Guest Blog: from Dr. David Elliott

Allow me to introduce you to a special friend and gifted writer,  David Elliott.  David serves as professor in the Chemistry Department at Louisiana College.

Enjoy this warm article.


Does That Do Any Good?

My family and I moved to a new job in 2000.  One of the features of the job in South Boston, Massachusetts was that I was to ride the commuter rail there and home each day, a 50-minute ride each way.  Although I have lived in large urban areas for a long time, this was the first time I had commuted to work via mass transit.  I began this daily trek in the summer of 2000, discovering instantly that a culture change was required for me.  I was going to need something to do during these periods of time.  The afternoon commute was easy – I began each day early and worked all day, so sleeping was a good option for then.  I began reading a newspaper in the morning, and after a time began carrying a Bible with me and having my ‘quiet time’ on the morning commute.

I had moved to this job because of the loss of my previous job.  I was forced to move my family, including a daughter in high school and a son in 7th grade, from our beloved Pittsburgh home to a new place – Boston.  I was generally down about the job change, and in addition was experiencing severe burn-out because of my service in my previous church, which was small and struggling.  So I began this commuting mode in a state of ‘spiritual despondency‘.  I cannot say my heart was in my new job or my new lifestyle, even though God had provided for our needs.

My prayer life was fragmented.  I am thankful that the Holy Spirit was there to interpret, for otherwise my pleas and ravings would have been undecipherable.  But God, in His wisdom, was clear.  He gave me two one-word instructions, and I heard both without the need for translation.  These words were ‘Pray’ and ‘Write’.  I heard these, and asked God for further clarification.  Pray for what?  Write what?

Over a few days, I felt Him clarify these commands, saying clearly, “Pray for the people on the train each day.”  And secondly, “Write whatever I tell you to write.”  The writing part will have to be the subject of another account, for I want to describe further God’s command to pray for the commuters who traveled to Boston each day on the MBTA Providence line.

The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) is a well-oiled, efficient operation, carrying thousands of commuters of all ages and backgrounds in clean, well-maintained, serviceable trains, with rail lines fanning out to the north, west, and south sides of Boston.  The Providence line begins in the heart of Rhode Island’s capital city, and makes stops along the Amtrak rail lines in South Attleboro, Attleboro (my stop), Mansfield, Sharon, Canton Junction, Route 128 station, followed by Boston stops in Hyde Park, Ruggles Street, Back Bay, and its terminus at South Station.  It is one of the busiest lines in the system.  Passengers from throughout Rhode Island and the corridor southwest of Boston embark and disembark through each day, shuffling through the commuter system to jobs, classes, sightseeing, shopping, and many other endeavors.  The commuter rail allows its riders to avoid the horrid Boston traffic and parking.

As a trained scientist and analytical thinker, it seemed a strange request of God for me to pray for this amazing and ambiguous mass of perpetually changing, unattached mortal souls.  It would be better, Lord, if I knew which ones to pray for, I said.  Or wait until I befriended someone, then prayed for them.  I fell into the human trap of believing that prayers do not work, and I sought to refine the request to make more sense to me.  But God’s clear call again rattled my unwilling spirit, saying simply, “Pray for the people on the train each day.”

And so I did.  I had begun to read my Bible during each morning‘s commute, and I carried my prayer list along, spending time each day in personal devotion.  I dutifully began praying for the people on the train.  I prayed for those beside me, in the rows ahead and behind, and for those seated on other cars.  I prayed for the nameless figures that passed down the aisle, entreating God on behalf of him, and him, and her, and them…  I prayed by stops, asking God to bless those souls getting off at Back Bay, or getting on at Mansfield.  And my prayer became similar each day: “Lord, let your Spirit stir their spirits and lead them God-ward.”  That is the phrase I ended up saying again and again.  I am convinced that the wording and the repetition were from the Holy Spirit, for I began to realize that I was blessed each time I said those words.

I wish that I could tell you that revival broke out on the Providence – Boston commuter line.  Maybe it did, but I could not see it.  But revival did break out in me.  Even though I was but a tiny drop in this sea of humanity, God began to work in my life.  Praying as He commanded helped me to overcome my burnout (which was the result of my sin).  And I began to write, recording words and thoughts in poetic form from the Holy Spirit through prayer and meditation on His Word.  But I digress!  I said I was not going to speak about the ‘Write’ part!

The prayer continued for three years.  Though I forgot some days and asked for God’s forgiveness for not keeping my commitment, I prayed almost every day for the people on the train.  I can report some modest success in those times, with one man, a young Christian, asking me for advice about studying the Bible, and a young college student asking if I was a minister (since I was reading the Bible).  I had a chance to tell her about Jesus.  But still I did not fully understand why God had instructed me to pray as He had.

