I Was Suspicious of Christians Until I Met Arthur

James O’Donnell

From: Walking with Arthur. Copyright 2005 Northfield Publishing. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

1984. The hinge of my life. It was the year my father died. It was the year my employer cut my salary, but only after I had hit the pay ball out of the park. It was the year, too, when our nine year old son began talking about killing himself. And it was the year I decided to divorce my wife, Lizzie.

1984 was the year in which I found I believed in nothing. I trusted no one. And no one I knew was worth trusting.

That is, until I met Arthur.

In meeting Arthur I awoke as if from a long sleep. From a lifetime of self-absorption, I awoke to learn about the purpose and meaning of life. I met Jesus on the transit trains to NYC through Arthur.


Weekday Warrior

My office on the 57th floor of a midtown Manhattan skyscraper may have been lofty, but I still looked up to those whose power exceeded mine. I worked with lots of very smart people who, like myself, had Ivy League educations. We competed ferociously with each other and knew lots about yachts, designer suits, jumbo mortgages and discounted cash flows.

I don’t remember hearing one thing about philosophical or spiritual things, except perhaps for some nuggets that might get a laugh at a party. Yet, here we were, running the world. Or at least making enough money to think we were. Who knew more than we did about real life and how to get and keep the good life than people like us?

Yet, as I look back on those years I’m astounded at how little I knew about anything worth knowing. How poor, too, were my instincts–other than in business–about how to learn and grow in a confusing and challenging world. But, then, I didn’t know anyone else who knew more than I did.

I do remember occasionally overhearing conversations about important things. A perk of my job gave me membership in a swanky health club. One day I overheard a guy, obviously in pain and feeling embarrassment, telling one of his buddies he was divorcing. I tried to be inconspicuous, retying my sneakers or adjusting my socks. I wanted to know what another bright, successful guy from my world might tell his friend about the trauma he was heading into.

Conversations like this were rare in the world I belonged to. We didn’t talk about feelings or failure. Those kinds of things were woman stuff. They weren’t shared among us heavy hitters because we knew that appearances were reality. Seeming to be out of control was a good as being out of control. We avoided letting others know a lot about us, for knowledge could be used against us. I ached for wisdom on divorce. But as was almost always the case back then, my listening was worthless. The older guy said nothing to his hurting buddy, except that “it was probably for the best.” And that, “Hey, we learn from such things.”

Another time, I found myself in an important business meeting in which the senior executive and his human resource guy got caught up in a very audible conversation before the meeting started. It was about an executive the senior fellow wanted fired. The HR manager said research suggested it best be done on a Monday, especially considering the man’s level.

“On a Monday? Why, Phil?” the senior executive demanded.

“Well, it gives the poor guy the rest of the week to absorb the shock. He can tell his family when he’s ready. Saves some dignity. He might even keep leaving for work for a few days without his family’s knowing he got fired.”

The senior executive was unimpressed. “So what am I supposed to do? Wait to tell him and ruin my weekend?”

In those days I never wasted time thinking about anybody but myself, but what I’d overheard in these conversations struck me as selfish, even then. Some instinct in me was bubbling up whispering “Not this.”

My worldview was like of those around me. We were the warriors who left our families in the lovely suburbs and rode into battle each day. We were the ones who’d made it in life–not our spouse, nor the kids, nor our underlings. We were the ones entitled to the fruits of our accomplishments. At best, others lived off us or received a share of the dividends from our reflected glory, if they behaved. Yet, at home, we weren’t always as revered as we were at work. Lizzie even talked back to me and increasingly went her own way. I resented being unappreciated after all I afforded her and the kids.

I was simply a jerk who didn’t know it.


Conversations with Arthur

I had no adult male friends in the fall of 1984 and wasn’t looking for any, either. But as things worked out, on many a morning I found myself running into Arthur during the few minutes it took me to get to the train station. Sometimes we walked together, never by plan, but simply because we happened to be on the same schedule.

He was about twenty years older than I, and a lawyer on Wall Street. We both had two degrees from Ivy League schools, but his came from Harvard–in nuclear physics and law no less. That’s what first got my attention. His background gave him instant credibility. I believed in that old saying: “You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much.”

In the course of our commutes into New York City, Arthur asked me important questions and shared his own life. As I look back, I think he must have chosen the words he shared with me with the utmost care. He’d share a bit about himself and then ask me about my own life, always listening for my motivations.

We began meeting for lunch in the city once in awhile. As time went on, he shared himself with me with what seemed like an almost uncomfortable level of vulnerability. But Arthur did it naturally. He wasn’t morbidly self-critical, nor was he an emotional exhibitionist. No, he was simply honest and appropriate in what he shared. Even helpful.

