Please indulge me and accept yet another, “What I did on my summer vacation” post. Since today is Labor Day, it’s the end of summer and really the last chance to post something like this, and I have a story worth telling.
This happened the first day we were with a tour group in Lyon, France. Our guide had taken us to La Place Bellecour, the center square in Lyon, dominated by a huge statue of Louis XIV, the Sun King, on horseback. We were across the square from Louis, gathered adjacent to an entrance to the Metro. I am a reluctant joiner, and was standing just outside the circle of 20 or 30 tourists, listening through my headset to our guide saying something about French history, when I saw two different men approaching our group. One was blind, feeling his way with his cane toward the Metro entrance. The other, I assumed, was homeless. He was unkempt, and even from a distance I could see he was talking to himself and had a sort of John-the-Baptist-winnowing-fork-in-his-hand look about him. “What does he want with us?” I wondered.
The blind man kept coming, but his angle was wrong. He was about twenty feet past the Metro stairs and walked into a barrier along the side of the entrance. He wasn’t sure which direction to go and was stuck.
But then the homeless man interceded. He came alongside the blind man, gently and lovingly placed his hand on the blind man’s elbow, and guided him out of the dead end to the stairs. As they reached the stairs, the homeless man released the blind man’s elbow, and the blind man descended the stairs confidently.
I don’t think anyone else in our group saw what had just happened. But I had seen, and wanted to acknowledge the homeless man’s goodness. I took a step back and turned to face the homeless man. I was forming the word merci on my lips, when the homeless man looked straight at me. The John the Baptist look returned. There was an overwhelming “don’t mess with me” glare, and he again started speaking incoherently to himself. He skirted our group and headed west while we were heading east. I turned back to my group, marveling at what I had just seen.
What do you call that?
A mustard seed?
A random act of kindness?
A moment of clarity in a raging storm?
The Gerasene Demoniac meeting Bartimeus?
One beggar showing another beggar where to find bread?
A bit of the Kuyperian common grace that holds the world together?
I’m not sure. I told my friends and they said, “What a great sermon illustration,” and I agreed, but I am not quite sure what scripture passage this story illumines.
Here’s what I know for sure: it is an understatement to say the world is full of darkness and hopelessly broken. And yet there are moments that make me say maybe . . . just maybe . . . the deep down thing isn’t darkness or brokenness but joy. Joy unimaginable. Joy because we are loved, joy because the story we all want to be true really is true: God has made us and knows us and loves us and sent his Son for us.
The great majority of us go to great lengths to hide the demons that plague us. We hold our jumble of insecurities and shame inside, and then are confused when it comes out as anger, depression, or anxiety. I wouldn’t trade my life for the life of an apparently mentally ill homeless man in the center of France for anything, but there is something more honest about him. He is, in a sense, naked to the world. His issues are public. Even so, if the story is true, he is my brother, created in God’s image. Why then should I be surprised that there is kindness and goodness and light in him? I don’t know, but I was.
Maybe what I saw was a new telling of the story of the Good Samaritan, with our indifferent and unaware tour group as the priest and Levite, and the homeless man the Good Samaritan. That interpretation sort of works, although the Good Samaritan would be better company than the Good Homeless Man. The Good Samaritan is the sort of person you’d invite over to the house for a beer and a chat. The Good Homeless Man was intent on being left alone, spewing out invective and f-bombs as he went along his way.
Maybe I’m trying too hard to make it have meaning. I am quite sure I have thought about this far more than either participant has. Some things just are, and maybe the best thing to do is to put a frame around the moment and stand back, looking on in wonder and admiration because grace has broken through.
Enjoy this day of rest from your labors.