“Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. 3 For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow.”
–James 1:2-3 (NLT)
Nancy White was usually busy on the hospital floors, and time was a precious commodity to her. This morning, however, she had two free hours on her schedule, and she would fight to keep it that way.
She was tired and in desperate need of a strong cup of coffee. She also had to meet an important deadline. After waiting in the cafeteria for what seemed like hours, she finally had a steaming cup of liquid gold in her hand.
Not one to waste time, she had planned out her day while waiting in line. She would head towards her office at Calvary Presbyterian, lock herself in, and get some much-needed work done.
But before she could leave the cafeteria, she heard a voice calling her from behind. Nancy nearly jumped out of her skin, and then frowned in exasperation. “Everybody wants a piece of my time!”
Turning around impatiently, she demanded to know who the voice belonged to.
“Austin Carter,” came the brusque reply. “You owe me.”
Dismissing him with a disdainful glance, she started to hurry out while formulating a plan of escape.
“Who are you? I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Nancy frowned. Her coffee began to spill, so she was forced to slow down.
Austin caught up with her. “Don’t pretend with me, lady!” He began to bellow like a bull in heat. “Does the name Topaz Miller mean anything to you? I’m waiting here for her discharge.”
Nancy knew exactly who he was speaking about, but she continued to feign ignorance.
“Topaz Miller?” she said, scratching her head. “I assume she is a patient. What do you want with her?”
“Come on, lady! You don’t fool me. If you don’t remember calling me, I’ll refresh your memory. But I want to talk in private. Where’s your office?”
“Okay, I remember the call now!” Nancy shouted, reaching her boiling point. “Satisfied?” She stood up straight and glared at the intruder. “I only have two days to meet a deadline. The hospital cafeteria is deserted on Saturday mornings, so let’s just meet here.”
Motioning to a table, she sat down. “If you promise to make it brief, I’ll give you five minutes.”
Undaunted, Austin sidled up to her, smiling. “That might be perfect under other circumstances, but I have a better idea. I’ll follow you to your office, and we’ll talk about the general plan on the way. Then when we go inside, we can get to the specifics, which I don’t care for people to overhear.”
Nancy sighed, standing up. “I don’t have time for this. If you don’t like my first offer, the best I can do is give you five minutes as we walk. Take it or leave it.”
“I’ll take it,” Austin sneered. “Thanks for fitting me into your busy schedule.” They slowly started walking as Austin began.
“My time is valuable, too, and I need to get on the road. Contrary to popular belief, I’m not a nonprofit organization. I’m looking for a new place to live, and as long as I’m here, I wanted to see if you have any low-income housing ideas. But I didn’t want to discuss anything that had to do with my personal finances in public.”
“I understand,” Nancy said in a far-away voice. “What areas are you looking into?”
“Downtown is closest to my work, and it would seem to have the greatest number of resources.”
Pondering this, Nancy sighed. “Besides the list of qualifications you have to meet, there’s a waiting list at most of the places you mentioned. In fact, I don’t know where there isn’t a list.” She turned the corner which led to her office. “The best I can do right now Is text you in a day or two with some possibilities.” Turning the key in the lock, she continued. “Make your choices, and then we’ll talk some more.”
“Why the long wait for you to get back to me?”
“I told you I have to get this report done, and it’s very important. Anyway, your five minutes is up.”
Austin started to protest, but Nancy held up her hand and headed inside. “Wait out here a minute,” she called over her shoulder. “I have an idea.”
Austin heard rustling papers. Then Nancy handed him a magazine through the crack in the door, and slammed it in his face. Locking it, she called, “We’ll talk when you’ve narrowed things down.”
Austin stalked away angrily and, uncharacteristically, silently.
“I guess I’ll go out to my cab,” he fumed to himself. “This discharge is taking hours.”
Walking as he wrestled with his frustration, he thumbed through the magazine, hoelding his place while opening the door.
Austin was out of the area where he usually worked, and out of his comfort zone. He wished he hadn’t promised to stay at the hospital. He knew from talking to Topaz on the phone that The doctors had given her a clean bill of health. Austin couldn’t wait all day for Topaz. He wondered what could possibly be standing in the way of her release, and he continued to mull over the predicament he faced.
But his decision was made for him as he reflectively read the fortune on the dashboard. The ashes which it spoke about made sense to him now, and they reminded him once more of the time he was wasting.
