It’s not a setup for a bad joke. This story really happened.
My friends and I were taking an Uber to a local pizza place after attending a missions conference in Houston, Texas. All three of us were church planters, which means we split the fourteen-dollar charge for the Uber. It was supposed to be a quick ride to the destination; however, interruptions are like detours. They slow us down, making us “ruthlessly eliminate hurry,” as Dallas Willard puts it.
Playing in the background over the hum of the engine was a sermon by Joel Osteen.
The three of us used this as an opportunity to talk with the driver about her faith. We acted like we weren’t familiar with the world-renowned preacher.
“You’ve never heard of Joel Osteen?” It was almost unnerving to our Uber driver that we didn’t know who Joel was.
To avoid lying, I asked her what her thoughts about God were.
“You must be a religious person if you’re listening to preaching while driving,” I said.
“I’m anything but religious,” she responded. “I’ve had a major problem with God most of my life. When I was younger, my dad would teach us about God, take us to church, and even serve as a leader. As I grew up, I noticed how my dad’s actions weren’t normal.” Her voice grew shaky. She was thinking about whether to trust three complete strangers with her story. Fourteen dollars now seemed cheap for the priceless interaction we were about to have.
“My dad raped me growing up,” she continued. “He would use his belief in God to justify his forgiveness in-between the times he sexually assaulted me. I couldn’t question my dad because he was a ‘man of God.’ So, no . . . I am not religious.
The idea of God coming as a man to the world is vile.
I don’t trust men at all. Especially godly men.” At this point we pulled into the pizza parlor’s parking lot. The silence in the car was spine-chilling. She turned the Uber app off, but she wasn’t done disputing my assumption that she was religious.
“It’s probably no surprise that I’m a lesbian now. After all, I never thought I would take part in anything religious. But Joel Osteen isn’t religious. He talks about God as Jesus, and Jesus seems to be the only man I can get close to. He protects me. He doesn’t hurt me.”
In his book God in Search of Man, Polish-born American rabbi Abraham Heschel rightly stated, “When religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion—its message becomes meaningless.”
Never has the message of a Jesus-looking God become more meaningful than in that car.
We were all in tears, overcome with compassion for the tender heart in the driver’s seat.
Sharing a similar shakiness in his voice, my friend spoke up. “Thank you for sharing that with us. All three of us are pastors. We plant churches for people like you who have a hard time with God.”
“You are pastors, and you have never heard of Joel Osteen?”
The tears, joy, laughter. It all felt holy.
“We have heard of him,” my friend Zac continued. “We just wanted to hear your story. Before we get out of the car, will you do us all a favor? Will you pray for us?”
She tried turning down his request based on the fact that we were the pastors. If anything, she expected us to pray for her. I’ve learned over time that ministerial credentials don’t matter in Uber cars. In that moment, she was more qualified to pray than any seminary graduate. Zac was right to call her prayer a favor. Favor makes up the bulk of the word favorite, and our Uber driver was Jesus’ favorite type of person: someone who accepts being found by God, in Christ. We all held hands, and our newfound lesbian friend prayed over us certainty-seeking pastors. Her prayer reminds me of the sign hanging in my kid’s upstairs playroom: Broken crayons still color.
In moments like this, the temptation is to speak clear theology and end the car ride with prayer.
That’s what the tour guides do. They connect the dots for people. Possibly even entering the pizza parlor with a testimony of evangelism to share with other pastors. Not so with detour guides. Detour guides don’t connect the dots before they collect the dots. “What is the story?” they ask. God says everything will work together for the good (Romans 8:28), and detour guides aren’t shocked to find out what the everything is before connecting it to the good. How we understand the story will always determine our role in it.
By listening through ears of compassion, we practice love.
And by practicing love, we are going from milk to meat. When we lean into sacred moments of grace and tenderness together with the other, we are experiencing Christ and becoming more like him in the process.
Taken from The Doubters’ Club: Good-Faith Conversations with Skeptics, Atheists, and the Spiritually Wounded by Preston Ulmer. Copyright ©2021. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries.
Preston Ulmer is the founder and director of the Doubters’ Club, an organization that teaches Christians and atheists to model friendship and pursue truth together. Additionally, he serves as the director of network development for the Church Multiplication Network (CMN), the church planting arm of the Assemblies of God. Before joining CMN, he served in ministry for years as a youth pastor, young adult pastor and church planter. Preston has two master’s degrees, one in religion and one in divinity. His experience and education led him and his family to plant a church in Denver, CO, where he also founded the Doubters’ Club. Preston’s upcoming book, The Doubters’ Club: Good-Faith Conversations with Skeptics, Atheists, and the Spiritually Wounded, releases from NavPress in September 2021.
1 John Mark Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2019), 19.
2 Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976), 3.