Thursday, March 28, 2013

Church Pews, Diet Pepsi, Beards, and Preconceived Notions


Warning ~ this is long. . . . very long.  But I’m writing it more for myself than for anyone else, because I don’t want to forget a thing.  I want to remember everything.

I’m very hesitant to write about my experiences of the past week because of one line that keeps jumping out at me from the Bible.  Matthew 6:4 tells us “Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.”  So, I’m going to attempt to describe the last seven days of my life without revealing too many details in the giving, but instead highlighting what we have received.  Suffice it to say that we gave a little, but received so much more.




A little over a month ago, I went on a Facebook fast.  After being glued to the social networking site for five years, I finally realized that it had become an addiction.  In retrospect, the hours I spent on Facebook weren’t all that excessive; I didn’t play games, I didn’t browse my friends’ albums, I didn’t comment that much on other statuses.  Still, I was addicted.  I would craft what I considered to be witty, thoughtful statuses, and I eagerly awaited peoples’ responses.  I craved their acceptance.  I yearned for that little red notification marker to tally up the numbers of likes.  Yes, I was addicted.  The only answer was de-activation.  

In place of Facebook, I tried to fill the time by becoming more keenly aware of the things surrounding me.  I substituted checking my phone every few minutes with observation, taking a closer look at that sky full of clouds, making eye contact with each person I met on the street or in the hallway before nodding and smiling at them, actually listening with full attention to someone speaking in front of me.  Instead of playing around on Facebook at my desk during lunch, I pulled out my Bible and began studying the Gospels in comparison to each other.  I made a chart and started comparing the four books side by side, chapter by chapter (my chart is about 40 pages long!)

In reading about the life of Christ, I started realizing just how much I could be missing just by not being observant.  There are hurting people everywhere; was I even paying enough attention to notice them?  When college students came to me needing some extra help or advice about their schedules, was I really taking enough time to listen or was I simply hurrying them along in order to get to my next task of the day?  That comparison of the Gospels soon became accompanied by a prayer for God to show me what He wanted me to see.
About a week ago, I went to Lifeway Bookstore to buy some gift-books for some friends.  At the counter, the clerk asked me if I wanted to donate a Bible to their community give-away campaign.  “Sure,” I said, assuming that the clerk would keep the Bible and place it in the donation bin.   A few days later, as I stood at the Post Office, mailing the books, I realized that the clerk had placed the Bible in the bag with the books (“coincidence” #1).

The day after buying the books, I flipped the television on at my house and the Dr. Oz show was on.  I’m not a regular viewer, but on this particular day he was discussing the need to “detox” the body in our processed-foods-crazed world (“coincidence #2).  In the midst of this show, he and his guest were discussing the need for us Americans to clean out the toxins from our bodies that are the result of all the processed foods we eat.  They showed the importance of going back to the basics and eating a “cleaner” diet.  At that particular moment, I had my hand in a bag of Dorito's, and I thought, “Hmmm, can’t they just slap the word ORGANIC on here so I won’t feel so bad?”  Soon they started in on the topic I have always dreaded the most – diet soft drinks.  I LOVE Diet Pepsi and Diet Mountain Dew, and I’ve known for some time that I’m addicted.  I could drink 7-8 cans a day and never blink an eye.  Unfortunately, I had been praying for the past week or so for God to show me what He wanted me to see, and I knew that this Dr. Oz program was one of those things.  I immediately began to argue with Him, “This was NOT what I was talking about God!” But I knew that it, like Facebook, was something I was supposed to be working on.  So I quit. . . cold turkey. . . and it was a BAD weekend!  My caffeine withdrawals were awful – a terrible headache that Ibuprofen just wouldn’t seem to touch, lethargy (in the midst of a VERY busy time for me!).  Still, I persisted, drinking nothing but water for the next seven days.

On Monday night, my son and I went to church for the opening night of the passion play.  My mind had partially cleared of the headaches, my energy was getting a little bit better, and we were ready to sit back and enjoy the play.  Seeing some friends in the balcony, my son hopped up to join them, leaving me alone on the church bench.  Just then an odor overwhelmed me, and I soon discovered that it was coming from the pew in front of me, where sat an unfamiliar head of curly, grey hair under a spotted blue cap.  Glancing around the end of the pew, I could see that a long, gray grizzled beard was attached to the face under the cap and that rags were tied around the man’s knee.
It has been my experience, after 20 years in education and 40 years of going to church, that there are two places on this earth that could compete for the “Loneliest Place on Earth” title.  One is a school cafeteria.  The other is sitting alone on an empty church pew.  Having spent many years doing my best to make sure no adolescent ever ate alone, I gathered up my belongings and moved right up beside the unfamiliar man in the pew in front of me.  He never looked up, never glanced in my direction.  During the 10 minute span from when I moved to when the play began, at least five other unsuspecting audience members took the pew behind us, only to get up and move across the church when they got a whiff of the odor floating towards them.  My experience as a high school and college English teacher made getting past this difficult smell an easy task for me, and I sat there pretending that I was a character in a book about the Middle Ages, where everyone, even those of an elite social stature, were bound to smell bad.  By the time the play had started, I didn’t even notice the smell.
All during the first act, I would sneak glances at my neighbor on that pew.  One coat lay beside him, yellow tinged with grease stains.   Midway through the performance, he peeled off layer #2, then layer #3.  As the first act concluded, and the lights came up, I noticed that the man was wearing what appeared to be a work uniform, the kind you may find through a uniform service company, such as Aramark (“coincidence” #3).  His pants were a faded slate blue, far from the crisp navy blue they had once been.  His button down shirt showed signs of a missing name tag patch that had been removed long ago.  Seeing his outfit, I immediately thought of my favorite uncle, who had worn a similar uniform every day of his life as a maintenance man for a fairly large newspaper.  My uncle had just passed away a few weeks ago, so seeing this man in this same type of uniform brought back a flood of memories from childhood.

