Last Thursday afternoon was an afternoon like many others, for me. The workday was winding down; I was cleaning up a few loose ends before heading home to take my daughter to the pool for swim club. In many ways, it had been a good afternoon—nice and quiet, mostly uninterrupted, and ideal for sermon writing and reflection.
I was putting the last of my books away when I heard the front door creak open. I watched as an old man trudged into the foyer and plopped himself down in one of our couches. It had been pouring rain all day, so he was wet and cold and a bit dirty. His sparse, stringy hair was plastered against the side of his head, and his face was drawn and pockmarked. It betrayed a heavy weariness that I had not seen in some time.
I had seen this man a few hours earlier while at the gas station across the street from our church. I remember watching him walk haltingly and uncertainly toward the store. I figured he was probably looking for a phone or directions or some other form of assistance. I remember thinking that he looked cold. I remember feeling pity for him as I watched him pass by my vehicle, but I had places to go and things to do, so off I went.
And now here he sat, outside my office door. He asked for a glass of water, which a co-worker promptly provided. He seemed content to just sit there, but I was a bit hesitant to prolong his stay indefinitely. We had a young girl sitting in the room waiting for her mom to pick her up, and I wanted to be careful about how I handled this strange man whom I knew nothing about. After all, he could be a pedophile or a drug addict, right? One has to be prudent about these things.
“Are you on your way to somewhere,” I asked, hoping to move things along. He didn’t return my gaze, but just mumbled something about being lost and not knowing how to find his way home. He looked confused and a little scared. “I need to get to the RV Park,” he said. “My wife doesn’t know where I am. I’ve been walking around for three and a half hours, but nothing looks familiar and I don’t know where I am.”
I knew where he was trying to go, and I knew it wasn’t too far from the church. An able-bodied person could probably cover the distance on foot in about 20-30 minutes. But I also knew, by now, that this man was not “able” in any normal sense of the word, that it was cold and wet and miserable out there, and that he was tired.
Prior to this man’s arrival, I had been in the midst of working on a passage in my sermon where I connected Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6) to his exhortation to bear fruit in the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8). In Luke 6:30-31, Jesus says, “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Ordinarily, I can be remarkably inventive in avoiding the commands of Christ, but this one was difficult to ignore, even for me.
“Would you like a ride?” I asked the man still sitting on the couch, staring straight ahead in silence. He looked up and nodded. The look on his face nearly broke my heart. It exhibited deep confusion, pain, and exhaustion, mixed with a bit of cautious gratitude, I suppose. It was the look of a man mostly unfamiliar with even the smallest of kindnesses.
We slowly made our way out to the car. I opened the door for him, and watched as his shaking hands struggled to negotiate the challenges of the seatbelt. I tried to help, but it was awkward and we kept bumping into each other. Eventually, we gave up and just drove. I found out a bit of his story on the way. He had mental health issues and had been at the hospital for an appointment that morning. He thought he had the right bus fare to get home; only he must have taken the wrong bus because he had ended up in an unfamiliar part of town. Now he had no more money left, and had spent most of his day alone in the freezing rain, trying to get home.
We made our way to the RV Park in pretty short order. Initially he wasn’t sure which one was his, so we did a few laps around the park. Eventually, he recognized a depressingly shabby old unit with garbage and beer cans strewn all around it. “This is it,” he said. “I hope my wife is home… maybe she went out looking for me….” He looked at me, thanked me for the ride, and shuffled off toward the steps. The door was open. He was home.
I sat silently in my car for a little while after dropping him off. It is always difficult to be faced with the kind of unbearable sadness that characterizes so many lives. It makes my fine theological sermon-words like “redemption” and “restoration” and “freedom” seem worthless and insignificant. They seem like nice ideas that we soothe ourselves with in order to make our lives seem meaningful and the world seem hopeful. But so often, they don’t seem to make even a dent in the ordinary pain of life. No matter what lengths we go to in order to avoid it, there is still so much sadness.
I preached my sermon-words on Sunday morning. I called us to do what Jesus said, even when it is hard. I challenged us to bear fruit. After the service, a woman came up to talk to me. She works as a counselor in the public school system and often finds herself dealing with incredibly difficult situations of abuse, neglect, misfortune, etc. It was she who had called me just over a year ago with a request to see a suicidal young man looking for a priest (I reflected on the experience a bit here). It was she, among others, who had helped me through a difficult experience I was utterly unprepared for. The boy had made it through the suicide attempts to a place of relative peace and health in large part due to her love and commitment and dedication to being a light in dark places.
And now, she had an update for me. She had been talking to another suicidal student—this time, a young woman. She wasn’t entirely sure what the best approach would be, so she brought in the young man from a year ago. She thought someone who had struggled with suicidal feelings might be able to offer some perspective. “He came in, and you know what one of the first things he asked her was?” she said. “He asked her if she believed in God! ‘Because you need God to get through it. I wouldn’t have made it through without God.’” “You see?” this woman said. “There’s fruit.” Amazing. This frail, timid, confused young man who knew virtually nothing about and seemed to have little interest in God a year ago was now reaching down into the dark, shining what light he had. There’s fruit.
God’s timing can be remarkable. It was a good reminder for me. There are times when God seems absent in the wasteland of human pain and sin and misery, but there are cracks of light as well. It is good to keep our eyes open for both.
But thank God for the light.