Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A Forrest in my sunset

I have a story today, I know I haven’t had one for a while. Three weeks ago, I was driving home and took a detour so I’d drive by La Jolla beach. As I could’ve predicted, the ocean worked on me like a magnet, I was compelled to pull over and park, slip on my flip-flops (I always keep a pair in the car now), and run down to the water. I only meant to get my feet wet, but I played in the water, sand, and tide pools from 4:00 p.m. until the sun began to set (about 7:30 p.m. here). I hadn’t even realized how long I’d been out there but seeing that the sun was setting, I made my way back to the top of the cliffs for a better view of the scene, sat on a free bench and decided to have a chat with God.
I’d been feeling a little, okay a lot more distant from God than I’d like to admit and was ready to have quite the little discussion with Him. As usual, I came to him with the sort of indignance and frustration that I know for certain is my own doing, but I like to pretend is his fault. God doesn’t mind, I’m sure. It’s so incredulous and foolish that he can only shake His head and return my fist-shaking session with patience, waiting for me to get the picture. I asked God what I was doing here in San Diego and why I wasn’t meeting more people and why he wouldn’t give me a church and a community.
I was engrossed in this mental vent session when this man suddenly appeared at my side. I was truly startled and looked up to see a grizzled man peering at me from under a fisherman's hat, wearing soiled clothes, and holding an engorged plastic sack in one hand and a tattered backpack in the other.
“I’m having a barbeque,” he said, “but the problem is I don’t have a grill or anyone to share it with.”
Never at a loss for words, I responded coolly (I was more in the mood for conversation with the Almighty than a bum), “That sounds like a conundrum.”
“Conundrum! Now there’s a 5-dollar word!”
I have a curse for using overly large words when in the presence of those who are least able to grasp them. I’m not joking. It’s one of the things that makes communication with children difficult for me. Inevitably, whenever I need to sound eloquent and well-spoken all the richness of the English language eludes me. But put a homeless man in front of me and eureka! It immediately put a wall up between this man and myself, though I hadn’t meant for it to.
I began to say something else but he interrupted, “Do you mind if I sit here?” as he set down his bags and eased himself down beside me—I noticed that the bulging platic bag contained cans and cans of cheap beer. I inwardly sighed and consented though I wished him gone. He began a few more times to make conversation with me and I, while trying to remain somewhat civil, ignored each of his queries and icebreakers. I did a safety scan: were there people within screaming distance? Yes. Were there cars frequenting the street behind us should he choose to attack? Yes. Did I have even a remotely sharp object on me should I need to protect myself? Yes, I loosened the cap off of the pen in my pocket…just in case.
As I wound up my analysis, he expressed his impatience for my disdain and accused me of not even being able to look him in the eye. This I proceeded to do and asked him with equal impatience if he could honestly blame me, a woman on my own, for being wary of a strange man with a plastic bag full of beer. His expression and tone of voice changed immediately. He said, “I’m not really a bad guy, if you don’t mind alcoholics.” I told him I’d not known any so he would be soley responsible for the basis on which I would form my opinion. He cracked open a can and cheered to that.
He repeated, “I’m not a bad guy, in fact, I would like to give you a present.” He proceeded to dig around in his back pack from which he produced a canvas back full of seashells and a length of elastic. He asked me to hold out my wrist, I refused. I was uncomfortable. So he pursed his lips and nodded and encircled his own wrist with the elastic and cut off a length a bit smaller than that. He looked at me and asked, “I don’t have any friends or anyone to talk to. Could you do something for me? Can you stay here with me? You can leave either as soon as the sun goes down or as soon as I finish your bracelet, whichever comes first. But please stay.”
I nodded, and he set to work, his clumsy hands and painstakingly stringing the small shells onto the elastic explaining that this is what he did for a living. It was too hard for me to watch him. The craft would’ve taken young, dexterous hands moments to complete, but his rough hands with scabs and cuts all over them worked so slowly. I had to look at the sunset, I would guess we had about 15 minutes left. He almost completed the bracelet when the elastic broke and he had to start over again. I helped him gather the shells that had flown off. He patiently began again, using his own wrist to measure, not asking me this time. At this point I felt so bad, I offered to purchase the bracelet from him, I only had $3, but he seemed grateful for the offer and accepted. The sun sank faster than I’d predicted and he prattled on about disconnected facts about himself I tried to follow and stories whose meaning was indiscernible. "By the way, I'm Forrest." All the while he talked, I tried to find a way to introduce the subject of God into the conversation, for what could offer more comfort to a man like this? Maybe he could even go to a church for some aid. That's what I was there for right? Isn't that how the Chicken Soup for the Soul books go? There to pray but a serendipitous encounter leads to warm and fuzzies in the end? But he prattled on without ceasing and I never felt like that opportunity presented itself and I inwardly yelled at God for the second time that day, “What the heck am I doing here if you don’t want me to witness to him God? Why this utter waste of my time? Why won’t you help me do what I'm supposed to be able to do?!” I was so angry.
He finally finished, just as the sun hit the water and he held it up to examine it. I started tearing up out of frustration at not being able to introduce the subject of God and at the overwhelming pity I felt for this man, luckily it was getting too dark for him to tell. I handed him the money, and he held the bracelet open for me to slip my hand through. I tensed at once, having no desire whatsoever to touch or be touched by this man. But then a moment of clarity—Jesus never refused to touch anyone no matter what their status or situation, and he was God! He, of all men, did not have to condescend to touch and interact with the lowly. The man’s hands were still suspended in air, holding open the ‘o’ of the bracelet for me and I looked him in the eyes and saw him as an equal, for the first time. I put my hand though, feeling his calloused skin brush mine, and he took the back of my hand, turned it over, and examined the inside of my wrist staring at it and stroked it with his thumb then released it. It was a very intimate moment that could’ve easily taken a on a shade of perverseness, but was very innocent and our eyes met as one human to another, his were clear of any ulterior motive and full of appreciation. Mine still welled with tears. He thanked me slowly and sincerely saying, “Thank you for letting a lonely man share a sunset with a beautiful woman.” I didn't feel beautiful at all, I felt like an insufferable snob who was rubbish at witnessing. I thanked him for the bracelet, put on my sandals and told him to take care of himself.
There's no punch line, I'm about as confused now as I was when I drove away from the beach. I failed to share Jesus with Forrest, but I gave him the only thing that occurred to me that Jesus might give; a touch.