After three years, the daily train ride was routine.  I marvel at some commuters who had been doing this for decades.  My train time became mundane, and I began to ride each day needing something more, something new.  I had caught up on a lot of reading, and had written a good bit.  And I continued to pray for the seemingly endless stream of nameless, faceless people on the train.

In the fall of 2003, our church was studying the booklet “How to Be Filled With the Holy Spirit” by Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ.  I had become a Sunday School teacher at our church, and I was to lead a two-week study on the booklet as part of a larger unit on the Holy Spirit.  So I was sitting on the train (the in-bound Providence train that stops in Attleboro at 5:45 am) on Monday, October 20, 2003, reading the booklet and trying to figure out how I was going to construct a lesson for my class the next Sunday.  I was sitting in my usual area on the first car in the train.  Many commuters, including me, sat in the same place on the train each day – mainly out of habit and so the conductor could get to know you, thereby not asking for your pass each time.

I was sitting on the aisle seat near the front of the car, and in the window seat was a young woman.  I always tried to sit next to women since they were smaller and took up less space.  I had seen her before on the train, but she usually sat further back in the car.  Today she was unusually close to the front of the car.  She slept soundly through most of the commute, and I labored over how to communicate to my class who the Holy Spirit is and how He works.  But God had heard my prayers of the last three years, and the Holy Spirit was working in the front of the first car on this train this morning.  And the woman had moved forward today for a divine appointment!

About ten minutes before the arrival into South Station, where we were all to get off and scatter to various destinations for the day, the woman woke up, stretched, and looked out the window.  I glanced over at her when I detected movement, and I was momentarily captured by her sadness.  I returned to my reading, engrossed in matters related to the Holy Spirit.

It was then she turned and looked at my reading material, a small inconspicuous brown booklet, and said, “Does that do any good?”  I was surprised by the abruptness of her question, and really by the fact that another commuter was even speaking to me – it did not happen often.  In surprise, I mumbled quickly ‘What did you say’ or something like that, and she pointed at the book, and in a stronger voice, repeated, “Does THAT do any good?”

With a burst of human nature, I thought to myself, “Oh no, I am going to have to witness to her!  She has given me a clear opening, and I am going to need to tell her about Jesus!”  It all hit me in rapid-fire manner, with God reminding me that the Holy Spirit was not just something we learn about in Sunday School, with me thinking to myself, “You dense, weak fool.  God has served you (on a silver platter) an opportunity to tell someone the greatest news in the history of mankind, and you are fumbling the ball!”

But years of prayers had not been in vain – the Holy Spirit was at work in me, too.  I quickly responded (with surprising boldness), “Yes, it has helped me all my life!”  (The Holy Spirit’s words, not mine – for even now she relates the power of my first response!)  I moved the book to where she could have a better view of it, and began to speak to her more.  I remember praying between each phrase, “Lord, I am in over my head already.  Give me the words, and let Your mercy overcome my weakness and lack of clarity.”

We were minutes away from the end of the trip, so I sensed that our conversation time was to be limited.  She began to tell me about her depression, and how she had made some terrible decisions in her life, and how she had tried so many times to find happiness, but had failed miserably at every turn.  She asked if I knew anything about bipolar disorder, and if I knew anything that could help her.  After a short exchange, the train was in the station, and I pulled out a business card and wrote my home phone number on it for her.  I asked her what her name was, and she replied, “Fatima, like, you know, Our Lady of Fatima, from the Catholic church.  I was named for her.”  And then she was gone, although I had managed to ascertain that she worked as an assistant buyer for a biotech company in Cambridge and rode the train regularly.

I left the book on the Holy Spirit with her, having to plead with our church’s discipleship director for another copy – after all, I was supposed to teach it that Sunday!  I was troubled by the shortness of time that I had spent with her, and by her need for hope and peace in her life.  I decided that I would try to find her again on the train the next day.  My prayer for that afternoon on the train was a little different:  “Lord, give me another opportunity to speak with Fatima.”

Fatima Sousa was an attractive, petite woman of Portuguese descent, less than two months away from her 29th birthday.  She had a beautiful olive complexion, with long, thick, dark hair having golden highlights.  She was just over 5 feet tall, with a slight and slender build.  She had been working this job for 8 years, but had been riding the train only about six months since moving in with her parents in Pawtucket, RI.

The next morning I prayed earnestly that God would give me another chance to spend time with her.  As I boarded the train at the Attleboro station, she was sitting there – in her old place near the middle of the first car.  She smiled when I offered to sit with her, and God had answered yet another prayer, for we spoke about things eternal for the whole ride that day.  I began to notice some other things about Fatima.  She was very bright, and had the ability to process information quickly, engaging me very intelligently as I spoke of God, and how He brings joy into our lives, and how He forgives sin, and how He is able to cure all of our ills.

