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Pockets

Once a month or so, a few of us head over to the local Presbyterian church to help out with their weekly community lunch.  Every week, this church opens its doors to the community for soup, sandwiches, conversation, or just a chance to get out of the rain.  The church is located right beside a high school, so they get a lot of high school students, but they also get a small contingent of folks who don’t have a whole lot and could use a hot meal.

Today, our job was washing trays.  There’s typically a bit of an opportunity to talk to people as they’re coming by, but mostly it’s assembly-line type work.  About ten minutes into the proceedings, an older gentleman with a soggy black Indian Jones-type hat and a grizzled bearded face came waltzing into the room singing the “Good Morning” song forever immortalized by the Viagra commercials.  He was about 70 years old, I would later discover, and quite obviously in a very good mood.

I didn’t pay much attention to him until a few minutes later when he strode up to the table where my friend and I were working and starting singing for us.  That’s right singingFor us.  He just stood there—uncomfortably close—in front of two guys washing dishes belting out a few of his favourite tunes.  He sang songs from Evita and West Side Story.  He sang songs from TV commercials and movies.  He sang songs from his younger days.  He sang theatrically, flamboyantly, sometimes on key, sometimes not.  He sang and recited lines from Shakespeare and talked about love and miracles through a mouth half full of teeth and a smile as wide as the room.

“What’s your name?” I asked him in between verses.

“Pockets,” he replied.

“That’s an interesting name,” I said, “how did you get it?”

“Well, I used to be a photographer until my eyes started to go, and I wore a vest with all kinds of pockets in it for my gear.”  “I’m blind now,” he said.  “Wanna see my walking stick?”  I nodded.  He proceeded to pull out a fold-up stick and wave it around, pretending it was a sword, with great delight.

We talked for a bit longer until the trays started piling up, and then Pockets was back to regaling the lunch-time guests with a combination of song, theatre, and mostly off-colour humour.  The kids who were there seemed to enjoy hanging out with him.  The volunteers all know him well enough to no longer be surprised by his theatrics.  Pockets is a bit eccentric and probably made a few people uncomfortable, but he brought a lot of laughter and smiles to a pretty eclectic bunch on a rainy Thursday afternoon.

The Gospel of Luke is well-traveled territory during the Christmas season because of its narrative detail around the story of Christ’s birth.  But a few chapters into the book, after the beautiful songs and stories of unexpected babies and mangers and inns and shepherds and heavenly hosts, Jesus stands up in the synagogue in Nazareth and reads from the book of Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Luke 4:18-19

Pockets is blind, probably poor, and probably in some ways “oppressed” or enslaved by various things.  I wonder, this Advent season, if he can imagine news as good as the news Jesus proclaimed in the synagogue that day.  I wonder what motivates his joy and what he hopes for.  I don’t know.  I don’t know what Pockets thinks about the strange claim that the baby boy whose arrival we anticipate during this season, who would later claim to fulfill the hopes of the nation of Israel in the most unexpected ways, and whose coming we still wait for two thousand years later was God among us, coming to heal our infirmities, forgive our sins, set us free, and help us see.

But I do know that it is not only the physically blind who need to recover their sight.  I know that some of us who are “well” and relatively “free” can see rather poorly, at times, and that sometimes it is the unexpected and unimpressive and unesteemed that are vehicles of life and beauty and truth.  I know that Jesus was drawn to the Pockets’ of this world—that he called them “blessed.”  I know that in the upside down kingdom of heaven, it is the last who are first and the first last, and that those who wish to see the kingdom of heaven must become like little children who laugh and dance and play and sing loud songs regardless of who is listening.

During a bit of a lull in the proceedings, my friend and I sat down for a bowl of soup.  I looked over at another table and noticed that Pockets was about to leave.  He was standing at the end of the table announcing his departure with as much gusto as he had his arrival.  And I saw warm smiles returning back to him.  A few people clapped for him or shook his hand before returning to their soup.

Pockets smiled back and walked out into the rain.

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. Larry S #

    Ryan Love this story.

    The best line: “I’m blind now,” he said. “Wanna see my walking stick?” I nodded. He proceeded to pull out a fold-up stick and wave it around,

    I nodded … he proceeded = killer line

    My take away: “Something I should learn from I know that in the upside down kingdom of heaven, it is the last who are first and the first last, and that those who wish to see the kingdom of heaven must become like little children who laugh and dance and play and sing loud songs regardless of who is listening.”