I’d never met a man before who shared personal details of his life to help a younger friend. I began to wonder, nice as this guy was, “What is his angle?” To me, everybody had an angle, because information was power. Vulnerability was weakness. Or stupidity. Yet here was a Wall Street lawyer telling me about his life. Even his divorce.

Yes, his divorce.

And I wanted to know about his divorce. I wanted to know everything! I was on the edge of divorcing Lizzie. When Arthur’s first wife told him she wanted a divorce, Arthur recalled he thought it would be a mistake, but, somehow, he didn’t fight it. So they divorced. Simple as that. Seemed back then, Arthur didn’t believe in much of anything either. Then almost as a throwaway, he said, “It would be several years before I met Jesus.”

“Whoa! ‘Met Jesus?!’ Did I hear that right? Is Arthur kidding?” I wondered, feeling my palms getting sweaty. He continued by explaining that although he and his wife had attended church regularly and he had been an elder, he believed in nothing. I sat there speechless for a moment. Arthur was the first guy who talked like this, who talked about things other than pro sports or where to get good ribs.

Arthur’s honesty made a space in my own life into which I felt I could share a little bit about myself and my struggles. So I ‘fessed up that I was thinking of divorcing Lizzie. He continued to listen and asked why. Then he delivered the clincher: “I’ll pray for you.”

There it was again–like slamming a fist on a table full of soup bowls and watching the soup fly all over the linen. That’s how the prayer comment and the Jesus comment sounded to me. They were embarrassing.

When Arthur mentioned “Jesus” and told me he would “pray for me,” it was as if he’d just said he’d pooped in his pants: It was simply not what polite people I knew talked about. Yet, there he was, hoisting up his faith like dirty underwear on a flagpole for all to see.

But no sooner had I heard evidence of Arthur’s faith than I began to think about my own. I began to wonder: “If a bus ran over me on Madison Avenue, and the morgue called Lizzie to fill out my death certificate, what box on the form would she tell them to check for my religion?”

Arthur was the first person I met who actually thought about his beliefs and his actions.


Penetrating an Inflexible Heart

I accepted an invitation from Arthur to attend a small businessmen’s group at his church. I planned to go once for his sake, to show him what a good guy I was, and I took my checkbook along, thinking maybe–just maybe–all along Arthur only wanted a donation for some cause but was too polite to ask.

I was nervous because I thought I might be stepping into the world of the truly looney or that I’d be humiliated when asked my favorite Bible verse or hymn. Or maybe, God forbid, to pray out loud! But nothing like that happened. For, I was being introduced to the courtesy of eternal love.

After Arthur introduced me, the men greeted me warmly. Then these six men let me be a fly on the wall. They went about sharing a little of their personal lives as friends and offered concern for each other. Then they prayed out loud for the health of each other and their families, and that their work would glorify God. They also prayed that they would face life’s challenges with courage, and finally closed with prayer for the needs of the larger world. One even included me in his simple prayer, thanking God that I had joined them that morning, hoping that my life might be blessed.

Then it was over. It was like a warm bath, but one the likes of which I’d never experienced before. Arthur thanked me for coming and without any pleading, invited me to come again if I wanted to. That was Arthur’s way: never insisting, never embarrassing me by pointing out what I didn’t know.

By February 1985, I’d known Arthur six months. He told me that he hadn’t expected coming to faith either. In a moment of weakness long after his divorce, he’d agreed to go on a church retreat. And it was that retreat changed his life. Now he suggested I go on such a retreat.

I did go and found it deeply affecting. But I didn’t know if it was real or just a temporary after-affect from being around a bunch of nice men. Had my weekend been affected, or had my life been changed? It didn’t take long before my first test.


The Test of True Change

On Tuesday, April 30, 1985 Lizzie came upstairs to tell me yet again that she was going out that night to a board of education meeting. By then the poor woman must have been weary from the delicate struggle to find words that didn’t detonate an explosion. My attitudes were sometimes destructive to my wife and to our marriage. But I didn’t seem to care, and even when I did, I felt both unable and unwilling to change.

She tiptoed into our library and asked, “If it would be all right?” The question was rhetorical, I’d long felt. She knew it was never all right, but she’d go anyway. In the past, I greeted this ritual dishonesty with sarcasm and anger. But now just two days after the retreat and praying that somehow I might really begin to be different, I had an opportunity to show Lizzie. It was my first, real chance to show her how sorry I was for the many times I’d made her feel lousy when all she wanted to do was help our troubled son.

