Excerpted from Night with a Perfect Stranger, by David Gregory
We drove around Indianapolis on 465 and hit Interstate 74 toward Cincinnati. Whatever Jesus planned to show me, he wasn’t in a hurry.
Twenty miles south of 465, he glanced up at a road sign. “Get off at the next exit, would you?”
I looked at the sign. Shelbyville. Why would Jesus want to get off at Shelbyville, Indiana? I exited on Highway 9, took a right as he directed, and drove a mile to the town. We turned right on a downtown roundabout and exited onto Washington Street. Two blocks later, Jesus said, “Pull in here.”
I stopped the U-Haul in the parking lot and turned to Jesus. “You’re not going to go and heal a bunch of people, are you?”
He laughed. “No. Not tonight.”
“So what are we doing?”
“We’re going in.”
He opened his door and slid out. I joined him behind the truck. “Are we here to see someone in particular?”
“Anyone I know?”
I followed Jesus through the main doors and to an elevator bay. We rode to the third f loor and walked into an area labeled “Labor and Delivery.”
“We’re going to see a baby? At this hour? But aren’t there rules about visitors . . .”
“Trust me, Nick. We’re going to see a family.” He pointed to a waiting area. “Why don’t you hang out over there a minute.”
I ambled over and took a seat, watching him as he approached a nurses’ station. In a moment he and a nurse disappeared around a corner. I was tempted to follow, but Jesus had told me to wait. I leaned forward and grabbed a parenting magazine off the coffee table in front of me. I started reading an article titled “Adding Number Three.” Timely.
The author had almost convinced me that having a third child was virtually effortless when Jesus returned with another nurse, who was beaming. Had he told her who he was?
“You ready?” he asked me.
“To go see the family.”
“This is Emily.” He motioned toward the nurse, then toward me. “Nick.”
She reached out her hand and we shook. “So very glad to meet you,” she effervesced.
I followed them past a security door into the nursery. We stopped in the hallway and looked through the viewing window into a large room with incubators. Premature infants lay in two of them. A third infant was being rocked by a man—evidently the father—in street clothes wearing a surgical mask. His eyes were fixed on the baby, who was connected to at least three machines by tubes and was asleep.
“It’s so small,” I commented. I had held two babies in my arms so far. Thankfully, both had been full-term and perfectly healthy. I couldn’t imagine holding one so smallthat it virtually fit in the palm of your hand, or one hanging onto life by a thread. Who could endure that?
“Some are smaller than that,” Emily remarked. “Down to two pounds—that’s at twenty-eight weeks, usually. Earlier than that, we have to transfer them.”
Twenty-eight weeks. Mattie was in her twenty-sixth. The nurse glanced at Jesus. “I’ll let you two watch her for a few minutes. I’ll be at the station at the end of the hall.” She walked down the hall. I looked back at the baby,then at Jesus. “So do you know this family?”
“Not personally. Not yet. But I wanted to show you this.”
I looked back at the father and child. “Show me what?”
“The best illustration on earth of what our love for you is like.”
I looked more intently at the scene in the rocking chair. The father was gently stroking the infant’s hair, a look of peaceful delight adorning his face.
“This is the closest most humans ever get to mirroring God’s love,” Jesus said. “Most human love is performance-based. Do well enough, act right enough, please the other person enough, and you’ll be loved. If not, you’ll be rejected. I know your dad’s love was like that, Nick.”
I turned to Jesus and he looked into my eyes. “And I know you still bear the scars of that. But it was the best he could do. It was all he knew from his dad, having to measure up to be accepted, to be loved. He never felt good enough. That’s all he had to pass on.”
I could feel the beginnings of tears wanting to well up in my eyes. I pushed them back. Crying in front of Jesus was the last thing I wanted to do. But hearing him acknowledge the pain I had carried for so long—why can’t my dad love me the way I am?—just hearing that brought a measure of peace. Jesus knew. He understood.
He looked back at the father and child. “That baby can’t do anything to earn her father’s love. She can’t even nurse yet. All she can do is gurgle and poop. But she is deeply loved, simply because she exists. She is loved unconditionally—no performance required.”
The father inside glanced up and looked around. His eyes met mine and he smiled. After a moment, they returned to the face of his child.
Jesus turned to me. “That’s the Father’s face toward you, Nick.”
I looked at Jesus. “But what about when I blow it? I’ve blown it pretty bad at times.”
He nodded. “I know. But you know what effect that has on our love for you?”
I shook my head.
“None. Nothing you do can make us love you less. And nothing you do can make us love you more. That’s because our love isn’t based on what you do; it’s based on who we are. We are love.” He turned to look inside the nursery again. “When was the last time you went to the ocean?”
Living in Cincinnati, we didn’t pop over to the beach too often. “We went to Virginia when Mattie was pregnant with Jacob. That was four summers ago.”
“And did you go swimming in it?”
“How much wet did the ocean have?”
“How much wet did it have? The whole thing was wet—it was the ocean.”
“Exactly.” He looked at me. “Nick, we are like the ocean. The ocean doesn’t have wet—it is wet. You jump in, you get wet. God doesn’t have love—we are love. Our love isn’t a possession. We can’t give it away as a reward to those good enough to earn it. Love is simply who we are. We love you because of who we are. You were created to be the object of our love, to share in our love. Nothing you do can change that.
“God is love. That hasn’t penetrated the depths of your being. God is love. If God simply had love, we could love you today and withhold our love tomorrow. But no, God is love. That’s our nature. Loving you is as natural to us as breathing is to you. We never stop loving you. Everything we do toward you, we do in love. Our love is like the air around you, which you live in and can’t escape. The air constantly presses down upon you. Our love is that way. It presses down upon you. Endlessly. Infinitely.”
“But I don’t feel loved by God.”
“I know. That’s why you struggle so much. That’s why Larry struggles so much, why he keeps visiting porn shops. You’re trying desperately to fill the hole in your heart, all the while thinking that if you perform well enough, we will finally love you. But here’s the truth: you won’t function properly in any area of life unless you know in your deepest being that you are unconditionally, limitlessly loved by us.”
“But I don’t know how to experience your love.” And I wanted so much to be able to experience it.
He nodded. “You will.”
Motion in the nursery caught my attention. A nurse had entered and was talking with the father. He smiled, rose from the rocking chair with the baby, and walked over to the incubator. He paused and I could see his lips moving close to the baby’s ear. He kissed her gently on the forehead and placed her inside her incubator. He followed the nurse out to the hallway where we were standing and removed his surgical mask. His eyes were moist. He stood there looking a bit lost.
“What’s your baby’s name?” I asked, knowing full well that I was simply uncomfortable with the silence.
He gave me a slight smile. “Avery.”
“How old is she?”
“Four days. She, um . . . she’s having respiratory problems. But they’re optimistic.” He nodded toward the nurses’ station.
Jesus stepped forward. “Avery will be fine. She has a wonderful family.”
The father sighed, then looked Jesus in the eye. He didn’t look away, but stared at him for several moments. He finally nodded. “Thank you. I know she will be.”
He stepped past us and walked down the hall.
Avery will be fine. When Jesus said someone would be fine, they would be fine. I was glad for the father, and I was glad to have witnessed his love for his baby. For the moment, it did make me feel more connected to God’s love. I just didn’t know how it could translate into feeling that way most of the time.
Excerpted from Night with a Perfect Stranger by David Gregory, © 2012. Published by Worthy Publishing, a division of Worthy Media, Inc., Brentwood, TN. www.worthypublishing.com. Used by permission. Tell us what you thought of this excerpt on Twitter: #NightwithaPerfectStranger @WorthyPub