    Your story brings this to mind: I remember the day a homeless dude pointed out a spelling error in our signage – made me remember how we put people into boxes – I tend to notice all the homeless folk’s more obvious issues overlooking other things.

    The line that gave me some pause (I hope this isn’t too cynical): “A few people clapped for him or shook his hand before returning to their soup.” Shaking hands with the homeless and then eating is a good way to pick up something. Alcohol based hand-gel in those little bottles take care of that problem. Of course, the homeless would be offended to see you washing your hands after touching theirs.

    Does refusing to worry about transferable germs come under the heading of taking risks for the Kingdom? Or is that just naïve?

    December 10, 2010
    • Thanks Larry.

      I’m not sure where our approach to transferable germs fits into risks and the kingdom, but I did see a number of sanitizer dispensers throughout the facility. I don’t tend to think about these things too much, perhaps because I grew up on a farm and my hands were frequently sullied with far more noxious substances than anything I might encounter at a soup lunch :).

      December 10, 2010
    • I think most missionaries (even those who don’t officially claim the title) eventually have to trust God to screen what germs will reach them. After all, health is his domain, and there is no microbe to small for him.

      I grew up surrounded by dirt, visiting mud huts, sharing dishes with people who considered dunking them in a bucket of dingy water sufficient to cleanse them. Yet my brother and I were ill no more frequently than the average child.

      In such a situation it is vital to think first of grace in relationship, and to wash hands when the chance naturally comes your way.

      January 6, 2011
  2. Tyler Brown #

    “Shaking hands with the homeless and then eating is a good way to pick up something.”

    In some African cultures, I know because it has happened to me, you eat a dish together only with your hands to symbolise certain closeness among people. The dish, on multiple occasions was very gooey and soupy, and the whole procedure a hotbed for germ transfer. However, there is something greatly powerful in not worrying about germs and cherishing that closeness.

    December 11, 2010
  3. Paul Johnston #

    A certain passage about having greater concern for that which destroys the soul over that which can only destroy the body comes to mind :)…some food, some shelter, some clothing, fellowship and from time to time, a stage. You’d think these were things we could afford everyone, and yet we don’t.

    If in the commercial hubris our Christmas has become we find the time to attend to a brother or sister in need, then Bethlehem still matters, it is still a story worth telling…if we don’t, such gifts we bring. Gold, frankincense, myrrh and shame.

    December 12, 2010
  4. What I love about this story is the respect you have for the humanity of Pockets. He isn’t perfect. You don’t romanticize anything. But you talk about him with such grace, unafraid to find joy in the story even though you know there are plenty of things that could steal that joy.

    Like Larry, I especially loved the image of Pockets waving his walking stick like a sword!

    December 20, 2010
    • Thank you very much, Marcus.

      December 20, 2010
  5. He isn’t a bum. He isn’t a slacker. He’s a man who just needs God’s love — and ours

    December 27, 2010
  6. I will be highlighting this post at the monthly High Calling Around the Network newsletter on Jan 6. Congratulations!

    January 3, 2011
  7. This is superb. I’m so glad that David Rupert highlighted this for TheHighCalling.org.

    And oh, how I love Pockets!

    My dad didn’t work with the homeless, but he did work with a bunch of characters–there was no sameness about any of them and plenty of theatrics. I love “meeting” Pockets through your powerful storytelling skills, and the ending is perfect. Just perfect:

    “A few people clapped for him or shook his hand before returning to their soup.

    “Pockets smiled back and walked out into the rain.”

    January 6, 2011
    • I appreciate the kind words, Ann. Thank you.

      January 6, 2011
  8. Katrinka #

    Wow ..I loved this story ..it brought tears to my eyes .I have been in Homeless Outreach ministry for about 3 yrs so I can relate to this person “Pockets”

    On my 1st time out – I went to feed the homeless -A very hot day in July , I went to serve and to minister ..And guess what ?

    (This is really a have to be there sentence …) I was the one that was ministered to !

    How God opened my eyes and my heart and from that day forward my life would never be the same .
    Thanks again for the your story ! God bless You ~

    Katrinka

    January 10, 2011
    • Thank you, Katrinka. How true, that in the process of giving we end up receiving more than we might have expected or imagined.

      January 11, 2011
  9. LarryS #

    I’m wondering how Dave Rupert knows that Pockets isn’t a ‘bum and slacker.’

    I know homeless people who tell me they can make $200 a day panhandling and they use crystal meth daily.

    There is nothing glamorous about homelessness.

    January 11, 2011

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