As his sedan hummed along an empty highway, John Telling squinted to see past what his headlights illuminated. Unfortunately, the night had already tightened its grip. The dark and dreary feel of a horror flick settled in with each passing mile. Rain drops anxiously waited to be released by a large cloud forming over the long stretch of the empty North Carolinian highway. The only thing John could think was, Boy, it would be nice to be home with my wife right now.
And then, clack-clack-clack-clack-clack. His back right tire repeatedly shouted the most ugly noise a driver can hear. A flat tire. John, a grizzled 74-year-old, didn’t panic. This wasn’t his first bout with a busted tire. So, he pulled over to the side of the road and calmly called a tow truck service to come and fix the tire. He then stepped outside to give the tire a look. It wasn’t pretty. A crippled tire on the side of a dark disheveled road was the plot of too many bad stories. But, again, John didn’t panic. It’s not really in his nature. At this stage in life, one tends to rely on what one knows.
And John knows he is always right where he is supposed to be.
Forty years before this flat tire, John lived in a suburban New Jersey setting. Every morning, he jumped on a train that barreled across the Hudson River and stopped in New York City. Every morning, as the train rumbled into John’s stop, he folded up his Wall Street Journal newspaper and stepped into the beehive that is downtown Manhattan. Once John waltzed into his building, he got his proverbial stinger out like the rest of them. He worked in the highest pressure and fastest paced environment in the country. He was, as he likes to put it, a “Wall Streeter.”
This life buzzed by. John loved it that way. He was well-liked and had the hardened work ethic to back it up. The consummate straight shooter. Only hopes and dreams of scaling that corporate ladder scrolled through his thoughts.
hopes and dreams of scaling that corporate ladder scrolled through his thoughts. Those thoughts were good. It is hard to blame a young, successful man for wanting to grow in a burgeoning company. But his focus had to change. He knew it. His wife, Judy, knew it. And there was no escaping it.
Because, one day, at the spry age of 38 and several years into his career, John got into his car and drove home to escape the buzz of the market-driven Wall Street hub. Over the previous few years, John had been watching his marriage go from great to good to on the rocks. He wanted to get home early to spend time with Judy. He felt like he needed to see her. On his drive home, as he passed over the Garden State Parkway, John simply prayed, “God, please help me.” He didn’t know God personally, but he was desperate for some help. Immediately, tears fell from his cheeks, and they didn’t stop falling for the rest of the ride home. When John got home, Judy saw the state her husband was in and immediately called her brother, who was a Christian. The brother flew in the next day and prayed with them. By the end of the following day, John was a changed man.
It didn’t take too much time for John’s newfound faith to kick in. He jumped after it. Following and worshipping Jesus became his thing. The years that followed birthed this understanding that John always stood right where he was supposed to. And once he possessed that deep, faith-driven understanding, he also started to get what can only be described as nudges from God.
That’s why as John examined the popped tire on the side of the dark road, he stood there grinning. And as a car flashed its headlights and began breaking toward the side of the road, John kept his grin. Unalarmed that a stranger was suddenly about to get out of the car and walk up to him, John felt the nudge. It doesn’t happen every time John interacts with someone. But when he feels the nudge, he knows it.
nudge, he knows it. And he acts on it.
“So I call AAA, and begin cleaning out my trunk to get the spare tire,” John remembers. “Just then, this guy gets out of the truck and walks over and asks if everything is okay. I told him that I had just called the tow truck. So we just start chatting and I just ask him, ‘Are you a church person?’”
The man, Kingsley, looked back a bit befuddled. But that look quickly softened. Kingsley answered the simple question with a simple answer.
“I used to go to church. And as a young man, I had an incredible experience with God,” Kingsley replied. John nodded at every word, maintaining eye contact as the man reminisced about parts of his childhood. It seemed like Kingsley hadn’t talked about that part of his childhood for a while. Then, John reached into the trunk he just happened to be cleaning out to get a spare tire and grabbed a Bible.
“I said, ‘Here I have this,’” John explains. “And this is how it got started.”
The next sequence is not something John can take credit for. It is not something he invented, or devised, or schemed up, or figured out. It is something he truly believes as fact and knows when to express his faith in it.
When Kingsley finished his story, John simply stated, “Well, you know, Heaven is a free gift.” Kingsley didn’t respond with words, but his longing gaze gave it away. He wanted Heaven. He wanted to know God. And he didn’t mind that all of this was happening on the side of a dark, dreary road.
