a man named john

We met a man named John this week.  He was standing on the median at a traffic light, holding a cardboard sign scribbled with black marker.  He looked so out of place, next to the shiny SUVs and bustling ant-like traffic, this man standing still. He was a Vet, his sign said, and homeless.

We live in the sprawling suburbs where big-box stores fill in the spaces where I can only imagine farmland used to be.  One town eeks into another and you’d hardly know if you’ve passed from Exton to Downingtown or perhaps you’ve made it to Thorndale now.  The distinctions are unclear; the lines blurry or nonexistent.  This is not a place you see many homeless beggars.

The face of poverty just looks different here.

We had finished our errands at those big-box stores and were headed out to watch football and eat pizza at the home of friends.  It had been a whiny, cranky weekend for kids and grownups alike.  We pulled up to the stop light, waiting for our green light, and Mark saw him first.  I think he may have been ruggedly handsome.

“Do you have any food in your bag?” Mark asked me.  (I am a mom, after all, and this is often confused with a vending machine, at least in this family).  The light began to change, and a brief search in my bag revealed nary a granola bar. We smiled and waved to this man, continuing our conversation as we made our left turn, away from his loneliness.

I don’t have to tell you that it’s uncomfortable to look into the eyes of a man so broken to see so clearly the reflection of your own brokenness.

We made it to the movie theater parking lot before turning around, stopping next at WaWa.  I dug out an old blanket from the back of the car; Mark bought him a coffee and a sandwich.  We made our awkward introductions.  John confessed that he’d been sleeping in the woods.  As we drove away we watched him carefully stow everything in his backpack.  The kids know enough of our privilege, and they feel the honest tug from God probably more acutely than I do, so there was very little in the way of explaining that we had to do.  We made our left turn, again, once more leaving John in our rear view mirror.

We drove to our friend’s house.  We ate pizza, watched football.  We sat by the fire, and chased kids.  We laughed and told stories about our week.  I forget about John.  By the time we’re getting back into the car to go home, it’s late.  We’re out past certain children’s bedtimes, and we’re full up on good food and friendship.  We’ve said our goodbyes, blown our kisses, and as we’re walking to the car, we’re struck by the dark sky blown open by the stars.

“Look up!” Mark says.  Holding a child in his arms, he tilts his torso, arm stretched out pointing towards these stars punctuating the black.  They are strong tonight, those stars, and the night sky is clear of clouds.  We click kids into car seats and drive away.

But as we drive towards home, I know that there is something in Mark’s heart, something telling him to stop, to put our palms out to receive this offering. He pulls over into the rutted-out gravel parking lot next to a local trail-head.  We are in the middle of a farm field, far from the light pollution of those big-box stores from earlier.  We unbuckle and tumble from the car into the cold.  The kids are thwarted by the unexpectedness of it all, and it unnerves Renee.  She is frightened of the dark, that enveloping blackness, and even the promise of her daddy’s warm arms can’t get her out of the car.

But the rest of us, Mark, Griffin, Grant and I,  stare straight up into that echoey dark.  The cold is sharp and stinging.  The stars look like holes punched through black fabric.   I point out Orion’s belt, try to find the Big Dipper, but in the end I feel like I’m trying to quantify, make sense of, something that is best to be observed in quiet awe.  The glory of the Maker is on display, and I start to believe in the concept of infinity.

I think about John. I think about John, and the stars, and the depth of that black night, and somehow it’s all the same song in my heart, that same thin place.

At home, bedtime with the big kids, I sit on Grant’s bed while Mark reads from the devotional.  It is about God’s protection for us, and the bible verse is Psalm 91:4 “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.”

John is sleeping in the woods tonight, under that same thick black sky, with those same brilliant stars.  I wonder if he saw the Big Dipper tonight.  It is cold out there.  Maybe our blanket will cover his feet.  As we tuck the kids in, and say our prayers, we pray for John.  We pray that he would find refuge under the wings of the One who loves him, and we pray that we might know how to be those wings.

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