brother Andrew!” enthused the familiar voice.
“Sorry I haven’t been to see you in a while,” Andrew said guiltily. “I’ve been busy —”
“I thought maybe Jesus came for you and left me behind,” his friend laughed. “When are you visiting Hermano Pablo again?”
“Uh … I’m not sure, let me check my calendar —”
“That’s fine, brother. But I don’t plan to leave you alone. I’m a stubborn old man when I see a brother drifting away from God.”
Great — now he’s a mind reader, Andrew thought. Is it that obvious?
The fact is, Andrew hadn’t talked much with the Lord in a month — and when he did, he was usually yelling accusations instead of making prayer requests. He was furious, and God was the main target for his rage.
Anger wasn’t the root of the problem, however: Andrew simply felt he couldn’t trust Jesus anymore. He’d tried his hardest to make sure he was in the middle of God’s will. Now, it was clear what he’d thought was “God’s leading” for the past six months was just empty feelings, and he’d completely missed the boat. As a result, he was feeling the worst emotional pain of his life.
What did I screw up, God? Andrew suddenly demanded in his thoughts. Or are you just messing with my mind? If I can’t understand your will, how can I do anything right?
Suddenly, Pablo’s voice broke into his thoughts.
“You’ve been dodging me like a case of the flu, brother,” said Pablo. “If I went and got boring, that’s OK — I don’t offend easy. But if it’s God —”
“I don’t think you’ve bored anybody in your life.”
“Well, then at least it’s the Almighty and not me,” said Pablo with mock relief. “What did Jesus do — take back your salvation?”
“I’m sorry, brother; I shouldn’t make jokes —”
“You’re right: I’ve been lame.” Andrew paused. “It’s just if I visit you …”
“… You’ll have to talk to God along with me?” Pablo finished.
Andrew hated it when Pablo finished sentences for him. Of course, his friend was right — as usual.
He sighed. “OK, OK … I give. When should I come?”
“You know me, always a full calendar. Places to go, people to see …”
Andrew chuckled in spite of himself: An incarcerated felon didn’t need a daytimer. “All right, fine! Wednesday for visiting hours?”
“Wouldn’t miss it. Do you want to tell me what it’s about?”
“When we get together, OK? It’s a long story, and this is a collect call, and … well, it’s about Melanie,” Andrew admitted.
“Girl trouble — enough said,” said Pablo. “Until Wednesday, remember I’m praying for you!”
“Thanks,” said Andrew halfheartedly.
Having Pablo pray for him wasn’t as comforting as it used to be. But still, as he pulled back into traffic to finish his drive, Andrew felt relieved. At least now, he’d be able to tell someone about the whole mess.
* * *
As Andrew vegged in front of the TV that night, his mind kept wandering back to the looming meeting with Pablo. He’d never gone to see his friend and not come away encouraged — but there was nothing Pablo could do to make this situation better. Still, Andrew was sure he’d try: Pablo could find the bright side of a firing squad.
Then Andrew stopped to consider how strange their whole friendship was, and he had to laugh. Several guys he knew had mentors, but none of their role models were doing hard time.
The odd friendship had been forged a year ago, when Andrew was feeling bored with life. There was nothing wrong that he could pinpoint — he just felt like there wasn’t much right, either. One of the guys from Andrew’s Bible study made what seemed an insane suggestion: Andrew, he insisted, should go visit Pablo Gozo. The former drug dealer and gangbanger was serving a life sentence at Fairview Correctional, yet he had an incredible grasp on the joy of the Lord.
Andrew reluctantly made the two-hour drive, expecting his prison trip to be a waste of time. But to his surprise, Pablo turned out to have a better understanding of God’s grace than anyone he’d ever met. His friend showed him in the book of Philippians how to find joy in tough times. Ever since, Andrew had gone to see Pablo twice a month. He was discovering a fresh enthusiasm for life and God with every trip to Fairview.
But that was before everything fell apart. That was before he found himself half-wishing that God didn’t exist. These days, it was hard to look to Jesus for joy when you were wondering how you could ever trust Him again.
* * *
Andrew’s crisis of faith had begun six months before, when a new teller started work at his branch. Tellers were always coming and going from the bank, and this one seemed shy. It was several weeks before he learned that her name was Melanie Kallis.
But then one day in the breakroom, she caught his attention: Melanie was eating alone as she pored over a thick medical tome.