“So I asked him if he would like for me to pray for him,” John says. “And he says, ‘Yeah, I think I would.’ So we pray, and he accepts the Lord right there on the spot.”
They shook hands for a minute as John explained that he was now on John’s nightly prayer list. The man graciously thanked him and began to shuffle back to his truck. But as John watched him turn away, he got nudged again. He needed to ask the guy one more question.
This is not uncommon for John. A couple of nudges, one after the other, happen from time to time. Not everyday, of course. Still, John gets plenty of nudges throughout his week. But this phenomenon was not always a part of John’s day-to-day life.
On a trip to Mozambique in 2008, John heard a pastor talk about the ins and outs of traveling through the secluded Chiapas mountain ranges of Mexico and the jungles of the Amazonian basin, all with the lone intention of telling the small communities of indigenous people about the Gospel. At the end of the talk, someone from the crowd asked, “Is it wise to travel to these extremely dangerous places for this purpose?” The pastor looked back and firmly responded, “Winning souls at any cost is always wise.”
That sentence immediately struck a chord within John. It changed him on the spot. The explanation resonated with such intensity, such profound directness, that John only has one way of describing the sensation.
“I was standing over to the side of the room,” John recollects. “And when I heard this, it was like a fiery arrow went into my heart, and I immediately wrote that down. I have never been the same to this day. But that statement infused me with a boldness that just never left me...to this day.”
That boldness surfaces the second he feels a nudge from God. This flat-tire ridden night was no different.
“Say, who’s in the truck?” John politely asked Kingsley after they finished praying.
“Well, that’s my girlfriend, Millie” he said back, smiling.
“Why don’t we go and talk to Millie?” John suggested, gesturing over to the passenger seat of the car.
the passenger seat of the car.
“Sounds good,” Kingsley said back, still smiling.
John waltzed over to the passenger side of the truck and mimed a window-rolling-down motion to Millie. She rolled the window down, and they exchanged pleasantries. After a minute or two, John interjected with that same simple question: “Are you a church person?”
This opened up a short conversation about how Heaven is a free gift. Millie immediately said that she wanted that gift. They ended up praying together right there on the spot. John held their hands and asked God to bless them. He prayed for angels to minister to them in the best, and worst, of times. And he prayed that they would know God as a Father. Once he said, “Amen,” they opened their eyes and slowly smiled at John. What ended up being a kind gesture to help fix a tire jump started a conversation about God.
Once the three of them said their goodbyes, the tow truck pulled up and John walked back to his flat-tired car, still helplessly parked on the side of the road. At this point in the night, the forming cloud no longer loomed in the distance. It had set up shop right over the road. Rain drops pelted the roof of John’s car. He popped open an umbrella from his trunk as the tow truck driver stepped down from his road-rescue cockpit. John thanked him and stepped aside to let the man work. But John felt an overwhelming amount of appreciation for this guy. The driver did not hesitate, even with the rain coming down. Yanking out the proper tools, he got down on his knees to loosen the bolts before pumping the jack to lift the car. John whispered to himself, This guy is really committed. He’s so faithful to his work.
And bam. Another nudge. John practically giggled as he felt it. And just like he had done so many times before, John asked that simple question.
“So, are you a church person?” John asked the (now) muddy tow truck driver.
For John, this question serves one purpose. It opens up a conversation.
“It’s non-confrontational,” John concludes. “It isn’t saying that if you don’t go to church, you’re a jerk. Or if you do go to church, you are a saint. It’s a conversation thing.”
John is not out to save people for his own purposes. He just follows the leader. One small, kindhearted question at a time. And in that span of having a simple conversation, people start to forget about all of the hurt from the day. They let go of this idea that one has to give up everything they like doing to love Jesus. And they simply open up to the idea of loving God through faith, not through what they do or don’t do. The conversation, then, makes total sense when they understand that Heaven is a free gift, despite their flaws.
The tow truck driver got up from his crouched stance and nodded a bit before answering the question. “Yeah,” he responded. He went to church when he was really young, he explained, but that has been few and far between as of late.
“Well, Heaven is a free gift,” John said standing under his umbrella while the smack of raindrops punched the ground. This was the third time he had proclaimed this since the tire popped. And like the two previous times, the person on the receiving end did not hesitate to hold hands and pray with John.
