We humans are rebellious by nature. We run from God, and in those times, he often has to cripple us to bring us back to him.
For Colson, a homeless man limping his way through life in downtown Atlanta, that spiritual phenomenon recently took on a physical dimension. Caught on the street in the middle of a gunfight between people he didn't even know, Colson ended up with a bullet through his lower thigh that sent him for treatment at a local hospital.
"When you runnin' from God," he told me as he sat in the crisp January night, munching on a muffin at a local park, "He sometimes gotta show you who's boss."
In other words, sometimes God takes you out of the game to make you realize who's really pulling the strings.
Without the few bucks he needed for meds, the smell on Colson's clothes and breath told me that he had turned to alcohol to take the edge off his pain. But even through a semi-drunken glaze, the 41-year-old spoke with the kind of desperate and damaged faith forged by slogging through life at the very bottom of the social totem pole. He sat on a bench wearing a orange skull cap to fend off the cold, and I noticed a long, thin scar running along the bottom of his cheekbone, giving him a rugged look as he stared vacantly toward Atlanta's glistening city lights.
Colson wanted two blankets, and he took a whole loaf of bread, but he wasn't too happy about the fact that the more swift of foot downed the last of the steaming broccoli casserole provided by the ministry that had set up shop in the parking lot. His limp had made him late, and although muffins were good fuel, he would've liked a hot meal on a night where temperatures threatened to soon reach freezing. A steaming cup of cider seemed to placate him, and we began talking.
I offered to pray for his leg, and he obliged, mumbling something about needing all the help he could get. We bowed our heads, and I placed hands on his knee. I felt the bandages through his worn, brittle jeans, and asked God for restoration. When I ended, nothing extraordinary happened. Colson just pointed his droopy, brown eyes back up at the city lights, and he began counting his blessings.
Colson's proof of God was not theological. It was experiential. With all that he had gone through, he felt that just being alive shows God is real, active and powerful. The gunfight could've cost him his life or his ability to move his leg, a near death sentence for a vagabond that relies on his mobility for subsistence. But the bullet hit no ligaments or arteries, and the emergency room wasn't far away.
"He's kept me alive for 41 years. I know he's an awesome God," Colson said. He spoke with a wistful tone both suffused with wonder and certainty but strangely subdued at the same time. As he quoted scriptures and proclaimed the glory of God, it was interesting how little hope he had to translate these abstract qualities into the real-life experience of love, joy and discipline.
"So what's your next move?" I asked, trying to get him thinking about the future. Folding tables squealed and slammed shut behind us and boxes rumbled into their seats as the church packed up to leave. I knew my time was short.
Colson couldn't answer, except to say that he believes in a God of second chances, even when it comes to his use of drugs and alcohol, some of the church's biggest taboos. Listening to his words, I began to feel convicted. Though bruised undoubtedly by some mistakes that he chose to make, Colson showed that he knows the true Source of what little power he had left. I hope it doesn't take homelessness for me to display a similar dependence.