(Photo is, finally, not "borrowed" from the Internet. A shot of sunset on La Jolla beach--not taken on the same day as my meeting with Forrest.)


Heather Lea said...

Your writing is sensational, my dear. You paint pictures for me with words- and I feel like I was sitting there watching the whole thing, but with a greater lense than my own eyes. The Lord uses us in ways we cannot comprehend. Our way of "sharing the Gospel" may look completely different from His. Remember, actions, Meg. Actions are what speak volumes....think if the roles had been reversed. Would you want someone sharing verbally with you what they believed? Or just loving you?

You're a good chicken. :)

Benjamin said...

Oh Meg dearest. I think you've touched upon what may be the brilliant side of religion. Do we need to say "go here," or "be this," or "do that" to make a difference? Is having a moment of truth with a human being who is likely judged and tormented throughout his entire existence really a failure to work some sort of a miracle? I think it is more along the lines of an everyday unexpected gem, maybe. I'm sure you did what you were placed there to do.

Anonymous said...

You continue to be my favorite. I wish you were here or better yet I were there to share life with you. Let's watch a sunset on the beach sometime.

Lindsey said...

so, i took you up on your offer--i read your blog. and, well, i have to agree with heather: 'your writing is sensational.'
to answer your questions, yes i am in NE right now, and i am planning on moving out to San Diego in a short while. if i get this job, i will be out there in mid-may. if not, then by the end of the summer.
i know a couple churches i could suggest if you haven't found a good one yet. let me know if you are interested.
be blessed.

tiffany said...

I wonder if Forrest was an answer to your prayer...Maybe Jesus looks more like a homeless man handing out seashell bracelets than we know. Just a thought. AND, I love you!

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