God And The Sound Of A Bag Of Wet Cement
The first time I can remember God giving me a dramatic sign was while I was unsaved. Some may balk at that, but it’s true.
I was sitting in a jail cell at the San Francisco county jail when it happened. I had been there for about a month. A freshly minted federal detainee, I was transferred weekly from one cell block to another. That is because I had gotten into a bit of trouble my first week there and hurt some people. As a result, to avoid retaliation, I was moved regularly.
The jail cell I was in that week consisted of two cells and was part of a cellblock, the kind you see on TV or in the movies. Walking through the cellblock during my weekly sojourn, I was reminded of going into a building in a zoo with animals in cages on either side of the walkway. They cannot hide from the gaze of those outside the cage because they are exposed, with no place to go. Only these cages held human beings.
The cells had two sides. On one side there were two metal picnic tables with benches, securely bolted to the concrete floor. Behind the tables were two pay phones inmates used to call home, or their lawyers. From one corner, a television was bolted to the wall. At the far end of the cell was a shower. On the other side of the cell were six two-man bunks and the toilet area. Fifteen people populated the cell area. That meant three of us slept on the floor. Steel bars and a sliding door separated the two areas. On both sides of the cell, were doors that opened to the walkway. They were kept locked at all times unless an inmate was being taken out to go to visiting or the medical wing. Inmates constantly shouted across the cells to friends or enemies in nearby cells. It was a cacophony of swearing and banal chatter. I hated it.
That particular day, I was angry and upset. I had again been denied bail, my attorney said more charges were likely coming my way via a new federal indictment, and my youngest son was sick. I was sitting on the floor with my back against the cold concrete wall. My eyes moved around the room as I stewed in anger and frustration. Inmates moved around between the two cells. The television was blaring, and the shouting was deafening. I glanced across to the bunk area and saw an inmate silently praying the rosary from a top bunk. I snorted in disgust.
‘God,’ I said inwardly, ‘if you’re real, give me a sign that I’m not going to rot in here.’
My eyes were still on the guy praying the rosary when I heard the cell door suddenly swing wide open and what could best be described as the sound of a bag of wet cement hitting the floor outside it. Then there was silence, except for the blaring TV. I quickly turned my head to see what had happened. A very large inmate had leaned back against the cell door and it had opened, causing him to land flat on his back on the walkway outside of the cell. He lay there unconscious from striking his head on the concrete floor. Either the guard had forgotten to lock the door, which was highly unlikely, or God had acted.
Shouts of “Man down!” surrounded me but I was not paying attention, my mind was occupied with something else. Had He heard me?
As I heard guards begin racing down the walkway to secure the door, I shifted my gaze back to the guy praying the rosary. He sat there with his eyes wide open and mouth agape. He seemed as shocked as I was. Maybe he had been praying the same thing.
As a believer, I can clearly see this event as a sign from God that I needed at the time. While I did not understand it, it caused me to consider there might be something bigger than my problems, bigger than me. Maybe it was tilling the soil of my soul where a seed would later be planted. Regardless, it served its purpose at the time.
But what about now?
Now it serves as a reminder of the faithfulness of God. It shows me that He was working in and for me even when I was at my worst. It’s something I can think about when I am worried or upset. I can remember that if God was with me then, as an unbeliever, He is with me now, as His child.
I realize we are often told not to look back on our past because we live in the present. I get that. But I think there are some things we can look back on and see where God acted on our behalf even when we did not know Him; even when we did not deserve it. These things bring comfort to me now, but when I first experienced them as an unbeliever they brought only confusion.
I think God is greater than we imagine or are told. I think that His greatness is often encountered in retrospect, as we think back on how we were somehow able to endure what seemed at the time to be unendurable. Painful as some memories are, we are still alive to think about them. That means we made it through; we endured, and we were changed.