His skin was bronzed and leathery…He looked like a cross between Jack Palance and the Marlboro man…Not sure what drew my gaze in his direction. Was it the chocolate brown lab at his side? Or, maybe it was the piercing, pale, blue eyes that got my attention, even through a truck window across an intersection. He was a drifter, living hand to mouth, intersection to intersection… panhandling for loose change, a quick bite, or even a place to lay his head for the night. Maybe it was the way he carried himself…or… more likely, the wagging tale of a dog that made him readily approachable. Regardless, as a young man with a new-found faith, and an urgency to share it, I felt compelled to make a connection with him…I understood, even as a young Christian, my faith afforded me and expected me to take risks.
A cup of coffee and a handshake opened the door for me to come into Jim’s world. There on the sidewalk, making small talk with him, I stared into eyes that revealed a measure of kindness and compassion that is only formed through hardship. His weather beaten skin revealed a worn out man. It was shame that sent him on his travels…a futile attempt to outrun his demons…unfortunately, no matter where he went, His demons stayed in step with him.
Jim and I became fast friends…from street corner to sitting together in a supermarket deli, days past and walls fell. His life was a world of wonder for me. As we talked…as I began to see things through his eyes…our interaction provided for me a time of self -discovery that no seminary class could have ever imparted to me. It was during that time, that I truly understood, “But for the grace of God, go I.” My drinking problem led me to the cross…Jim’s drinking problem led him to the streets. Given the right, or wrong, set of circumstances…our situations could easily have been switched.
Jim was not a lazy man…he wasn’t a criminal…he wasn’t opposed to using a pick or a shovel in exchange for a burger and fries. Actually his capabilities far exceeded that. He was an articulate, gifted, talented man, who passionately loved people, but found himself paralyzed by a pain he did not know how to process. His greatest source of companionship was his dog Copper… because, unfortunately… understandably, most folks found Jim’s crusty exterior repellant.
I’m glad that as a young Christian, I didn’t over think Jesus’ words…I didn’t rationalize myself into disobedience. Jesus told me not to judge based upon appearances, but to judge with righteous judgment. Well, the only way we can judge with righteous judgment is if we have the right information. From a distance, Jim was just a homeless pan- handler…an eyesore… Up close and personal…Jim was my friend, a proud, patriotic veteran…a restless wanderer looking for rest from the war that was still raging on in his head.
It wasn’t long before sitting together in a super market deli, gave way to Jim staying in the extra room in my home. And, having the right information afforded me the opportunity to help Jim go in the right direction. Jim found the courage to make arrangements with the VA to enter into a de-tox program. In the process of this, Jim extended to me his greatest measure of trust and friendship…He asked me to take care of Copper, his dog. It was a win- win…Jim wanted to be sober…I always wanted a chocolate lab…even if it was only temporary.
I wish I could end the story by saying…”And Jim Lived Happily Ever After.” But fairy tales are just that. Jim still continued to struggle, as do all of us in so many ways. But memories of Jim have served me well over the years. As I have gotten older, my acquired experience and increased competence have provided me with a nasty side-effect -- the temptation to allow myself to be comfortable. ‘Comfortable’ is never a good place for a Christian to be…past experiences like the one with Jim, continually remind me, that my faith still affords me and expects me to take risks. Besides, the scriptures tell us not to forget to entertain strangers, because we might just be unknowingly entertaining angels.