What was also clear from observing and speaking with Fatima was the sadness.  She had the continuous appearance and manner of a person wracked with the pain of a devastatingly hard life.  Her demeanor was dark and somber, betraying her youthful beauty and clouding her occasional smile.  She was very talkative, being surprisingly open with me, a person she had only known since yesterday.  But she displayed a surprising ability to “stand over her situation”, repeatedly making comments of self-diagnosis like “I think I sleep to escape reality”.

And I began, under a blanket of prayer, to speak more openly about Jesus.  I assured her of His love for her, and that she was special to Him, and that He had the power and the willingness to forgive her of her sins.  It was the prospect of forgiveness that struck a chord with her.

She kept asking me, “Can God forgive me?”

“Yes, He can,” I would reply.

“But I have done some really bad things,” she confessed openly.  I told her that we all had done things that made us imperfect, sinful, and unable to save ourselves.  Multiple times she kept asking the clarifying question, “And God can forgive me?”  And I knew the Holy Spirit was working as I said, with more force and assurance each time, “Yes, He can.  And He wants to!”

Over the next three weeks we met on the train almost every morning, and many afternoons, too.  I discovered more about her – she had two young sons, and had divorced two years earlier, escaping from an extremely abusive husband.  She had been hospitalized the summer before for severe depression and emotional trauma, and was taking medication, slowly recovering from this latest bout.

I also found out that she was very social, knowing many people on the train by name (something that I was not gifted at doing).  She had a love of writing, and hoped someday to be a professional writer.  She kept a detailed journal of her thoughts and impressions, and had a gift of being able to communicate her feelings in words and of being able to paint word pictures with her writings.

We continued to talk often of the situation she was in, and her desire to get help.  I purchased a Bible for her, and she appreciatively held it out, asking, “Where are the parts in here about fear?“  So for a few days I spent time before leaving home for the station finding psalms that deal with fear.  (You know, there are a lot of those – David wrote often of fear.)  Like Psalm 27:1:

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the strength    of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?“

She seemed comforted by these, bookmarking each one as I showed them to her.  And I stayed on my theme of Jesus, the only way to contentment and peace, the cure for all of our needs.  And how He was ready with open arms to hold us when we were hurting and to forgive our sins.

As the days passed, she seemed more desperate, finally at her wit’s end.  She was feeling very low one Monday afternoon on the return trip from Boston.  I told her that I could help her give everything in her life over to Jesus, and she could begin to find peace within through His presence in her heart.

We came to this moment, for which I had been praying fervently, just moments before I was to get off the train at Attleboro.  She listened once again to my pleadings that she turn her life over to Jesus, and said with a decisive question, “What do I need to do?”  The train was slowing down as it coasted into the station, and I quickly asked, “Come with me, and I will show you what to do.  And I will drive you to your car when we are finished.”  (which was parked at the next stop where she was to get off the train).  Surprisingly, she agreed.

And so, on November 10, 2003, Fatima sat in my car in the Attleboro Station parking lot, and I guided her as she prayed to receive Jesus into her heart.  She appeared to pray thoughts and words from deep within her soul, and seemed to release all of her troubles, and pains, and past into the hands of the All-knowing, compassionate Savior.  I prayed alongside, silently, fervently, that this would be real, and that she would truly experience salvation and the joy that comes with it.  Once we finished praying, she sat back and breathed deeply, expressionless, and I wondered what was going on in her mind.

We drove silently to her car at the South Attleboro station, speaking only occasionally.  I tried to encourage her about the importance and wonder of this decision, but still glanced at her repeatedly looking for evidence of a change in her.

We arrived, she got out of my car, into her car, and we drove away, each to our homes.  But about two blocks further, we had to stop at a traffic light, and our cars ended up beside each other at the intersection.  She turned to look at me as we waited for the light to turn green, and smiled.  Not the sadness-tainted smile I had come to know.  A smile of relief.  Of contentment that only God can give.  And a flood of joy poured out on me, as the Holy Spirit revealed to me that He had worked here.

She drove away a changed person, with Jesus, the Great Physician, the Healer of everything that hurts us, the One who covers our failures with unconditional love, having made entry into her heart.  I was given assurance once again that nothing we do is too big for Him to overcome, none of our diseases He cannot heal, and nothing in our past He cannot cover.

Fatima gave us a Christmas card a year later with this handwritten message, “Thanks for helping me come back to life again.”  And thanks be to God, who makes each of us alive in Him.

So does the Holy Spirit do any good?  Does praying as God directs do any good?  Does His healing touch on hurting lives do any good?  It took an encounter on the commuter train with Fatima to remind me that it does.  So I will learn to follow wherever God leads me.  And live life to the fullest each day.  And bloom where I am planted.

And I will never again question God’s call to pray, even for people I have not met yet.

DLE 02/16/05

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