Monday, November 28, 2011

Life As You Know It

I met a man a couple of weeks ago by the name of Robert.  He was skilled in electrical work, plumbing, and even something he called "laser guided missile repair." Though I have no idea what the latter is, I found myself impressed just by the fancy and highly skilled sound of it. "What a smart guy!" I thought to myself as I tried to picture him in the line of duty.  When we met, it was cold and rainy and Robert sat bundled up on a bench outside of my local Albertson's grocery store.  I didn't see him as I walked out because he was off to my left and not even my peripheral vision picked up his presence.  Plus, I was in a hurry to get home so I could kick back with the family to have popcorn and watch movies. On cold, rainy days there's nothing I like better than snuggling up under the plush blanket that my mom gave me for Christmas three years ago.  The picture you see doesn't do it justice because this thing is velvety soft and oh so warm.  I like it so much that it took me two years before I would even allow my son (who is now almost 7) to touch or use it. It was just a generally accepted rule in our home that no one, under any circumstances, was to touch "mommy's blanket," and this rule extended to my husband, friends, family, and anyone else who happened to stop by. "Don't touch it now, don't touch it ever," was the unspoken message anytime it was sitting out. I could be in another room of the house and still know if someone ran their unworthy finger along it to cop a feel of it's satiny soft lining.  I love this blanket, but... today's entry isn't about my blanket, though you no doubt see now why I love it.  Back to Robert.  As I walked to my car, popcorn and seasonings in hand, and hood over head, I shivered under the falling rain. I couldn't wait to get back home, so as I turned on the car and began backing out I had only blanket, popcorn, and movie in mind. And then I saw him.

 At first I wasn't sure if what I saw was a person or someone's personal belongings. Maybe just a blanket?   All I could really see through my wet and slightly dark window was a pile of something, but "are those feet?" I wondered as I squinted my eyes to focus through the rain.  I was too far away, so I slowly moved the car forward to see if I could get a better look. It wasn't enough because a nearby pillar obscured my view. I needed to see from a different angle.  I circled two rows of parking lanes in hopes of catching a better glimpse, and I finally saw that it was indeed a man.  It was then that I parked the car and asked God what He wanted me to do.  For a minute I just sat there and stared through my window.  I really wanted to get home where it was warm and eat my popcorn, but I knew God had other plans.  "Okay, Lord, here I am, let me serve you, and oh, God? Please forgive me for thinking only of myself!" I prayed. If you've read any of my posts at all then you know I have a very soft spot in my heart for the homeless, but I would be lying if I said I never had days when I wanted to just focus on me, me, me.  However, I knew that as I sat there in my warm car looking on at this homeless man, that it wasn't about me.  It was about going to wrap my arms around another one of God's children and sharing His love.

I wasn't sure whether God wanted me to just go sit and talk with him or offer him something to eat, so I opted for both.  I walked back into the store, this time fully aware of the man's presence as I passed by the bench, and I ordered him a hot cocoa and marble bread from the Starbucks inside.  By the time it was ready and I walked back out, he was was sitting up.  I figured God was making room for me to sit down, but I didn't sit.  My words seemed to escape me, so instead I just walked over to him and smiled as I handed him the cocoa and bread. "Here, this is for you," I said warmly.  He was very grateful and immediately asked if I needed any electrical or plumbing work.  "Aww...No, I don't, I'm so sorry," I regretfully replied. "What is your name?" I asked.  "Robert," he answered.  In that moment I wished for nothing more than to know of someone with broken pipes or an electrical nightmare, but I could think of no one, so I just concluded the introductions. "Hi, Robert, I'm Heather," I said, but not having anymore words I said "God bless you" and walked away.

As I slowly walked through the rain back to my car, I felt like I missed something, but wasn't sure what. "What, God?" What did I miss? What do you want me to say? What do you want me to do?" I asked in uncertainty.  In that moment I suddenly forgot about getting home and eating popcorn under my warm, fuzzy blanket.  Instead, I was remembering every detail about the man to whom I'd just delivered cocoa and bread.  He had been lying on his side across the two slat bench with a dirty white and blue blanket covering him.  Next to him sat a rusty shopping cart where he kept his personal belongings - a few brown plastic bags and a faded black backpack.  His grayish tan beard was long, thick, and wiry and had dirt and water from the rain mixed into each hair. When his eyes met mine, only one eye opened all the way while the other remained half closed.  I wondered how he had been injured to cause this.  His skin was worn and brown from overexposure in the sun.  I imagined him sleeping in parks and alleys.  The lines on his face told of his story. He had been out "there" in that life for a long time, and it was then that my own "time" suddenly began to escape me. I don't know how long I sat in my car before I finally put it in drive, but once I did I still didn't drive home.

