Saturday, April 14, 2007
Hope and Evangelism.
He smelled of fish, gasoline, cigarettes and stale beer. His pale denim jacket matched his jeans, right down to the rips and tatters here and there. His gray hair was as long, thin and wily as his body, and his face was filled with the sort of deep wrinkles known to those who spend most of their days fishing and crabbing the waters of the Delmarva Peninsula.
He was in front of me at the local Deli, his purchases spread out on the counter like modern artifacts of his life: two cartons of menthol no-name brand cigarettes, a six pack of beer, a large bag of potato chips, a pack of dried beef jerky, and a box of 12 chocolate cupcakes, on sale for $1.99. I suspected that was his supper.
As he completed his transaction, counting out the coins to the exact amount, he took the last dollar in his wallet to purchase a Lottery ticket. Turning to me he hesitated and stammered a bit before he said, “Can I ask you a favor?”
“Sure,” I said, “what?”
“It may sound a little strange . . .” he cautioned.
I looked at him and then at the cashier who had been engaging in friendly chatter with him while she rang up his order. She smiled at me and her eyes indicated that it would be okay. I looked back at him and tried not to look astonished as he asked, “Will you kiss this bill for me? I need all the luck I can get with this Lottery ticket.”
I smiled and said, “Sure,” putting my hand out to take the bill.
“No, no!” he said, “I have to hold it. And, you have to kiss it right here, right where it says ‘In God We Trust’. That’s what happened the last time I won.”
“You’ve won the Lottery before?” I asked, astonished,
“Well, I won $500 on the Pick-Six. That was about six months ago. I figure, any day now, I’m bound to win again. But, this time it’s gonna be big. BIG,” he smiled, revealing an uneven row of teeth as yellow as old, worm eaten corn. “The odds are with me.”
I shook my head sardonically, and then did exactly as he requested, which seemed to bring him great delight. “Now, can I ask YOU something?” I said as I put my few grocery items on the counter.
“Sure,” he said, “It’s the least I can do for a beautiful woman whose kiss is gonna make me a millionaire.”
I smiled as I finished my transaction and then joined him outside where he sat smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer at the picnic table where the local crabbers and fishermen gather to swap tips and stories about their day.
I declined the beer and the cigarette he politely offered and assured him that I wouldn’t take much of his time. “Oh, hey, take whatever time you need. The boys will all be killing themselves when they find me sitting here, talking to a beautiful woman.”
He may have been old and weathered, but he still had all the lines and moves of his youth.
“Okay, here’s my question: Why do you do it?” I asked, “Why do you buy Lottery Tickets? Why do you spend you hard earned money on something that is such a long shot?”
He looked deep into my eyes, in that disquieting way of someone looking for authenticity and integrity. Clearly, this man had encountered human life in its lower forms and had learned that careful scrutiny was the first line of defense.
He looked away, took a long drag from his cigarette and then took a swig of his beer before he returned to look me hard in the eyes again. Suddenly, he smiled broadly and as he did, the hard crust of his exterior seemed to melt away. He became 15 years younger as he shrugged his shoulders playfully and said one word: “Hope.”
“Hope?” I asked, wanting to be sure I heard him correctly.
“Yeah,” he said. “Some days, it’s the only thing keeps a body alive, you know?”
“Yes,” I said, “in fact, I do.”
“You?” he said, astonished. “What’s a pretty thing like you got to despair over? You probably got a husband whose crazy about you – and if he isn’t then he IS crazy –and kids and a nice house in . . . hmmmm . . .let me guess. . .D.C. . .and a summer home here. . . .and all the right things. Life has been good to you, anybody can see that.”
“Oh, my friend,” I said, looking him square in the eyes as I tried to smile, “the stories I could tell you!”
He returned my gaze and, obviously believing me, said with the tone of disgust I’ve heard only from women who knew their subjects well, “Men! They can be such assholes!”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” I laughed which sent him into a deep laughter that touched off a lengthy paroxysm of smoker’s cough.
When he recovered, he shifted the conversation and engaged me in the sort of light, superficial banter that made us both comfortable before we returned to the conversation we both knew was inevitable.
“Hope,” he said, after a long silence. “That’s what you wanted to know about, right?” “Yes,” I said. “What gives you hope? That Lottery ticket?”
He took a long drag from his cigarette and then said, “Nah, not the Lottery ticket. It’s the IDEA of the Lottery ticket is what gives me hope.” “The IDEA of the Lottery ticket?” I asked.
A wry smile crossed his lips as he took a long drag from his cigarette. “Yeah, I think you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you have had half the trouble your eyes say you’ve had, you know what it is to be without hope and you know what it is to have the idea of hope."