He laughed bitterly, but instead of throwing the fortune down, he decided to free up his hands while driving. That piece of paper made a great bookmark. Once he closed the magazine, he was off to make some money.
Topaz had passed the boredom stage a long time ago, but her hands were tied. Just as she started to calling the nurse’s station for the umpteenth time, a nurse finally appeared. She was an older lady whom Topaz had never seen before, with a stern face and a no-nonsense attitude.
“Get up,” she said, pointing. “Here are your street clothes.”
As she closed the curtains, her pager went off. “I’ll be right back to phone transportation,” she sighed. Then she called, “Hurry up. It sounds like we need this bed.”
“That won’t really be necessary.” Topaz shook her head, but the nurse just walked out.
The impatient patient started muttering aloud. “Now that I’ve been lying here for hours, they tell me to hurry. Go figure.”
When she came back, the nurse said she had called transportation. Moments later, a scary-looking man stood behind the curtain. The nurse told him he could come to Topaz’s bedside, and he rolled a wheelchair towards her, motioning for her to get in.
The man was dressed in a patched denim jacket, and he wore a swastika on the upper part of his left arm. He had buldging muscles, and he looked like a bar-room bouncer. His voice boomed out, with a thick Boston accent.
“You got somebody pickin’ you up?”
“Yes,” Topaz told both of them, “I don’t need the chair. I can walk just fine. It would be great, though, if you could show me down to the cafeteria.”
The man spoke gruffly. “Hospital policy don’t allow that, miss.” He gestured emphatically to the chair and commanded, “Sit down! I got four hungry kids to feed.”
When the man and his reluctant passenger arrived and the chair was locked, the man left without a word, and Topaz felt free for the first time in days. Deciding to get a cup of coffee, she was thankful that the line wasn’t any longer.
The cafeteria was a human maze, and Topaz scanned the crowd for an empty table. When her eye fell on one, she tried to elbow her way through, but it was slow going. Thankfully she had a lid on her coffee. Finally, she reached a table where she could set it down. Topaz discovered that the coffee was just what she needed.
Setting her purse down, she fished out her cell phone. Seconds later, though, she was filled with disappointment and dismay when she wasn’t able to reach Austin. Telling herself there was nothing to do but wait some more, Topaz left a message. She told Austin what she was wearing and which table she occupied, and she reluctantly went back to her book.
Soon she found herself so lost in its pages, oblivious to the noise around her. When her phone rang, Topaz was so startled that she spilled coffee on her book. While Topaz cleaned up, Austin began tersely without an introduction.
“I’ll be there in a few minutes–that is, if there are no more delays.”
“Thanks. I’m good to go, but can we make a pharmacy stop? I’ve already called them, and they said my medicine should be ready when we get there.”
“That wasn’t in the deal. I have better things to do with my time.”
“Okay,” she sighed, “I’m sure I can make due.”
And with that, the call came to an abrupt end.
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Stepping inside the cafiteria a few minutes later, Austin began searching impatiently for Topaz. Spotting her at the table, he caught her eye. Without hesitation, Austin turned and started towards the exit.
She had to do some running, but she finally caught up to him and tried to engage him in small talk.
“Phew! It’s so nice to be out of there! I was beginning to go nuts!”
Grunting in reply, Austin grabbed her bag.
Undaunted, Topaz continued, “Don’t worry about getting paid at the end of the week. I can guarantee that you will get some money.”
“That’s what they all say. I can’t live on empty promises. Anyway, we don’t have all day.”
“It’s not an empty promise, Austin. By the way, about the other day, I was tired, and I said things I didn’t mean. Can’t we just forgive and forget?”
“You said exactly what you meant. Get in the cab.”
After everything was settled in the cab, Austin sped down the road, tossing her a magazine at the traffic light.
“Why are we going so fast?” Topaz screamed, holding onto the door handle.
“I’ve got to get you home. I’ve got rent to pay.”
“Okay. Then what’s this magazine for?”
“There’s some heavy traffic here, and I hope that book will keep you quiet.”
Austin clammed up, got onto the freeway, and pulled into the HOV lane.
Sighing, Topaz opened the magazine. A small piece of paper dropped out.
“Excuse me,” she said, “but something fell out of this magazine. Do you need it?”
“No, but I’m glad the traffic has lessened, because I just can’t keep you quiet. I didn’t really want to get into a discussion, but I admit I’m curious to find out what that message means to you.”
“Okay, let me read it.”
