In the summer of 2001, my wife and our then-two-year-old daughter and I did something we had never done before. We rented a house for the summer out in the Hamptons on Long Island. It was in Amagansett, to be precise. Amagansett is far out on the island, past most of the hoo-ha of the various Hamptons themselves, almost near the tip. After Amagansett is Montauk, which is the end of Long Island.
We loved the idea of being so far away from everything, including from most of the Hamptons, which can become a crowded cliche during the summer months. The house we found was over a hundred years old, comfortably set back from Route 27, with five bedrooms. Of course we included lots of friends, as we couldn’t afford the whole house ourselves. In early June we packed our things and left our Manhattan apartment, not intending to return until Labor Day, which is just what we did. We were there the whole summer, but most of our friends only came out on the weekends.
One Saturday morning, before we left for the beach, I saw that there was a message on the clunky answering machine in the hallway of the house. It was early June, our first or second weekend out there. Of course it wasn’t my house and it wasn’t my answering machine, so figuring out how to use it was a bit trickier than I had thought. But at least I succeeded in hearing the message. It was Frank Shepherd, a new friend from the New Canaan Society, a Christian men’s group I had been very involved with over the years. Frank is an African-American, one of very few in NCS, as we called it, since most of the NCS men hailed from Fairfield County, Connecticut, which is not exactly racially diverse. Frank and my friend Jim Lane had been classmates and friends at Columbia Business School in the Seventies, and Frank had recently come to faith and started coming to our weekly NCS morning meetings at Jim’s house.
But this message was actually the second phone message from Frank. He had called a few days earlier and left a message, saying that he would be out in Bridgehampton that weekend and wondered where we were going to church on Sunday and could he join us? But the first message had gotten lost somehow and I hadn’t written down his number, so I was very glad that he called again. This message said that he was now in Bridgehampton and he again asked about church and whether he could join us, again leaving his number. Don’t ask me how this is possible, but once again I or someone else must have pressed the wrong button, because although I heard it once, the message vanished immediately thereafter into the labyrinth of the ancient machine, never to be found again.
This was a real problem. At least as I saw it. Because this very new friend, after leaving two phone messages with his number, would surely get the impression that I was ignoring him if I didn’t call back. Would he get disenchanted with his newfound faith, since its followers seemed to be at best flaky and at worst genuinely unfriendly and therefore hypocritical? There’s something about that magical time when a person embraces the faith for the first time. There’s a tenderness to that faith, and a fragility, and as someone who pulses with the passion of my own faith and who wants others to know that passion and that joy, I have a special place in my heart for those who are just beginning that journey. So for Frank to reach out to someone he hardly knew, asking to go to church with that person — twice — was very meaningful to me. He was giving me the privilege of helping guide him in those early steps of this important journey. And now I couldn’t even call him back. Ugh.
What do you do at a time like that? What can you do? I realized that I didn’t even have the phone numbers of anyone who would have Frank’s number. So that wasn’t an option. I didn’t know where in Bridgehampton he was staying, so I couldn’t drive there and leave a note. I was stuck. The internet was pretty new and Facebook had not been invented yet. At this point I could only hope he might call back a third time. But it was already Saturday and he had now called twice. Did I really think he wouldn’t be annoyed and would actually call back a third time? Would I have done that? I would have assumed the person hadn’t gotten my messages or, more likely, had gotten the message but hadn’t wanted to return them or spend time with me. Nice. So I spent that Saturday thinking about this and being annoyed about it. It was very frustrating to think of, and I thought of it many times that day at the beach.