These moments change a person’s life. Or, at least, they open up the option for an individual to make a change. God, who is inherently good, doesn’t force a person to accept Him or love Him. That would revoke His goodness because He would then be a controlling God. Instead, He gives everybody the choice. Love Him. Or not.
John gets the nudge to talk about just that. An easy conversation ensues, and then, with gladness, he leaves the rest up to God. At no point in these conversations does John feel pressure to get a “yes” to his questions. He knows it is not about validating his own beliefs. He certainly understands that any glory in the situation would never go to him. And in the end, that alleviates pretty much all fear or concern about asking the simplest of questions like, “Are you a church person?” If he gets turned down, it is no sweat off his back. John is just responding to a nudge.
“When I ask that question, you will get a response like, ‘I grew up in the church,’ or ‘I used to go but don’t now,’ or ‘I am [of] a particular denomination,’” John explains. “It is an open conversation. And now we can dig in, in a real friendly way.”
John has started many o’ conversations. There was the time outside of a breakfast diner near the North Carolina coast. After strolling to the front doors of the restaurant, he noticed a group of 12 college students sitting on a planter and chatting. The raggedy university sweatshirts and tousled hair gave away their undergrad lifestyle. Two minutes after John struck up the conversation, he and the group stood hand-in-hand and said the simple prayer.
Then, there was the time John placed a few odds and ends on the conveyer belt of a Walmart checkout stand. He knew the moment he saw the cashier that God wanted him to ask her the question. He did, and they began talking. Tears started streaming down her face as John explained Heaven being free and God loving her intensely. And, yes, while the line started piling up, he prayed with her to receive Jesus.
But other moments have occurred in more unconventional situations. Like at a Professional Golf Association tournament. John once attended a round for the U.S. Open qualifying tournament. The group of golfers he followed just so happened to have one of the more famous golfers in the tournament. But on this day, his fame didn’t help his golf swing. A terrible round began to unfold, and John witnessed the whole thing play out in front of him. And then, God nudged him to go and talk to the golfer’s mom, who was walking along with the group as well.
“I asked her if I could pray for him, and she said, ‘I would love that!’” John shares. “So when [the golfer] started walking from one hole to the next, I raised my hand and prayed, ‘Jesus, would You supernaturally get him [to play] really good golf.’ She said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and that was the end of that.”
Later that day, when all was said and done, the golfer and his mom found John walking back to the parking lot. It had started to rain by that time, so they offered to give John a ride in a golf cart. John gladly accepted. The three of them chatted during the short ride, and John explained that he was a missionary and had seen several miracles all over the world. As they neared the parking lot, John graciously thanked them. Then, he asked them that oh-so-simple question. “Are you all church people?” They said, “No,” but that they would be open to John praying for them. So, the golfer, the golfer’s mother, and the golf fan all huddled under the umbrella and prayed together and accepted that Heaven was a free gift.
No matter what the situation seems to be, John walks away feeling good. He always cements the moment with a few more prayers like: “God, fill their lives with even more blessings than You already do...God, assign angels from Heaven to minister to them, protect them, help them….God, may You bless them in their jobs, homes, and families.”
This last step, the praying part, is the most vital element of these conversations. John knows it is important to seal the deal.
The tow truck driver changed the tire and thanked John for such a great conversation. John waved goodbye and hopped back in his car to brave the wet road home. A smile certainly stayed plastered on his face as he drove through the night rain. He then called his wife of 52 years and, while practically giggling, said, “Judy, you will never believe what just happened.“
The next morning, John pulled into the tire shop to get a replacement for the busted tire. The mechanic assessing the tire gave John some bad news.
“They told me there was no way to fix the tire and that I had to leave the car there,” John says. “But they said that [a driver] will drive me home, and I can come back later. So I said, ‘No problem,’ and I jumped in the car with [the driver].”
John slid into the passenger side of the car. He asked the driver what his name was, and the guy replied, “Bob.” Bob was a talker, and the two of them hit if off immediately. But then, almost comically at this point, God nudged John once again.
“Say, Bob, are you a church person?” John interjected. The rest of the ride home was filled with questions and answers about God, Jesus, and what it all meant. By the time they pulled up to John’s house, they had already prayed the prayer, exchanged numbers and emails, and hugged. John stepped out of the car and could only muster one thought…
“The flat tire cost me some money, but with four salvations, it was well worth it.”
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