I jumped up from my desk, hugged her, and told her, “Have a great time, and don’t worry about when you get home.” Hearing me say that, she drew back slowly. Looking puzzled, she asked, “Are you feeling okay?”

When Lizzie came home at 10:30 that night, I was in bed trying to sleep. But this time, I was really trying to sleep. Over the years, I had honed my awful skills in imposing the maximum degree of pain on Lizzie while never laying a hand on her to physically abuse her. At moments like these I would fly into a rage. Though I could never keep her from going to her stupid meetings, I could and did practice my ugly drill once she got back. It was a mean and destructive payback for having left me that night.

But this night, through the grace of God and probably the prayers of Arthur, I didn’t erupt. I simply asked Lizzie, in the dark, after she was in bed, whether she had a good meeting.

She sat bolt upright in bed and turned on the light.

“What has happened to you?” she demanded. She seemed more scared from the fact I was different than that I would rail against her again. “I don’t know,” I said. But I hoped whatever it was, it would be real and permanent. I told her again that I wanted to become a better husband and father. And, once more, I told her I was sorry for the pain I had caused her over the years. I also told her I loved her.


Loving the Hard Questions

Arthur wasn’t one of those little, old Italian ladies I saw on the streets reciting the rosary. He wasn’t one of those sandwich-board guys, handing out leaflets about going to hell. But he was speaking the same code. Arthur showed me the God I didn’t yet believe in. He showed me Jesus in the only way I would then have been able to understand him–through friendship with a gracious human being.

It was Arthur who taught me to love the hard questions, or at least tolerate them, and not run, or hide from them. Arthur asked me the deep questions of life, three of which I’ll share with you.

First, he asked, “What is your heart set on?” Arthur warned me to be very careful before answering this question because few of us think deeply enough about what we want. He said that for good or bad, whatever we set our hearts on is most likely what we will get–or what we’ll become.

A second question Arthur wanted me to think about was, “What do you most deeply trust?” When I met Arthur, I trusted no one. And since I didn’t know anything or anyone more important, I trusted in me. And my money. And in my ability to build networks.

Finally, Arthur asked me, “What are you most afraid of?” Is it looking foolish? Or being asked something you don’t know? Maybe not fitting in? Appearing uncool or different? Losing your job? Running out of money? The death of a loved one?

My friendship with Arthur taught me that an idealist can be grounded in reality. I didn’t expect that from a person of faith. I once thought of people of faith as brittle, as tourists in this rough world where I lived and competed. They might say they were “in this world but not of it,” but too often, they seemed out of touch and sometimes out of their minds.

But not Arthur. He was the first person of faith to share his Harvard accomplishments with me as well as the sadness of his divorce. I trusted him because he was real. And that made all the difference.

In Arthur’s Own Words

Jim O’Donnell is a dear friend. But frankly, I do not recognize the Arthur depicted. Rather his characterization of the person he calls Arthur is simply far from the image I have of myself. To me, the substance of what Jim recalls sounds more like the work of the Holy Spirit. I find it wonderful that I may have been used in such a way, but I never set out to make Jim my “project” on behalf of God.

The real story here is that the author and I met, and we became friends–trusting friends. I happened to bring into that friendship my own relatively new relationship with God. I had a slight head start over Jim on this walk of faith not because I am twenty years his senior but because I had been truly changed a few months earlier by my own Tres Dias weekend [a men’s church retreat].**

** Note: Tres Dias, Spanish for “three days,” is the three-day weekend we experienced””an ecumenical, lay-led, offspring of Cursillo De Christandad (“a short course in Christian living”). The Cursillo has its roots in the Spanish Catholic church, with the first Cursillo weekend held in 1949. The program was brought to the US by Spanish fliers training in Texas. Today Tres Dias communities thrive in many states and foreign countries.

Having been spiritually awakened on my own weekend, I learned a new truth: that one does not come to know and grow in God alone. A friend such as Jim challenged me to confront my own mistakes and shortcomings. He had a mind that could help me understand the Bible as we read it together. I never had the feeling I was leading him. Rather, I felt I was learning from him.

I sense that the Holy Spirit has only committed one of his usual, yet often unnoticed, miracles in bringing Jim O’Donnell and Arthur together. The Spirit colored our perceptions of one another as the motivating force in the relationship, only to spur on our mutual growth and maturity.

Adapted from Walking with Arthur (Northfield Publishing). Copyright 2005 by James O’Donnell. Used by permission.

James O’Donnell, associate professor and executive in-residence at Huntington College in Indiana, was for years a senior executive at Fidelity Investments and Chemical Bank. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s and Fortune.