“Are you in school?” he asked, eyeing the book.
The girl looked up, startled. “No, I’m just — reading,” she stammered.
“Doesn’t look like a page-turner.”
“Well, it’s stuff I need to know.” Melanie paused. “Because … I take care of my mom, you know.”
Andrew learned that Melanie had been her mother’s main caregiver for years, ever since Mom got in a car accident six years before. Her dad promptly abandoned his family and took Melanie’s brother with him, which left Melanie — only a high school sophomore at the time — to look after of a bedridden woman who couldn’t use the bathroom by herself. Today, Melanie was studying the medical book to find ways of preventing bedsores.
“Man … I’m really sorry,” Andrew said. “I can’t even imagine what it’s like. I mean, if my folks got hurt …”
“Well, Mom took care of me.” Melanie shrugged matter-of-factly. “It’s my turn now.”
Andrew asked more questions, and discovered that Melanie had put off college so she could work and support her mom. After several years in retail, she was thrilled to find a job with benefits at the bank. But soon she changed the subject: Melanie seemed embarrassed that Andrew thought she was doing anything special.
Andrew reflected that this shy five-foot brunette was probably braver than he was. And when he saw her reading the Bible during her breaks a few times, he discovered where she got her strength.
* * *
Andrew couldn’t get Melanie off his mind. It wasn’t just her evident compassion for her mom: he also pondered her freckly cheeks and bright blue eyes. Still, he was in no hurry to jump into another relationship. The emotional exhaustion he remembered from Autumn — his last girlfriend, who’d been so needy she sucked the life out of him — was still too fresh.
Andrew prayed for God’s will on how he should proceed, but didn’t sense a clear answer. So at his next meeting with Pablo, he earnestly described Melanie’s care for her mother, her Bible-reading habits, and her shy smile. “But I don’t want to go against God, Pablo,” he said. “What if he doesn’t want me to date her? What if it turns into another mess, like with Autumn?”
Pablo chuckled. “You’re not planning to elope with this Melanie girl, are you?”
“Of course not! Maybe we’ll get coffee —”
“Then ask away! If she says no, it’ll be easy.”
Andrew froze: He hadn’t really contemplated rejection. “You think she’ll turn me down?”
“You want God’s will, right?” grinned Pablo. “I know an easy way to find out.”
The next day after work, Andrew summoned his courage and followed Melanie to the parking lot. He choked out an invitation to coffee, and was relieved when she gave him one of her shy smiles. “I’d like that,” she said quietly.
For the rest of the night, Andrew couldn’t wipe a goofy grin off his face.
* * *
The coffee date was definitely a success — they sat in Andrew’s car talking until after midnight. Then Andrew took her to a movie. After that, she beat him at mini-golf (and spent the rest of the evening gloating). He discovered the girl was far more gregarious than she looked: Once over her shyness, their conversations ranged far and wide.
A few weeks later, the twosome went on a picnic, and he reached out to hold her hand for the first time. To his surprise, she drew it back.
“Sorry,” he said. “Am I going too fast?”
Melanie looked flustered. “No … I’m sorry, I just … Andrew, you should meet my mom.”
That night when Andrew took his date back to her dilapidated apartment building, he went inside with a feeling of trepidation. Mrs. Kallis greeted him warmly, but she was obviously a lonely woman. While Melanie helped her brush her teeth and emptied the bedpan, the woman regaled Andrew with a 20-minute litany of health complaints. As Melanie turned off the TV and tucked the blankets carefully around Mrs. Kallis, she told Andrew all about her lazy caseworker. Andrew began thinking of excuses to escape.
Finally, after finishing her duties and wishing her mother good night, Melanie walked Andrew to the door. Her eyes were downcast. “If you don’t want to go out again, I understand,” she said.
Andrew nodded slowly.
Melanie gestured wordlessly towards Mom’s bedroom. “I mean … well, people don’t usually come back.”
Andrew stopped to consider the realities. If anything serious developed with Melanie, he’d be committing to help care for a lonely invalid. It would affect any life they might have together in countless ways — he’d never even imagined such a thing. Andrew contemplated telling Melanie he needed time to think … maybe the blow would be softer if he called her later …
But then he thought of his conversation with Pablo: Maybe this was God’s will. Maybe this was a way he could be more like Christ. Maybe the Suffering Servant he was growing to love more every day wanted him to care for Melanie, and her mother too.