"For you, that idea is probably Jesus. Lots of women feel that way. For me, that idea is a Lottery Ticket. It’s my religion. My ritual. It’s something I know. When the choice is spending my money on a thick steak or put it in the collection plate at church where the Reverend is only going to remind me what a 'wretched sinner' I am, or buying a Lottery ticket, it’s the Lottery ticket every time.”
“Why?” he asked before I could as the question danced in my eyes, “because the steak feeds my body today. The Reverend calls everygody a sinner, but he don't thank God for the beauty of God's Creation - including people. The Lottery ticket feeds my soul until the winning ticket is announced.”
He took a long swig of his beer, burped quietly into his closed fist and said, “Something that feeds your soul. Now, that’s what I call hope.”
Before I could fully consider what he had said, he continued, “But, so does this conversation with you. So does your perfume. Damn, woman! You smell so damn good it breaks my heart to think that someone who looks like you and smells like you would sit here and talk with me on a Thursday night. It makes me think there still may be a woman somewhere for me. Someone I can come home and talk to. Tell my stories to. Laugh with. Share my dreams with."
"Now, that’s what I call hope and you give it to me, just sitting here talking with me for a bit.”
“And you think a Lottery ticket will buy that for you?”
“No, no, no!” he said, “You haven’t been listening to a word I’ve said. “It’s like I said. It’s not the Lottery ticket. It’s the IDEA of the Lottery ticket. It’s the IDEA of you. It’s the IDEA of possibility – the IDEA of hope – that gives hope. See?”
“Look,” he said, giving it to me one more time, “You fish?” “Yes, I said, off the end of my pier. Do some crabbing, too,” I rushed to add, hoping to regain some credibility with my mentor.
“Then you know about the idea of hope. You know about baiting your line and sitting and waiting for a nibble. And, while you wait, you imagine what’s swimming around under your hook. If you’re hungry, you pray to God that something big will get hooked for you to bring home for supper, and when it does, you pray your best prayer of thanks and the hope that the next time you go fishing, you’ll catch another fish.”
“See?” he asked, watching the glimmer of insight beginning to register somewhere in my brain.
“Yes,” I said, “Yes, I think I do.”
I suddenly realized why Jesus, a carpenter by earthly trade, chose fishermen Simon and Andrew, James and John to be his first disciples. He knew they would know about the idea of hope. They became, in fact, trawlers of hope – and anglers of the resurrection.
“So,” he asked, “what do YOU hope in?” I smiled at him and said, “You.”
“Me?” he asked, incredulously. “Yes, you," I said. If you can find the idea of hope in the midst of your life – hope in fishing – hope in crabbing – hope in my perfume, then there’s still hope in this dark, broken world. And that, my friend, gives me hope.”
“Yeah?” he asked suspiciously, “And, why is that?”
“Because,” I said, getting up to take my leave as a deeper idea of Jesus began to enter in my soul, “As long as there’s the spark – the idea – of hope in the human heart, there’s hope for the world."
"And, as you said, it’s the idea of hope, the rituals of hope, the religion of hope that makes us think there maybe someone – or even a whole bunch of someones – in the world who will wait for us to hear our stories. To laugh with. To share dreams. And, if there are someones of hope, there can be a whole community of hope. And, as you so rightly pointed out, this woman calls that person ‘Jesus’, and that community ‘church’.”
“You have that in your life now, don’t you?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered, “Yes I do. A whole bunch of someones I love very much and who, by the grace of God, love me right back.”
“Lucky you,” he said, looking away.
“Nah,” I said, “not luck. That’s for Lottery tickets.”
“Hey,” he called me, “If you come around here again, maybe we can talk some more. About your idea of hope.”
“You bet,” I answered as I got into my car and put the key in the ignition.
“Nah,” he said, laughing, calling out over the sound of the motor of my car, “that’s for Lottery tickets.”
You know, Episcopalians aren't very good at this sort of thing, but I think that was ‘an evangelism moment’.
Funny thing about that - evangelism changed me more than I could ever hope to change anyone else. My friend will probably always buy Lottery tickets - there are some rituals we will always maintain - and he'll probably never join a church. The church may be a "hospital for sin-sick souls" but the institutional church, with all its corruption and hypocracy, is not for the faint of heart.
My friend taught me more about hope and Jesus and evangelism than I realized I needed to know.
Maybe that's what Jesus was really trying to teach when he said, "A new commandment I give you: Love one another as I have loved you."
Which, in the end, is the best form of evangelism there is.