That night, as many Saturday nights that summer, the group of us in the house and a few others who were staying in the Hamptons not far away gathered for dinner. But this Saturday, after dinner, a group of us decided to inaugurate the home and the summer by having a time of prayer in the living room. It must have been about nine pm at that point, or later, since I remember it was dark outside. And as we do, we went around the room and offered up our prayers for this and for that. When it was my turn to pray I remembered the situation with Frank and in one of those absolutely hopeless prayers that is only prompted by some of the promises in Scripture — that with God all things are possible, for example — I prayed that Frank would somehow know that I wasn’t rudely avoiding him and that even better, he might somehow be able to connect with us for church the next day, even though at this point that was essentially impossible. In any case, I did what Christians do when there is no human solution to a problem. I “gave it to God.” We’re supposed to do that, to give our problems to God and stop being anxious about them. He cares more about us and our problems than we do, so as a loving Father he commands us to do that. Well, I did.
For no particular reason I had been getting up very early that week, around five. I never get up that early, but for some reason that week I was waking up and going downstairs and making coffee and then usually driving down to the beach, less than a mile away. There I’d sit with my coffee and Bible and pray. It doesn’t get better than having a “quiet time” on a lonely gorgeous beach at dawn. But this morning I got up a few minutes before five and as I was making coffee, our friend Deb Friant showed up in the kitchen. I wondered what she was doing up at that early hour and she said she sometimes woke up early. Then in that bright way that Deb has, she said we should take a walk down to the beach! Now you must keep in mind that it was jet black outside. Not a hint of sunrise approaching. It was about five-oh-five in early June. The sun wasn’t set to rise till about 5:25. Nonetheless Deb was so excited about the idea that I thought — what the heck! So I gulped my coffee and we began the fifteen-minute walk.
There was something extraordinary about that hour in that place. There wasn’t a single car on the road, not even on the main road — Route 27 — which stretches all along Long Island like a spine, all the way to Montauk. And so we walked out of the driveway onto 27 and made a right past the Episcopal Church and then made the right onto Indian Wells Road. The quietness was amazing, although birds began to peep here and there. It’s eight-tenths of a mile from Route 27 to Amagansett Beach and we were about halfway down the road when the head lights of a car appeared in the distance behind us. It was the only car we had seen since leaving the house. In a few moments it passed us. It was a huge black SUV. By now it was about 5:20, so there was a just a bit of light in the sky. I guessed it must be an early airport pickup for one of the billionaires who lived in the area. Who else would be driving around in the pitch-black at that hour?
About forty yards past us the SUV hit the brakes. And then it began backing up. Toward us. For a moment I was somehow frightened, though I’m not sure why. Perhaps there’s something vaguely illicit about walking quietly past houses when everyone else is sleeping. But as the car backed up I wondered further about who was in that big black SUV. And why were they out on this lonely dark road before the sun had risen? And why had they stopped and were now backing up toward us? Were they lost? In a moment the car was parallel with us and the electric passenger’s window rolled down. And there in the driver’s seat… Of course it couldn’t be. Not in a hundred years. But it was: Frank Shepherd.
What does one do at a time like that? I felt the need to register my shock, so I probably bugged my eyes out and did one of those things they seem to do a lot in the “Our Gang” comedies where they jiggle their heads very suddenly, something like a 1930s cousin of Homer Simpson’s “Doh!” I was momentarily speechless. Then I finally found my tongue: “Frank!?!” I sputtered. “What in the world are you doing here!!??”
Time seems to stand still for me at such moments. I want to twirl around and make sure I’m really there. I want to pin the moment, as it were, so that it can’t fly away and pretend it didn’t exist. I want to connect the transcendence of it to the “real” world around me. I want at least to have a witness, and in this case I had Frank and our dear friend Deb, who at that moment only dimly knew how wonderful and outrageous it was for me to see Frank here, but who would soon be apprised of it in every detail.
“I’m just driving to the beach to watch the sunrise,” Frank said, not aware of my end of all of this and how stymied, buffaloed, and horn-swoggled I was to see him. “I do that sometimes just to have a prayer time as the sun comes up.”
“Yes, Frank. But why way out here in Amagansett of all places?!” I knew that his house was in faraway Bridgehampton. There had to be a dozen beaches he might have traveled to before ending up at this one. Why was he so very very far from home?
