The drive is only about 20 minutes, but those minutes might as well be years as you head south on the interstate toward Ottawa, Kansas.
The rings of suburban houses and strip malls fade away and all that’s left are pastures, distant barns and the occasional roadside antique mall.
We turned off at the first exit – our car slowing to a crawl after traveling close to 80, legally, on the road – and turned left at the first stop light onto Main Street that leads “downtown.” On either side of the road are two strips of two-story, brick buildings 150-plus years old with window faces and narrow front doors.
At some point every day, I read this entry from Oswald Chamber’s classic devotional My Utmost for His Highest. The passage involves Paul, the author of 13 books in the New Testament and the apostle whose writings have affected me most. Strangely enough, last week I photocopied this page so I could post it in my house — someplace where my eyes would be sure to fall across it. Only after taking the copy off the copy machine did I see that this particular piece of writing fell on my birthday, April 2:
“When Paul received his sight, he also received spiritual insight into the Person of Jesus Christ. His entire life and preaching from that point on were totally consumed with nothing but Jesus Christ – ‘For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified’ (1 Corinthians 2:2). Paul never again allowed anything to attract and hold the attention of his mind and soul except the face of Jesus Christ.
“We must learn to maintain a strong degree of character in our lives, even to the level that has been revealed in our vision of Jesus Christ.
“The lasting characteristic of a spiritual man is the ability to understand correctly the meaning of the Lord Jesus Christ in his life, and the ability to explain the purposes of God to others. The overruling passion of his life is Jesus Christ. Whenever you see this quality in a person, you get the feeling that he is a man after God’s own heart (see Acts 13:22).
“Never allow anything to divert you from your insight into Jesus Christ. It is the true test of whether you are spiritual or not. To be unspiritual means that other things have a growing fascination for you.”
In the few weeks before I became a Christian, someone was dropped into my life who I am certain is an angel. Not purely divine, of course, but someone who is most assuredly blessed — who walks and lives among us. Heaven opens over her and her presence seems to bring about great and incredible things.
Our relationship has been left intentionally undefined by both of us – because, while it’s been unspoken, we’re both “recovering” in a way. But since meeting her, I have been observant of other individuals in my world who could potentially be angels – people I know and love, and sometimes strangers. My mother is the only other definite person I’ve landed on as angelic.
This morning, though, while I sat at an intersection near my office downtown, I felt a strange pull toward a sight along the roadside. I saw someone wrapped from head to toe in a purple blanket, lying on a hill of grass near West Pennway and Southwest Boulevard. I couldn’t tell if the body was a man or woman. But there “it” was, lying there asleep while a few thousand cars drove by. I drove past too, initially, then when the light changed, I made a U-turn and stopped on a side street.
I walked over to the body and when I was about 10 feet away, I said loudly, “Excuse me, sir …” There was some motion, but the body didn’t sit up. I repeated what I said, only this time I added, “I have some money for you.” Then the blanket was pulled back. He was an older man, probably almost 50 years old with short-cropped gray hair and skin the color of a Goodyear tire. I knelt next to him. I had two fives rolled up in my fist where he could see them. He seemed surprised and didn’t take the money.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
When he spoke, I saw he was missing several teeth on his bottom row. He told me his name but I couldn’t hear him over the passing traffic, so I asked again. “J.T.” he said.
“J.T.,” I said. “Try to have a good day, ok?”
He took the money and said, “God bless you sir.”
He couldn’t have said anything more wonderful than that to me: God bless. I know sometimes we refrain from giving money to the homeless because of how it could be spent. But even if he used it to buy alcohol or even drugs, that would still be an exercise on my part in forgiveness.
These people you see lying around under the overpasses downtown or begging for food … what if they were something more than downtrodden? What if they were tests of your spirit and what’s in your own soul? I have learned in the last year to see through people and to find their essence. This is at the heart of Christianity.
You don’t have to be a Christian to be kind and loving, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. There are angels everywhere. I’m grateful to know the names of at least three.
