After three long days of sitting in scientific meetings telling me Americans don’t get enough exercise, I skip out the front door of the convention center and into a city I don’t know and turn right. Weaving my way around pedestrians, past store fronts, around tree stumps, over uneven cobblestones, I swing wide to navigate past a woman walking her dog.
Smitten, of course, it’s a sweet old dog, I pause to greet the lumbering black and white beast and smile at his owner who is gamely trying to pull her charge along. He’s being a bit contrary, ambling begrudgingly despite his master’s prodding.
The woman looks at me and back at the dog. “See?” the woman says nodding in my direction,”She’s sporty. We all need our exercise.”
I’m sporty, apparently, because I go for a brisk walk in sneakers and track pants. I speak exercise to those I pass, not in a ‘you should be’ way but a ‘don’t you wanna?’ way. This woman and I have never met, but one look tells her a lot and speaks even more.
Oh, the irony, as there are thousands of sport science experts just around the corner at the convention center, presenting their findings, debating the details, and lamenting the sad state of the health and fitness of the people in their communities. Ah, progress marches on and science with it. Knowledge is powerful, but what about the power of practice?
If we walk the walk, words are optional.
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and rich. He sought to see who Jesus was, but could not on account of the crowd. ~ Luke 19:1-3
“The thing that Zacchaeus wanted to do more than anything else that day was to see Jesus. He failed, partly because he was small of stature but mainly because the people around Jesus prevented his coming near.” (JWRilling)
I am walking through the darkening streets of Williamsburg, VA which is swimming with thousands of people who’ve come to celebrate the season’s Grand Illumination. The periphery of the street is punctuated by torches set ablaze, and each has people gathered around to warm their hands and faces as the temperatures drop. A friend and I make our way down the middle of DOG (Duke of Gloucester) street. We are strolling down memory lane, having been roommates here at the college some years back, and have agreed to watch for horse droppings that were liberally distributed earlier in the day which are becoming increasingly hard to avoid in the dim light.
But one thing people do avoid are the “street preachers.” These, as did those in colonial days, stand elevated above the crowd by stools or steps, proclaiming scripture verses and Bible teaching. Not offensive. Not, you’re gonna rot in hell. Not, repent or die. Compared to John the Baptist at the Jordan, these guys are tame! They just speak words of the truth as they know it. And all the people give them wide berth.
Who, on this festive night, amid the splendid decorations and colonial costumes and fabulous fireworks, wants to listen to all that?!
My companion and I take note of this. In a sea of people crowding the street, there is a broad empty space left for these voices to have their say without ringing in the ears. She and I, both of short stature, did not have any difficulty seeing or hearing. We sped on by.
Full of hot cider and good cheer and with the booms of fireworks ringing in our ears, we retrace our steps along DOG street, retreating to the car parked several blocks away. Most of the other visitors are doing the same, some pushing wheelchairs, some holding the hands, some wheeling wagons, some are very, very merry. Many, it seems to me, are likely students at the college, taking a break from their studies before final exams.
As the crowd starts to thin we see a lone figure ahead, clad in long sleeve t-shirt and loose fitting, lightweight pants. “He looks cold,” says my friend. And that does make us both take notice. A very tall, lean, young man is standing, still and silent in the center of the road at the barricade to street traffic. He stares straight ahead. Is he looking for someone? waiting to meet a companion? Is he stationed there as security? None of these guesses seems quite right.
We draw closer, but his expression doesn’t change. The look on his face is neither bored nor amused. He doesn’t smile or frown. He does not pull out a cell phone. That, in itself, distinguishes him from nearly every other pedestrian. When I get close enough, I see that his t-shirt has handwritten letters across the front.
is scrawled in all caps on the front of his plain white t-shirt. He, as a silent sentry has drawn my attention and piqued my curiosity. How, on a very cold nearly winter’s night, could he be standing there like that? Stock still. Expressionless. I can’t help glancing back in mute amazement at the figure as we pass. On the back, in the same handwriting, the shirt reads:
What do we do, in the name of Jesus, that prevents others’ coming near?
What might we do, in His name, to draw them near so they might truly live?
Grand Illumination, indeed.
A man I love side-stepped death. No one expected him to come through, but he did. I would say it was by the grace of God. But he wouldn’t. He would say, “Guess my time wasn’t up.” For him, living and dying are two sides of a card. When the Great Hand flips it, you go.
This doesn’t worry him. In fact, he laughs to tell me that a guy with a clerical collar came to see him before his heart procedure. He waved the guy away. “Don’t worry; I’ve been saved,” he told him. His father was a Lutheran Pastor, after all. Church was more home than his house for all of his growing up years. He knows Jesus.
But here in his kitchen the question ‘where is God now?’ hangs in the air. Worth another look now that there’s still some living to do, and seeing that he’s been issued a reprieve. “Oh, God doesn’t bother with small stuff like me,” he says, and he means what he says. It’s not false humility; self pity is not his style. Life is hard. You get through it. God’s got bigger things to do.
The guy has got reason to believe this. He has lost a spouse to a suicide that God didn’t stop. He’s lost a livelihood that God didn’t rescue. He’s been betrayed by those he’s trusted and lost friends to diseases they didn’t deserve. A year ago he lost his son, his only son, to a sudden, preventable death. He’s not mad at God; he just figures these are small things in an unfathomably large universe. He doesn’t deserve any special favors. He’s not important enough to be important to God.
And that’s it. End of conversation.
I love this man. But I wish he knew that God loved him, not just that God would save him. That God gazes at him through the window, peers through the latticework, and calls as Lover to Beloved, “See! The winter is past; the rains are gone. The season of singing has come.” Come, hear the cooing of the doves, see the fig tree’s new fruit, smell its fragrance.
But to hear, see and smell, we have to come outside. Outside of our houses, our jobs, our families, our churches, even beyond our own lives. We have to come close enough to touch and to taste. And listen.
Can it be so? That the God of the universe would bother with one so small? Surely the call is for someone else. Someone more loveable, more in need, more desperate, more deserving. I’ll wait my turn, says this man whom I love, for my flip of the card. Then I’ll know.
But Dad, it’s you He is calling to. You’re the one He calls ‘my beautiful one’ and so am I. That small voice to be heard is the One who loves us, who calls us His beloved, and bids us arise and come.
Who would know better how it feels to lose an only Son?
Today: Spend a few moments at a window looking out. Imagine the sounds and smells, tastes and touches outside. Pray for someone who doesn’t yet know they are loved by the God who made all of this for them.
This writing was recently published in the Lenten Devotional booklet created and distributed by the Church of the Good Shepherd, UMC. It is in response to this scripture: (Song of Songs 2: 8-13) and was published under the title: No, really, I love you. Perhaps you know and love someone, too, who you hope might know the love of a personal, forgiving and loving and redeeming presence in their lives. In the Spirit of this hope, I share what God has offered me.