I no longer remember the precise explanation he gave, but I remember his saying that he’d first driven toward one beach and then rejected it as not quite right because of not being able to see where the sun would come up and then he had driven to another and another, traveling ever eastward on Route 27 until for whatever reason he found himself ten miles from his house, right here on this lonely, pitch-black strip of road in Amagansett.
“Do you realize how crazy that is?” I said to him. He did and he didn’t. And so I explained the part of it that made it, for me, supremely crazy. “I didn’t have your number and you’d called twice and the answering machine messed up and I lost it both times. And I knew you wanted to connect with us for church today and last night I realized there was no way that that was going to happen, barring a miracle. So last night we had a prayer time and in the prayer time I prayed that somehow God would connect us before church this morning! And I never get up this hour and never, ever walk along this road, but for some reason I got up and Deb got up and said we should walk to the beach and we did, and we didn’t see a single car anywhere — not one — until just now when you pulled up. It’s insane!”
Frank didn’t know what to say. What should he say? After all, miracles are always hard to process. Part of us usually thinks there’s something we’ve misunderstood, some easy explanation we don’t want to miss, for fear of making a fool of ourselves and being thought gullible rubes. But another part of us is so stunned by what actually seems to be a miracle that we’re wondering at God and are simply awestruck that we’ve had the tremendous privilege of being chosen by Him to experience something we in our bones know we don’t deserve to experience any more than anyone else in the world — and yet there we are, experiencing it. It’s wild.
So as I remember, Deb and I jumped into Frank’s car and drove the rest of the way with him to the beach and walked around the beach for a bit and prayed a bit and clambered to the top of a tall white lifeguard’s chair and then walked back to the car and Frank drove us back to the house and we said we would reconnoiter for church at ten a.m. that day. Which was exactly what I had so desperately wanted to communicate to him and could not, if not for this miracle. That’s what my crazy prayer the night before had been all about. So after all that we did meet up and attend a church in Sag Harbor, pastored by a wonderful man in his eighties, who was so full of faith you could feel it.
But for the rest of that day and week I kept doing the math on the odds of what had happened actually happening. I thought that the odds of my getting up at that hour and walking to the beach at that hour were almost nil. But those odds had to be multiplied by the odds that Frank Shepherd would be awake and for some bizarre reason drive and drive and drive eastward until he came at a few minutes after five a.m. to drive down Indian Wells Road to Amagansett Beach. The odds were so infinitesimally low that it hurt my head to think of it, as it always does to think of such things.
But here’s what I find most interesting: what if all of that had happened, but I hadn’t prayed that prayer the night before? Wasn’t the really extraordinary thing that God had led me down this path of not being able to connect with Frank by any means other than a miracle, and then nudged me to pray for that miracle with the quite sure sense that it’s our job to pray such prayers, open to their being answered, but never really and truly expecting them to be answered at all? Wasn’t the outrageousness of it all that I had prayed that prayer and that after praying that prayer God had done what He had done, as if to say: here I am! You forgot that I was really here, didn’t you? That I really do hear your prayers? Well, good news: I’m here and I do.
There’s something simultaneously delightful and humbling — almost frightening — about such moments. God parts the clouds just enough to wink at us and then disappears. What do we do with that? Human nature is to eventually forget about it, or even to shoo it away somehow. It’s too much for us to bear on a number of levels. Which is why in Scripture — in the Old Testament — God commands his people to mark these moments, to memorialize them — sometimes in stone — and as part of their written and oral histories.
In our own day there are at least two ways we can keep the memory of such things alive. First, it’s vital to write these things down so that they exist apart from oneself and live on so that others can read them. That’s a way of pinning them down, so to speak, so that they don’t fly away into the ether. Another is to tell them to others. I’ve done that too, often with my friend Frank Shepherd in the room. Most of those times were at “Alpha” courses which I’ve been a part of over the years. At our church in Manhattan (Calvary/St. George’s) we had many Alpha courses and for a few years I spoke at some of them. On the week in which we talked about miracles, I invariably told this story, with Frank in attendance to corroborate it. Because yes, it happened. It happened.