One of my favourite books is this one – Papillon by Henri Charriere.
I first read it in 1988 and it had a profound impact on me. It’s the account of Henri’s time in a brutal prison in what was once French Guyana. He tells of daring escape attempts and how he survived life inside. But he also tells the stories of many other prisoners, so in this sense it’s a story of stories. Which is one of my favourite things about it. Not unlike the Bible. And that brings me to another unforgettable thing about this book for me. A few lines that really changed my thinking. Henri finally does escape, aboard a raft made of coconuts. He floats precariously for days on the ocean. And during that time, as he lies on that precarious raft, staring up at the sky he makes this comment about God and nature.
“The tears in my pus-filled eyes became a thousand little crystals of ever colour. Like stained-glass windows, I thought. God is with you today, Papi! In the midst of nature’s monstrous elements, in the wind, the immenseness of the sea, the depth of the waves, the imposing green roof of the bush, you feel your own infinitesimal smallness, and perhaps it’s here, without looking for Him, that you find God, that you touch Him with your finger. I had sensed Him at night during the thousands of hours I had spent buried alive in dank dungeons without a ray of sun; I touched Him today in a sun that would devour everything too weak to resist it. I touched God, I felt Him around me, inside me. He even whispered in my ear: “You will suffer; you will suffer more. But this time I am on your side. You will be free. You will, I promise you.”
Incredible! Right there, slap in the middle of a brutal book about crime, prison, murder, escape and adventure, was this incredible quote about meeting God. I was very used to coming across God in ‘Christian’ books – but not like this. Not in an ordinary thumping good read. Astonishing. Since then, little by little, I have found it happening again and again. Tripping over the presence of God in all kinds of unexpected places.
It happened recently in this kindle novel – My Ride With Gus. A great gangster ride of a book, about a hapless guy, Jimmy, trying to dispose of a corpse with his two brothers, Joey and Gus. Joey is a priest, and when their car won’t start he prays about it. Afterwards, when they have been able to fix it, this happens:
They all got in. Gus eased the idling car into gear and continued crossing the majestic span.
“Aaay, you see that?” Joey asked. “And you made fun of me for prayin’. See how it helped?”
Gus chuckled. “No offence Father Gambuzza, but that’s bullshit. The battery did not come back to life.”
Joey shook his head. “Wasn’t prayin’ for a resurrected battery. I prayed for a solution. See, this is where people make their mistakes. You don’t pray for specific things. People who pray for this item or that item, fuhgetaboutit, they get zip. God does not like being treated like a stock boy. All you can do is ask him for help.”
Charlie Carillo, My Ride With Gus
A few years ago Philip Yancey wrote the book Finding God in Unexpected Places, and it’s full of experiences where people meet God in the least-expected moments. My favourite is when a journalist goes looking to see if he can find God in the worst places on earth. He walks into a prison within a prison in an African country. A hole where they throw the worst criminals with little sanitation and no comforts. As soon as the journalist walked in he saw it – slap bang on the far wall, a huge picture of Jesus on the cross. Unmissable. I guess it’s all these experiences and more which have now led me to say – stay tuned – you never know when God will whisper to you through a novel, a movie, a meal, a pop song, a news item, a shopping trip, a poster, an advert, a sit com… the possibilities are endless. Jesus’s parables weren’t ‘Christian’ they were stories drawn from the life and culture around him. I believe he continues using the same means today.