A high-spirited voice brought me out of my daydream, “I thought Jesus had long hair!” As I glanced over I saw a sheepish grin beneath an unkempt moustache and above a grizzled beard. 

“Yeah, me too.  My husband and I have laughed at the fact we have a balding Jesus for some time now.” 

“Well, ain’t that somethin’.  My grandma was one of the most devout women of all time and she always said that Jesus didn’t have no long hair, that we all got it wrong.  She swore up and down that his hair was short, and here y’all got a short-haired Jesus.”
The play that night shouldn’t have even had an intermission, as only one act per night should have been acted out.  The surprise of a spring snowstorm the day before, however, had prevented our church from holding its Sunday night performance, so Monday night’s performance included Acts 1 and 2, thus the intermission (“coincidence” #4).   The man looked over at me and said, “I stopped drinking soft drinks about 10 years ago.  Just didn’t like all the carbonation and all the chemicals” (“coincidence” #5, as I was still feeling the need to “pop the top” of one). 

We continued talking. . . and talking. . . and talking. 

He told me that when he’s ready to sleep, he usually takes two flattened cardboard boxes and lays them on the ground first, before spreading his sleeping bag over them because cardboard does a pretty good job of keeping out the earth’s cold moisture.  He told me that a painter’s tarp can be strung up fairly easily to keep you dry while traveling.  He told me the only bad experience he ever had was in failing to hide himself before he bedded down for the night.  He told me he had met Dr. Jerry Falwell once at Famous Anthony’s in Lynchburg and that he had seemed to be a downright caring fella.  He told me he had come through Barboursville, WV (near my hometown of Wayne) once and had gone to sleep under the stars in what he thought was a secluded place, only to wake up 15 feet from a woman in her housecoat on her deck.  “Liked to have scared me to DEATH!” he chuckled, then he described the sirens of the ambulance and fire truck, which had come at the insistence of the woman, who had declared there was a dead man in her back yard.

We talked. . . .and talked. . . . and talked. . . .

Immensely enjoying my conversation with this man, I selfishly asked him, “Are you going to get to come tomorrow night?”  to which he replied, “Well, I’m actually trying to get to Farmville, VA, so I’ll probably start walking that way after it’s over.” (“coincidence” #6, as we live towards Farmville and work near there). 

Finally he said, “This intermission has sure been a long one!  I believe something has happened backstage!”  Just then, our church’s music director came out, apologizing for the delay, but there had been an issue that had prevented Act 2 from starting right away (“coincidence” #7). 
I started praying during the second act, “Lord, what do you want me to do? Tell me. . . Show me.”  When the play was over, I told him to sit tight, that I was going to find my husband and we’d get him to Farmville.  By that time, numerous other men in the church had approached him, telling him that they would take him to the local motel for the night.  He was appreciative, but politely told them that he had found a ride to Farmville, and that we’d be back shortly to get him.

As we gathered up his numerous belongings that had been stowed in a small room of the church, it quickly became apparent that this man had done and seen more than we could ever imagine.  He didn’t carry bags.  He carried sheets folded and tied into bags.  As he hefted them all up onto his shoulders, we asked, to no avail, if we could help.  He wanted to show us what he looked like when he was walking the road.  Each and every bag had its own place, a home upon his shoulders.  Soon he looked like a branch of green grapes, as his rounded bags fell soundly into place.  He told us about his childhood, how his dad had once been a professional baseball player and had practiced his barbering skills on him and his siblings during the off-season.  He told us that Nashville’s soup kitchens have the best food of any other city because all the country stars donate the leftovers from their big fancy parties to the city mission.  He quoted staunch conservatives, including Sean Hannity and Michael Savage, whom he listens to daily on a transistor radio.  Although he had never been in the service, he knew specific dates of the Vietnam War and had memories of soldiers being treated poorly when they returned.  He described the importance of music in his life, and of his favorite singer, Peter Frampton, and how he had the same problem with thinning hair that our church’s Jesus had.  He told us about his first and only experience with drugs, when he was 14 years old and at a concert.  He said he had decided right then and there that drugs weren’t for him, and that marijuana “I like to spell it out M-A-R-I-J-U-A-N-A,” he said, counting with his fingers, was the most dangerous drug on earth, because it made you want more and more.  He told us he has been on the streets since he was 14 and that he hasn’t been able to stay in shelters for several decades because of a severe allergic reaction to cigarette smoke.