I met them at the corner between my house and where they live with their mother. The distance between our homes is no more than 250 feet, but our streets are divided at the intersection and we can’t see each other’s properties.
He needed his baseball bag for practice the next day as well as his pants and cleats. They’d been sitting in his room since last week when his team had practiced on my night with the children.
He called first to arrange for me to drop them off at his house in the morning, but I invited him to come to my house to get them and then decided to meet him halfway.
I slung his bat bag over my shoulder and stepped out into the night carrying his pants on a hanger. I walked out onto my front lawn and turned to my left and saw his silhouette coming out of the front door of the house where I used to live. I could see from that distance that his hair was wet and slicked back from his nighttime bath. Behind him I saw his sister moving around as though she were helping him with something on their front porch. Then she turned to walk back in the house and I saw the screen door start to close behind her.
Bare-armed and loaded down with backpacks, the boys were crossing the park when I saw them. Behind them their dark tracks were pressed deeply in grass still glistening with frost. Almost every morning, I see them. The three brothers leave the house next door, cross into the street outside my front window. And then I see them again, passing by while driving my own kids to school. This particular morning in early April, though, the cold had not yet relinquished its hold on the spring. When I drove by them, crossing through the neighborhood park, they had the look of a small band of wanderers left alone to find their way on the path to somewhere – or something. Unprepared. Unaware of the dangers. I started to make a judgment on their parents for letting them leave the house sleeveless on such a cold day, but before that happened, I had another thought: Was I really any more prepared for my life?
The oldest among them, John, is 12, and he was leading the group into the wind gusts. They were moving slowly, but I had a feeling that had less to do with the bitter cold and their pink skin than it did a reluctance to reach where they were going. Over the last two years, I’ve talked to John more times than I have his parents. I’ve learned he is not only the oldest child and mentor to his younger brothers, but also the head of household – the most responsible person who lives in their house. Usually dressed in black jeans and a black T-shirt, his hair is shaggy, and not in a stylish way. His hair is the sort of shaggy that shows a boy whose parents aren’t concerned about his looks – the ends jagged and hanging, wild, at angles just above his shoulder. His parents work alternating shifts at our town’s Wal-Mart. The mother, days. The father, nights. That leaves John as the father and mother, of sorts, to two boys. To my surprise, there have been moments when he’s displayed intellect and kindness beyond his years. One night, for example, I gave the younger boys some leftover pork to feed to their dogs. They brought the plate back to me a few minutes later, clean, and told me John had washed it. For a boy whose parents haven’t focused much attention on him and haven’t schooled him in the art of manners, his courtesy was surprising.
When I turn into town off the interstate, the sun is almost all the way gone. A Tuesday-night-brilliant-round-light burning between the shadows of a gas station and department store. I keep on driving not letting it sink in: I missed a whole day in this world again.
I pulled away in the half-light, before the sun is all the way up, leaving my kids back here in the trust of their schools. The big house I just bought for them empty and silent except for the sound that pumps through the heat registers into lonely rooms. Every night, I can’t wait to come home and close the door and lock out the threats of my life. I cook an easy dinner on brand new appliances, which seems like a waste for just me.
You know, it’s better when a man just doesn’t think. Our sun is supposed to waste away. For a man, like my father, a day spent in toil and trouble was just another day to make a wage. He thought it was fair, and I can’t argue with that. But me? I have a nice, comfortable job in a building a few blocks from downtown. I walk in quietly and walk out rich with the reward of surviving to work tomorrow.
So what’s a life like when it drowns in this reality of days? Will you ever cash in your love? Will your dreams ever find you in the night?
What finds a man is the truth of his life — and sometimes, the promises of another lover who’s been broken. She says she wants you to take hold of her and run … straight into to a future that her previous man couldn’t find. “All I want is a man who will make decisions,” she says. She had a guy before too weak to make choices. “A real man can do things around the house, drink with me after the kids are in bed – and maybe hold me down and my love one night, but still be there … sensitive enough to listen.” Her expression turns to a fantastical dream (a strong man stopping her on the stairs one night, leading her by the hand into the living room dark and twirling her in a dance.)