After a quiet moment, Andrew reached for Melanie’s hand for the second time that night. This time, she let him take it … and gazed at him with gratitude in her big blue eyes.
* * *
Andrew was thankful to God for bringing this girl into his life. But whenever he prayed, he also asked God to clearly reveal His will. He knew a long-term relationship wouldn’t be easy, and earnestly wanted to please Jesus.
Actually, since Pablo came into his life, Andrew prayed about most of his decisions. Often, he’d get a sense of peace about things, which he took to be God’s blessing, or a twisted feeling in his gut, which he figured meant “no.”
Occasionally, a strong impression of words would come into his head. Once during his prayers, he distinctly sensed the phrase “stick it out” when he was asking whether to leave his job with the dictatorial boss. Now, as he prayed about his new romance, he got an equally strong impression — though it seemed premature and even a little frightening.
Two words clearly formed in his mind: “Marry her.”
Andrew actually chuckled out loud. He must have heard God wrong.
But as the weeks went by, the impression only got stronger. Andrew gradually let go of his caution — about keeping his distance (like he should have done with Autumn), about tending to Mrs. Kallis, about whether this was going too fast. He gave himself wholeheartedly to Melanie, and her mother too. He was starting to believe this young woman would become his wife someday.
They often prayed together, and Andrew was impressed with Melanie’s deep faith that God would make all things new someday, even her mother’s disability. Melanie was fascinated with Pablo’s story and his powerful influence on her new boyfriend.
But of course, their relationship had its speed bumps. One night about three months in, they discussed the future. Andrew mentioned that he hoped to have three kids, like his own family. “How about you?” he asked Melanie.
There was an awkward silence. “Andrew … I’m not sure I want children,” she finally admitted. “Maybe someday … I mean, I love my Mom, and I’m glad I can be there for her. But caring for somebody else …” Melanie shrugged helplessly. “I’m not sure I could do it.”
They quickly changed the subject.
His parents began inviting Melanie over for dinner Sunday afternoons. Though she was shy around them, Andrew tried everything to be sure she made a good impression. After a few visits, he asked his mother what she thought.
“Andrew, she’s a lovely, kind young lady,” his mother replied — then hesitated perceptibly. “But … is she right for you?”
Andrew assured his mother he wasn’t “settling”; he felt blessed to have Melanie in his life. His mother was a wise woman, he thought, but clearly she didn’t understand his girlfriend.
After all, every time he prayed, the assurances seemed to get stronger that she was “the one.”
* * *
For a few weeks, everything seemed to be fine. But then he and Melanie began lapsing into stony silences when they were together. There had come to be a list of uncomfortable subjects they avoided — from having children to his mother’s relationship opinions. Meanwhile, Melanie was making excuses not to get together.
One night after a dinner at a restaurant, they had a heated discussion over whether it was prudent to dine out. Andrew had always done it several times a week; Melanie thought it was frivolous. They ended up staring coldly at each other over an empty table.
Finally, Melanie said quietly, “Andrew … I don’t think this is working out.”
Andrew insisted they could make it better; these were just “growing pains.” A long discussion ensued. Finally, Andrew said simply, “Melanie … I think God told me to marry you.”
She looked at him with a blank stare.
“I know it sounds dumb … but, like, every time I pray —”
“Well, God hasn’t told me,” she snapped.
Andrew studied the table — however foolish it sounded, he really did believe —
“I’m sorry,” said Melanie with a softer tone. She reached across the table and squeezed his hand. “Thank you for not — running away. I haven’t dated anybody since high school, because I knew when they met Mom …” She swallowed hard. “You don’t know how much it means —”
“Melanie, I help with your mom all the time. We can do this —”
” — But I’d rather be alone with Mom … than with the wrong person. Wouldn’t you?” She looked helplessly across the table at him.
“I think you’re the right person —”
“Then why hasn’t God told me?”
Andrew could only shrug.
Melanie quietly took off the necklace he’d given her for her birthday and laid it on the table. Then she ran to the ladies’ room and stayed there for a long time.
They avoided each other’s eyes at work for the next week, yet Andrew still knew this was God’s will. He prayed fervently that they’d get back together somehow, and began plotting ways to win her back.
But on Monday morning, Melanie’s teller window was empty. When he asked around, he discovered she’d gone back to her old retail job.
That’s when Andrew went into his little office, shut the door, and sobbed.
Copyright 2009 George Halitzka. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.