It was as if God had me chained to that Albertson's grocery store parking lot because for reasons unknown to me at the time, I couldn't leave.  I decided to drive back around to see if he was still there, and he was.  I pulled into another parking space, this one closer than the last, but not close enough to see him unless I backed the car up slightly or got out. I continued to sit.  "This is ridiculous. I either need to get out and go back over there or go home, I'm wasting time just sitting here," I thought finally.  But I didn't move.  I sat there trying to determine why I sat there. I couldn't figure out why I had become immobile in my mind and body, and then I suddenly remembered something I heard earlier that day. I had been at the church to help set up for a memorial service and while there, a friend had told me of an electrical problem they had the night before.  It was as if a literal light had been switched on and I suddenly knew what to do.  I got out my phone to send her a text message asking about the problem.  Shortly after hearing nothing back, I realized that with her schedule it could be hours before I heard back. Now what, God? What else could I do for this man? I felt frustration setting in and then I began digging through my purse.  I had no idea what I was looking for, but I didn't know what else to do since my body seemed unwilling and unable to leave - and then I found my leather bound pocket Bible that I had bought months before.  I loved that Bible.  It was small, smelled of sweet leather, and had the words of Jesus inked in red just how I like.  I put it in my shirt pocket and got back out of the car.

The wind and rain began to pick up as I walked back across the parking lot to where Robert sat. To keep warm I tucked my hands into the single pocket on the front of my lightweight blue hooded shirt, but it didn't help.  I wondered at that moment while I walked how cold he would be as he slept outside later that night.  I've never slept out in the rain on a cold night so I had only my imagination from which to draw images, but somehow I knew that nothing I imagined compared to how it must actually feel.  I wasn't even able to last at a cub scout camping trip weeks before.  It was too cold in my tent so I whined until I convinced everyone in my party to join me on the ride home.  I slept in my warm bed that night because I had that option. I wondered what Robert's options were.  As I approached him on the bench, I couldn't tell from his lost expression whether he remembered me from just minutes earlier, so I pretended that he did. "I'm back!" I said as I sat next to him. "It's cold" he said as he smoked on the butt of a loosely made cigarette.  I wanted to tell him that there was nothing of it left, but I suspected that he had perfected the art of getting every last possible drop from everything he had.  If a blanket was too small, I imagined that he found a way to stretch it, and if there was any nicotine left in a cigarette to smoke, he knew how to get it.  He wasted nothing.

As we talked I smelled the alcohol emanating from his pores and I knew that he was only half way engaged.  It was okay. I somehow understood the "why's." I didn't feel cold anymore, yet the rain and wind was as strong then as it had been before.  Part of me no longer wanted to go home, I just wanted to sit there with him to let him know someone was there - even if in that moment he didn't know I was there at all.  I finally made the decision to walk away and go back home.  He sat there with head bowed forward sleeping, so before I left I found a spot on top of his things to leave my pocket Bible.  I don't know whether or not he'll take care of it as I did, but I believe that if God led me to leave it with him that He'll bring Robert comfort through it. And with that thought, I left to return to my own life as I know it.

When I got home I had a renewed appreciation for the lights, warmth, and comfort of the small condo I call home. My refrigerator was full of food, my bed soft and inviting, and the family pets meowing.  It was nice to be in from the cold, but I couldn't seem to stop thinking about where Robert would wind up that night.   How long would he be allowed to remain on the bench before someone complained about the unsanitary presence of him in a public place? His dirty nails and unkempt hair threatened to contaminate the people pool of cleanliness walking before him, so let's usher him to an out of sight location, yes? That way we don't have to see or talk to him; instead, we can casually continue on our way through life as we know it.  Well, I'm here to tell you that your life will never be truly good and joy filled until you're willing to let yourself be made to feel uncomfortable by entering into someone else's life as it is known by them. Don't complain about how badly you have things until you have spoken to someone who has it much worse - and there are plenty of people who are far worse off  than you.  Do you wish your child was better behaved?  Go talk to the grieving mother who just lost her son. Wish your husband wasn't so lazy? Strike up a conversation with the wife whose husband is overseas for an indefinite amount of time.  Are you broke as the holidays approach and don't know how you'll afford gifts? Talk to a single mother of four who makes her gifts out of what she can find around the house.  Struggling with your addiction? Give God praise that you're alive to struggle another day. Someone else just died of an overdose last night.  Take a look at life as you know it and wrap your arms around the truth that it's pretty good.  It may not be what you want, but you have the choice everyday to either embrace it or embark to change it.  Well, I don't know where to start, you may say.  Start by helping someone else. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, "It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself." Merge life as you know it with the life of someone else as they know it and watch your own life begin to grow and flourish.  Don't just wait for the opportunity to help someone to fall into your lap.  Seek it, pursue it, and chase it.  If you want change in your own life as you know it, go out in search of the opportunity to help change someone else's. Give of yourself and God will give to you. Serve others in service to Him and He will service you. Don't walk past the unclean homeless man because he doesn't fit in to the picture of life as you know it. If you want to change your life, start by offering to change his, even if it's only by telling him "hi."  You never know - you may be what a person remembers in 20 years as the one simple act of kindness that changed the course of their life forever. How? Because your actions gave them hope.



"Give, and it will be given to you.  A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.  For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." --Luke 6:38

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