Shortly after my 30th birthday, I met God for the first time in my life. I was in a bank when it happened. No, I wasn’t relaxing on some serene riverbank with birds flying overhead, the sun reflecting off the gently rippling water, and the grass swaying in the breeze. I was in the other kind of bank, a bricks-and-steel financial institution, a place where some people are thought to worship money. And no, I wasn’t in this bank to collect my fortune in lottery winnings or to be given the keys to the vault—nothing so extraordinary. I was merely working there, in a windowless room in the basement, when God’s presence in my life suddenly became real in a way it never had been before.
I’d grown up in a liberal Quaker family and had heard since I was small that "There is that of God in everyone." My childhood image of God was of a tiny man (yes, dressed in white robes with a long white beard!) perched on top of my heart. God is within us, I learned from Friends around me. I took comfort in this closeness; but as a practical matter, God was not very different from my own conscience, helping me to discern right from wrong. My relationship with God for the first 30 years of my life was more intellectual than personal.
One day the vice president of the bank where I was the controller stopped by my office. He confided that the bank president had instructed him to fire an employee without cause. The vice president was respectful of authority and always followed instructions, but he struggled with the morality of firing an employee who had done nothing wrong. He and I discussed the issue from all angles but could not come up with a solution to his problem. Both choices, firing the employee or refusing to follow an order, seemed wrong to him. After the vice president left my office, I continued to worry about his dilemma. I considered him a friend and wished I had been able to help him solve this problem.
Up until this point in my life, I did not exactly believe in prayer. Praying to "that of God" in myself seemed suspiciously like praying to myself, an idea that seemed as narcissistic as it did pointless. In any event, I did not understand God as the kind of personal being who gets involved with my daily struggles. I figured it was my responsibility to use my best judgment and rational skills to solve problems—people who thought prayers "worked" were fooling themselves. Perhaps the act of praying made some people feel better, I conceded. But this comfort was due more to the power of autosuggestion than to any divine response to prayer.
So there I sat at my desk in the basement of the bank, pondering the difficult situation faced by my friend. Because I could not conceive of any other way to assist him, my thoughts turned to the possibility of prayer. I still considered prayer a silly waste of time, but I did know many good, respectable people who believed otherwise. In this case, I told myself, I’ve run out of options. Besides, even if it doesn’t help, it certainly can’t hurt. So I decided to pray for my friend.
My prayer was hardly one of deep faith and conviction. It was more like, "OK, God, if you really do listen to prayers, and if you really do get involved with the details of human life, then would you please consider helping my friend find a way out of his predicament?" I was definitely hedging my bet.
Two days later the vice president returned to my office with a big grin on his face. He had decided to call our new bank chairman, a man he barely knew, and ask for his advice. (I don’t know where he got the courage to make this call.) The chairman was gracious and advised my friend to refuse to fire the employee. He added that if there were any repercussions from the president, the chairman would intervene on his behalf. My friend then told the president that he would not fire the employee—and to his astonishment the president simply accepted his decision and dropped the matter. The chairman never had to intervene.
After the vice president relayed this surprising outcome and left my office, I sat at my desk, dumbfounded. I stared at the drab wood paneling on the walls around me and at the clutter on my desk. It was then that I suddenly felt God’s presence as I had never felt it before. I didn’t hear a voice, or see a vision, or feel a hand on my shoulder, but I knew God was with me—right there, in a bank of all places.
I was overwhelmed with the absolute knowledge that God loves me and cares about all the details of my life, personal and professional. Finally I knew with utter certainty that the reality of God’s being is more vast than I had ever imagined—much more than just the sum of the parts of God found in each of us.
The unexpected resolution of my friend’s problem may have been an answer to my prayer, or it may have been a coincidence. What I found undeniable, however, was that God met me at the bank and revealed to me God’s infinite love and concern. God took the tiny amount of faith I had demonstrated in my feeble prayer and rewarded it with an undeserved measure of grace and assurance. And suddenly I knew that prayer works by bringing me closer to God. I came to see this event as my spiritual awakening. After 30 years of believing intellectually in God’s existence, I had finally woken up to the realization that God is a personal, loving presence with me at all times. At the same time, God is infinitely greater than just what is inside me or in others.
God can meet us anywhere: in meeting for worship, in the embrace of a friend, or even in the basement of a bank. We don’t have to know all the answers first, and we certainly don’t have to understand how God acts in our lives. That kind of understanding grows slowly over a lifetime. But if we do reach out to God, however tentatively or feebly, God will meet us more than halfway.