Friday, June 15, 2007

i'd like to buy the world a coke...

… but for now I’ll settle for sharing dinner and a movie with some beautiful people.

Two weeks ago I headed down to Riverfront Park with some friends to catch a free showing of The Breakfast Club, the start of a summer "movies in the park" series. We arrived early to snag a good spot, and succeeded in securing an area center screen at the front of the grass (where no one could plant themselves in front of us). Surrounded by a diverse host of individuals, couples, families and dogs, we passed the time until the movie began by reading books, sky gazing and people watching.

There was an older white gentleman with a beard, baseball cap and tattered clothing wandering around offering wooden fans for sale to patrons of the hot, humid amphitheater. He would make a round of the park, gently extolling the virtues of his handiwork to those who would concern themselves enough to look and listen. Then he would take a break, sitting down on the ground beside a black female with a tight, slender face that stretched with each flash of her wide and joyful grin. The woman had the honor of sitting in a comfortable folding chair, which the gentleman had helped set up for her when they first arrived. I watched him make a few more rounds, during which he must have peddled at least one of his wares, because he promptly proceeded to the food vendors and purchased a foil wrapped hot dog. When he returned to his post near the woman and her pedestal, he was approached by another man to whom he offered some of the money he had received. That man also chose to enjoy a fresh, juicy hot dog, chased by a chain of cigarettes.

In the meantime, the bearded man had moved to sit on the low wall in front of our blanket and was talking to the couple on the blanket next to us. The couple’s tiny, yapping dog (a doglet, if you will) immediately spied the wooden fans in the man’s hand and began its futile attempts to vanquish his leash. Apparently oblivious to the doglet’s quest for acquisition, the man and the couple continued their conversation, with the fans waving about as the man’s hands orchestrally illustrated the essence of his stories. Straining against the tether, toward the traversing blades of pliable wood, the doglet’s conquest looming before his beady eyes, a startling intrusion caused the bounty to be lowered to the bearded man’s side, far beyond the grasp of the tiny creature’s jaws.

A freckled, red-haired creature, not much larger than the doglet itself, though towering higher on only two legs, offered wise instructions to the bearded man so many in the park had averted their gazes from: “Hey! Hey, he might eat those! Hey, be careful! Hey, some puppies have sharp teeth! He might have sharp teeth! Hey, he might try to eat those, be careful!”

The dog lay down in the grass, head on paws, staring up at the baseball cap of the man who held his treasure, utterly defeated.

“Thank you,” offered the bearded man, ending his conversation and returning to the side of the smiling woman. The boy returned to his family, the couple turned to consoling the disheartened puppy, sundown approached and soon the movie began.

I couldn’t help but think about the bearded gentleman and the bright-eyed noblewoman as the week progressed. Though I really had no desire to see Jaws, the opportunity of taking a meal to share with these individuals who had relished their foil-wrapped cuisine appealed to me. So, I extended the invitation to friends to join me, and was delighted (though not surprised) that they were more than willing to accompany me. We spent some time together grilling burgers and enjoying a family meal before heading out to the riverfront with snacks, friends and kiddos in tow.

We had barely tidied our picnic blankets before the bearded man approached with the highly acclaimed wooden fans. My friend Sam extended his hand, and the bearded man introduced himself as “Guy”. Sam offered Guy some food and, after clarifying if we intended to trade for a fan and being assured the snacks were being offered freely, he accepted a hamburger, chips and bottled water. Guy made introductions with everyone on our blankets and offered a kind thank you before pointing up the hill and excusing himself to join a laughing woman sitting grandly in a camping chair, chatting away to a young artist sitting on a blanket beside her.

Smitten by the woman’s animated charm, I was compelled to walk up and make an introduction. Guy had already sat down at her feet and was preparing to split his hamburger to share with this woman he so highly favored. Donna, whose smile grew to cheshire proportions as we shook hands, cheerfully accepted my offer to pick out some food of her own, responding that she “sure could use a little snack to bite on”. Following me down to the blankets where the roving picnic was stationed, Donna quickly began introducing herself to every man, woman and child.