We wanted to take him out to eat a restaurant, to which he replied, “hey, unless y’all are starvin’, I’d just as soon go to Farmville Walmart and get some of their things.  They have a lot of organic juices and healthy stuff.  I don’t eat no junk food and no processed sugar.  Have you ever heard of Robert Atkins?  Well, I read his book at a library one time and after that, I don’t eat no processed sugar and other junk” (“coincidence” #8).  Our trip to Walmart lasted nearly an hour, as our new friend carefully evaluated labels, searched for specific brands, and weighed his choices.  I looked at my husband said, “How ironic is it that this man, who spends 95% of his nights sleeping on a cardboard box, is so much more careful with what he puts in his body than WE are?”  He chose some frozen dinners, a box of Kashi cereal, some green tea, raisins, organic acai berry juice, and some other VERY healthy items. 

We learned, in the middle of those Walmart aisles, of his main fear, a fear of developing diabetes.  This fear had hit him about a decade ago, as he remembered an uncle who had lost both legs to the disease.  He said, “Ten years ago, I felt like I was going over Niagra Falls. Going over, over, over.  I knew I was gonna get it.  I just knew.  So what do you do when you think you’re going over Niagra Falls?  You start back-pedaling.  FAST.  I stopped drinking soft drinks.  I stopped eating junk food.  The streets aren’t the place for someone who’s an amputee.”
Through the conversation filled with specific dates and ages, we deducted that he was 52 (during one story, he told us he had been six years old in 1965).  He looked like he was 78.  His mind amazed me.  He knew more and spouted off more facts, statistics, and dates in those four hours than I had ever even known.  We pulled into the Super 8 parking lot, asking him if this was okay.  As I opened the door, he hollered out, “2nd floor, no smoking, if they’ve got it.”  When I approached the desk, one of my college students appeared, grinning, telling me he was the night manager (“coincidence” #9).  Breathing a sigh of relief, I gave him my license, and asked for three nights, second floor, non-smoking room.  I then explained the situation and told him that we had spent the last 4 hours with this man and that we didn’t think there would be any problems, but if there were, he had my phone number. 

We took his bags to his room and told him we hoped he’d enjoy the room and get caught up on some sleep.  It was nearing 11 o’clock, and we told him we had to go, that we had kids and had to get home to them.  The final thing he said was, “Man, y’all some good people.  Some good good people.  I want you to know that I believe that Jesus Christ lived and died for all of our sins and that because of Him, I’m going to Heaven.”

As we left the hotel room, Brian and I just laughed and laughed.  We couldn’t believe our good fortune in meeting this man and how much we had enjoyed the past four hours with him.  On the last evening of his stay, I stopped by his hotel room and left a bag in front of his door that included that Bible that I shouldn’t have even had.  I also left a knee brace that I had hoped would replace the rags tied around his swollen knee.  On a note, I told him that Brian and I were so glad we had met him and that we’d love to meet him the next day to get him a bus ticket to Delaware,  his original destination.  Later that night, he called me, thanking me for the bag of goodies, but declined the invitation for a bus ticket, declaring that he has had problems on buses in the past.  Drivers, he said, often wouldn’t let him on the bus due to the smell of him and his belongings, and he really appreciated the offer but he just didn’t want to go through all that hassle.  I told him how sorry I was that he had experienced that, and that he was really no different than men coming off the Appalachian Trail, to which he exclaimed, “I can’t believe you said that!  There was a lady in Tennessee a few months ago who had thought I had been traveling the Appalachian Trail!” (“coincidence” #10).  He then went into a history about the last time he had trimmed his beard and cut his hair, and I told him that he needed to check out Duck Dynasty, because anyone who was rejecting him based upon his appearance obviously wasn’t in tune with popular culture, because he looked like he could belong to the #1 rated reality show.  (He hadn’t seen it, but luckily it was coming on that night, his last night at the motel, so I told him to check it out.)  Not wanting to take us up on our offer of a bus ticket, he did say that he could use a ride over to the other side of town, where he could easily get on route 15 and head north.  Brian had that one handled, and the last word I got on our friend was this, “He didn’t want fast food breakfast, but we took one last trip through Walmart.  The main thing he got was two jars of peanut butter.  ALL NATURAL peanut butter.”

I am so thankful to have had this experience this week.  It has taught me that we need. . . . No. . . we absolutely MUST. . . . get past first impressions and  our preconceived notions.  I would never have approached this man on the highway.  Honestly, I still wouldn’t stop for those such as him just for the safety issues.  But we need to take a moment to develop relationships with those God plants in our paths.  There’s no doubt in my mind that our encounter with this man was divinely orchestrated.  I’m hoping that one day, he’ll get tired of traveling and come on back down here to Virginia, where I hope he can say he experienced some kindness.