Worn down from our work lives and failed loves, most of us are unfeeling simpletons, preoccupied with hunting a place for ourselves in the space between their legs. We’re stupid sitcom dads who pretend to be in charge (and the few of us who don’t play along are out.) And worst of all, there’s no hope on the way. The last few generations of boys are lost before they’ve even started.
Love still trumps our loneliness, though. At age 20-something, you find each other and convince yourself it’s right. And for a time, it couldn’t be better. You take a job. You work in a factory. On the highway. Or you work in a high rise. And you work in your living rooms at night, trying to listen to the problems of her day.
But our minds are messes. And all we can think about is putting our bodies together with them in our bedrooms before it happens – when the night turns to the gift of another day.
In the last few weeks before my 40th birthday, I find myself in the most interesting place I’ve ever been creatively. My view of the world is tempered by a great sense of hope and my own dismal failures. I finally have real pain, memories I want to forget, actions I want to take back, love I gave away and that will never be returned. And while this all might sound negative, writing has always been a joy for me in my struggle – a dependable happiness that is in its way the most beautiful thing in life. Writing is about hardness, coldness and being alone. I am finally in a place where I realize life has paradoxes – it has a lot of them. I’ve got to live with them. And so do you. What’s beautiful around us can only stand out when there’s some hurt.
I have heard many other writers and musicians say over the years that artists do their best work from places of pain. I haven’t had many painful places in my life that haunt me. I have mostly been able to make it through life without stumbling into too many traps, but now I have people to hide from, emotions to try to ignore, and pain that wakes me at night. I have met so many people in the last four years since my divorce, both men and women, who have horrific stories to tell about love gone bad — mates who did the unthinkable to them. After awhile, it starts to wear on you.
When I was newly divorced and first began hearing what happened in other people’s lives, I appreciated my own story and how things ended in my own relationship. But now I see it as part of this collective pain, joined with all the terrible happenings in the lives of the lost. I can’t describe how this happened, but it’s depressing in its own right. I’m beginning to see the world for what it is: a fallen place that we can only hope to escape while causing a minimal amount of harm to the people we love — and the ones we want to, if they will let us.
Written May 8, 2014
Saved from my sin on a spring afternoon in the most common of houses in a forgotten Bethlehem. I came from nothing – from much less, actually – just to reach this point. A few months ago, I was as far away from the Lord as a human soul could be. I had renounced Him in conversation, claiming pride for being independent, a non-believer. I was boastful in my blaspheming. And a week later, He filled my body with his spirit and love. I changed overnight in the immediate sort of transformation that’s been promised to us all who truly believe. My outlook changed and the life I had before didn’t belong to me anymore. The ungodly acts that brought me pleasure suddenly didn’t. I looked at my life with more appreciation than I ever had before. My beautiful kids and even the life that led me to divorce – all those mistakes, I loved and cherished. I would have never found the path I was walking without them.
The “his and her” sinks in the master bathroom mock me. Actually, it’s only one — the one that would belong to her — if there was a “her” of the house.
When we moved into our new home in December, it didn’t occur to me that a bathroom with double sinks could cause such an annoyance. But it has. The sinks are about as subtle as a divorce decree taped to the mirror.
For no real reason in particular (or so I thought), I chose not to use both sinks, though they were both perfectly available for use. I chose instead to stick with the sink on the right: “his.” And I abandoned the one on the left: “hers.” I told myself this was to avoid needing to clean both sinks. Why dirty them both when I can keep the mess to one? But I’m beginning to believe something deeper has been ingrained in me from my years as a married man.
You see, I once lived with an identical bathroom arrangement — and it was clear that even though there are two sinks built into the counter, under no circumstances do you cross over to use the opposing sink. A man might make a mess, you see? A man should never defile a sink kept spotless by the lady of the house.