“I’m Donna, Guy’s wife,” she said, her voice filled with admiration. Donna accepted our offer of a hamburger and water, but declined to take any pastries. “I can’t eat no sweets,” Donna snickered. Crouching eye-level with the children, she explained further, “You eat too many sweets, you end up like this”. Donna reached into her beaming smile and wiggled the dentures contained therein. “Don’t eat too many sweets, you’ll have to take your teeth out to brush ‘em.” We expressed again to Donna how please we were to meet both her and Guy, and I asked if they planned to attend next week. “Oh yeah,” Donna exclaimed. “He’s my hunk of chocolate,” she elaborated, apparently referring to next week’s feature showing of Shrek 2.

We did not see anyone else during the movie, though Candy got up and walked around the park some to see who she might find. At the end of the evening, Heather and I had packed up all of the supplies and were headed toward the car when a gentleman I passed by asked me if I happened to have any change. “I don’t,” I hesitated, “but I do have some hamburgers if you would like them.” The man looked a bit startled, but replied “Oh, yes, that’s what I am needing is to get something to eat.” I handed him the bag containing three or four hamburgers and offered that he was welcome to eat all of them or to share them if he wanted to.

Extending my hand to him, I introduced myself and asked his name. “Richard,” he offered nervously, followed with “I’m sorry.” This tickled me, as I have been accused of being brainwashed with the Southern need to apologize for everything, but I made sure to stifle any laugh that may cause Richard more discomfort. “It’s very nice to meet you Richard,” I replied instead, “would you like any chips or snack cakes?” “Oh no, thank you,” Richard answered, “I don’t have any teeth, I’m sorry.” I assured him, “No problem. Would you like some water? We have some bottled waters you are welcome to.” “Oh, yes. I am thirsty. Could you loan me some change? I’m sorry.” Richard’s eyes revealed his brokenness and his kindness simultaneously. Suddenly, I recalled that some change (about 62 cents) had fallen off one of the blankets when I picked it up from the grass. I reached in my pocket, pulled out the change while sharing with Richard the story of the blanket, and placed the change in his hand. “Would you like some bottled waters?” I asked again. “Yes, thank you. I am thirsty. I’m sorry.”

Richard was hesitant to follow me to the car for the waters, expressing concern about making me uncomfortable. I reassured him that he was not making me uncomfortable and reminded him that I had extended the invitation. We began walking to the nearby parking place, but I realized we were walking toward the fence rather than the gate. As I shifted our route toward the gate with an “oops,” Richard quickly responded with an “I’m sorry.”

Once at the car, I introduced Richard to Heather, who grabbed some bottled waters out of the package and presented them to him. He made one last request for change, and we shared our “goodbyes” and “pleased-to-meet-yous” before climbing in the car and heading for home. I liked Richard and his sorry self. I couldn’t help but feel a special kinship with him.

Was Richard’s life turned around that night? Probably not. Will Guy and Donna ever be the same after meeting us? Probably so. Did we change the world? Obviously not.

God doesn’t require great and marvelous things of us – that’s His territory. Sure he can do great and marvelous things through us, but he keeps our responsibilities pretty basic:
Then the King will say to those on his right, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'” (Matthew 25:34-36).

Jesus tells us that what we do for the least of these, we do for Him. He also tells us to come to him as a little child. The night of the first movie, it was a carrot-top little boy who first fixed my attention on Guy and Donna. He approached the bearded man, who so many in park wanted to avoid, just as he would have approached any human he was concerned about and wanted to bestow his years of wisdom upon. One of the children with us that night went home and told her family that she “met a woman named Donna at the shark movie.” Children are so welcoming and unassuming. This is the way I want to approach “the least of these” that I encounter.

While I know a burger and a bottled water won’t cure all of the ills in this fallen world, I prefer that little glimpse of hope to the moments when I find myself paralyzed with the overwhelming realization of all of the hurt and loneliness and evil and confusion and greed and selfishness and brokenness that surround us.

As the great theologian Ben Folds recommends:
The world is full of ugly things that you can’t change. Pretend it’s not that way; it’s my idea of faith. You can blow it off and say there’s good in nearly everyone, just give them all a chance. Now let’s give them all a chance.

See you at the movies.

1 comment:

* said...

i love reading what you write.
makes everything make sense.