A second later, Topaz answered, “The message is interesting. To me, it’s a good reminder. I tend to move too quickly.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have found that in my life, moving ahead of God always leads to disaster.”
“God?!” Austin exclaimed. “This note came from a fortune cookie. It’s kind of far-fetched to bring God into this.”
“I don’t think so. It makes me think of the scripture which says, ‘The plans of the dilligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty.'”
Austin snorted, “You Think God can use a little Chinese fortune cookie?”
“I don’t just think so,” she replied. “I know so. What’s your oppinion?”
“I don’t know what I believe about a lot of things anymore,” Austin replied thoughtfully, “but the idea of finding God in everything seems ludicrous.”
Seeing a dead end in the conversation, Topaz changed the subject, “You must like Chinese food.”
“Well, as a matter of fact I do, and if there’s no keeping you quiet, at least we’re on a safe topic.”
Ignoring this, Topaz replied, “I guess I just like people, and I find you interesting. What’s your favorite Chinese dish?”
“I like everything, but I guess I would have to say I like sweet and sour chicken the best. You’re making me hungry, by the way.”
Topaz laughed. “I’m starting to feel hunger pangs myself. But it would appear from this magazine that you are looking for a place to live. Is that true?”
“I don’t see how that’s any concern of yours.”
“I don’t mean to pry, but maybe I can help you.”
“Thanks, but if it’s anything like the promises you made concerning my fare, I don’t need that kind of help.”
“No, really, please hear me out. I can’t blame you for the way you feel, but if you would permit me, I will call the administrator of the shelter where I work.”
“What good would that do? Nancy White said there was a long waiting list.”
“I can’t promise anything, but maybe I can pull some strings.”
“What kind of strings?”
“There’s a vacant room there, and I want to see if it’s still available.”
After some time, Topaz got off the phone and smiled. “It was tough getting ahold of Jim, but the good news is that things are looking good.”
Austin stared at Topaz in disbelief. “Why are you doing this?”
“It’s collateral for the ride. Besides, we started off on a friendly footing until I went and put my foot in my mouth. Turn off at the next exit, please, and you’ll see it.”
“Okay, I will, but I still have some questions. For one, how much will this cost me?”
“Free? Nothing’s free, so what’s the catch?”
“There are some requirements that I will fill you in on if you like the room, but I think this place might be right up your alley.”
“Okay, but this better be good. It’s costing me money.”
Upon examination, the room needed a little work, but it was definitely livable, and Austin had to admit it was better than what he had for various reasons. Not having to go down the hall to use the bathroom was a big plus, and he would even have a little kitchenette. It was smaller than he was used to, but there was no Jerry to keep him awake at night.
“I’ll be in my cab most of the time,” Austin reasoned, “so what does it matter?”
As if reading his mind, Topaz turned to Austin. “Well, what do you think?”
“It’s adequate, but I still have some questions. What are the conditions you mentioned?”
“We need a driver, but as long as we get the supplies we need, you can pretty much work on your own schedule. Also, there would be some light maintenance work from time to time. Do you have any disabilities that might keep you from helping us out?”
“Not really. I just have a slight back injury from the war.”
“Do you use any drugs or alcohol?”
“Well, Austin,” she said after hanging up the phone again, “congratulations! The administrator told me you meet the criteria. You can move in today if you’d like.”
“I’d better sort out some things first,” he told her.
Desperately seeking solitude, Austin hopped into his car and drove out of town. It was nearing early evening, and finding a lonely spot in the desert, he sat back, reveling in the silence and spell-bound by the beauty around him.
There was a panoramic view of the desert floor, spread out before him in many differing colors. The majesty of the thousands of stars which began twinkling above him took his breath away.
Getting out of the car, he began to walk through the desert. Suddenly, overwhelmed, he fell on his face.
“Dear God,” he cried out, “I want to believe in You, but I don’t know how to do that anymore. You seem so far away, and the world seems like a huge cosmic riddle. What should I do?”
Austin stayed in that position for hours. Then he felt a gentle hand on his shoulder. He began to weep as scriptures flashed before him like a giant light show. They encouraged Austin to seek God’s face, and he began to experience a phenomenal sense of peace. But, like a tug-of-war, doubts began to assail and overtake him, trying to take that peace away.
Austin got up with a prayer on his lips and walked back to his car, shaking his head. All the while he kept repeating, “God, if you’re real, please show me the way back to You.”
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