by Kay Etheredge
I love to read. A friend loaned me a novel several months ago and said, “This is a really weird book that you might enjoy”. My reading is either feast or famine. I either have a queue of books waiting to be read or I have nothing. She happened to give me the novel at a time when there were a few books ahead of hers, so I started it weeks after she loaned it to me. It was definitely weird. I read half of the six hundred plus pages, thinking each time I sat down with the book, “I can’t finish this”. Jim heard me sigh at bedtime each night as I picked up the book and said, “I cannot wait to finish this stupid book”. I said I had read half of it so I had to finish it to see what happened. I took the book to the beach with us thinking it would be easier to finish it down there. It ended up that I was so tired each night that I read even less, falling asleep just a few pages in. On Monday of this week I was 30 pages from the end and I became more annoyed because it seemed to me that the author used every foul word he knew in the last pages of the book, seemingly to simply fill space. I became even more agitated. I keep a list of books I read (because I have reached the age that I can’t remember) and I imagined with great satisfaction writing the name of the novel on my list and writing out beside it, A total waste of my time”.
On Tuesday of this week I finished the book. The last two paragraphs were some of the most beautiful writing I have ever read. I read and re-read those two paragraphs. I text my friend and told her I finished and how tragically beautiful the ending was. I text her again yesterday and mentioned another realization I had about the book. I said, “This book is like radiation. You think it is all gone but it stays with you, even when you don’t know it. I can’t get this book out of my mind”. She text back, “Start another book. You’ll forget about it”. (Thank goodness for friends who speak truth when I’m being way too dramatic!) I need to return the book to her but I just keep reading the last two paragraphs over and over again. I may or may not have openly cried.
Today as I worked at Brother Bryan Mission and drove downtown, I saw a man who looked familiar on the sidewalk. It was raining and he was stooped, holding an umbrella. It was a man who comes by Brother Bryan from time to time. He asks for mints and money and we give him those and hugs and ask about his health and we like to believe that in many ways, we are almost family to him. I’ve been warned that he can sometimes be very angry, and even though it is hard for me to picture it still kept me from putting the window down today and asking if he needed a ride. It wasn’t a moment I am proud of. Two weeks ago we were at the beach where the sea gulls fascinate me. One day as the sun lowered on the beach and the sky filled with pinks and salmon and blues, I noticed the gulls flying toward the sun. I sat and wondered where they go at night. I couldn’t help but think the same thing when I saw our stooped friend under the umbrella. Where does he go? Where does he sleep? What time of day does a life on the streets stop?
And there is a distinction between the men who live within the walls of Brother Bryan Mission and the people who are frequent guests here who don’t. And even the men who live here are considered suspect by some. We have had hurtful comments made to us about working in this ministry. In this time of pandemic we have been asked if “those mission men” will be at our church. It is easy to write a check but harder to hold out a hand, to touch an arm, to offer a hug, to listen and look into eyes. To keep a ministry going when all the world is going into panic mode. To take the time to look at a life with at least as much interest as one would give a novel.
Jesus was asked, in response to telling his disciples that the greatest commandment was to love our neighbor as ourselves, “Who is my neighbor?” Our Lord’s response was to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan, a story that as an unchurched little girl I heard the first time at the Methodist church in my tiny community. It was another radiating story…one that I couldn’t erase from my mind after hearing.
Orson Wells once said, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” I almost missed a beautiful ending of a weird novel because I was put off by the ramblings before I got there. The story of the Good Samaritan might have looked different if it had stopped right after the man was beaten and thrown in a ditch, or right after the good rabbi crossed to the other side of the road to keep from helping. The men here at Brother Bryan may seem to some as weird, messed up people. It depends on where their story is stopped. I don’t know how many will get a happy ending, but I know some will. I know many have. I know they have to be given a chance. And they, perhaps more than anyone, need a touch, a hug, a prayer, a friend, a church. A pandemic doesn’t stop the need for hope. And I preach to myself as I type this Friday afternoon…I who feared putting down the car window for my stooped over neighbor as he fought the rain on an August afternoon.
Teach us, Lord. Teach us to show Your tender mercies to those You place around us. Keep us from labeling anyone that You create…from writing with eagerness across a life that it was a waste of our time. Teach us to keep reading, to not put the book down until it is finished, to see the beauty that hangs with possibility over each word. And to remember that only You, Lord, get to write the final paragraph.