He was there on our first full day of sunshine, sitting in the shadow of his gargantuan backpack. His shaved head and frayed cut off cargos struck a ragamuffin image; it was clear that all of his earthly possessions were on his person. He sat with his head buried in his hands, neither looking out at the beautiful ocean in front of him or around at the ocean of people on all sides. As we trundled toward the beach, toward him, mounds of beach paraphernalia in tow, my husband raised his eyebrows. He suggested, not unkindly, that we set up a little farther down the sand.
As my two boys played in the surf and the sound of the waves became part of my internal voice, my eyes continued to wander back to that lone figure. I mused. What was his story? How did he come to be here on the beach in this state? Was he just passing through, or did he live here? He never looked up, never looked at the other people. He either kept his head down or lay in the sand with his eyes closed. It was this that drew me to him, I think. I looked around, but the other beachgoers seemed oblivious to this character. They appeared neither interested nor disturbed. It occurred to me that perhaps the stranger preferred it this way, but I brushed the thought aside as I pondered his circumstances. I felt a little ache inside my heart for him and a yearning to help him in some way.
Soon, the stranger was forgotten, lost in the splash of the waves and the smell of sunscreen. I didn’t think of him again until the following day. We were already settled into our sandspot when he ambled past us and plunked down the kaki colored backpack that was spilling its contents out the side. I noticed a worn leather jacket hanging over the edge. It was almost 100 degrees that day. He immediately sat down and buried his eyes in his hands. I felt that little ache.
I’ve been around enough to know (most of the time) when the Holy Spirit is speaking to my heart. This was one of those times. It seemed impossible. How was I to approach this apparently life worn stranger? I turned the situation over and over in my mind, pretending to read my book as I peered at him over the top of it. This is ridiculous, Lord, I kept telling Him. But I am nothing, if not obedient. I prayed it out over and over. Finally, I told God, Ok, if you want me to talk to him, then you have to make him look at me. I put my book down and stared, oblivious to social convention. It took a while for him to concede to look at me, but he finally caved to the pressure of my glare. He tentatively raised his head and met my eyes. His gaze was steady, questioning, and maybe just a little defiant. I smiled.
“Would you like some sunscreen?” I asked, in a singsongy kind of voice.
He seemed a little surprised, but shifted his gaze away as he shook his head.
“It’s just, your head looks a little red,” I pushed the envelope, unwilling to give up now that I had the opening I wanted.
He put his hand on top of his head but continued to avoid my eyes.
“Thanks for thinking of me,” he said. Then lowered his upper body down in the sand and put his back between him and me.
I was crushed. I looked down at Blue Like Jazz in my hands. Buoyed by my new hero, Donald Miller, I pondered my next move. Obviously, this guy did not realize how desperately he needed the sunshine of my acquaintance in his life. Think, think, think (there’s that Pooh Bear influence again).
Unfortunately, right at that time, one of my children needed a mother (the nerve!). Teddy had gotten sand in his eyes and in the process of trying to find relief, had rubbed sunscreen into them as well. His distress led me to fear that he might be blinded for life. I took him up to the top of the beach to the outdoor shower and helped him flush the toxins out of his eyes. My husband came along and offered to usher the boys up to the condo for a more thorough eye cleaning and a snack. I sent them on their way and agreed to gather up our things and meet them.
I lumbered back down to our towels, burning my feet on the hot sand. On my way, I noticed that my new friend had spread out a t-shirt and was curled up on it in the shade of his backpack. I looked at our four pristine beach towels, all laid out neatly in a row. They looked so happy. I looked at the stranger’s bowed figure. It seemed such a grotesque contrast to me. I felt ashamed of my nice colorful beach towels. Then it hit me, this was my chance. I would give him one of our towels! Brilliant! We had towels, he needed a towel, or so it seemed. This could be one small way to answer that little ache in my heart.
I happily marched over to our spot and began gathering our things together. I folded all four beach towels neatly, torn over which one to offer. He needed something lightweight, but I wanted to give him a nice towel, not a “paper towel” (that’s what we call our flimsiest of towels). Scooby Doo just wouldn’t do. As I gathered sand shovels and castle molds together, I’d peek at the stranger out of the corner of my eye. Still no movement from atop the t-shirt. I began to work slower, praying, as I repeatedly shook sand off of items. I could stall no longer. I approached the stranger, dragging my feet on more than the sand.
I stood above his humble figure, casting a shadow over him and his backpack. I waited. It seemed like an eternity towering above him and still he refused to open his eyes. I knew that he knew that I was there. Somehow I just knew. I began to pray anew, willing him to open his eyes and speak to me. This should have been my clue to walk graciously away, but I was too determined. Gingerly, I bent down and placed the towel beside the stranger’s head. Then I ran away!
I know what you are thinking. And it was very cowardly. But I just didn’t know what to do! Have you ever been in one of those situations when you just can’t turn back? It was like I was seeing it in slow motion. I guess at that point (okay, so maybe just a weeeee wittle bit before that) the situation became about me, not the ragamuffin stranger. I wanted to do something nice for this guy, whether he wanted me to or not.
I raced up to my condo, where I could spy on the stranger from my balcony. I was breathless with my newfounded philanthropy. It felt good to give to someone in need! Oh joy!
When I arrived at spy command center, my heart fell. The object of my benevolence had not only rejected my offer, he had taken the towel ten feet or so away from him and set it neatly down. Even his back looked angry as I watched him sitting in his customary hunched over position. I sunk to the floor in shame (and to remain hidden, spies do that sort of thing).
After the initial horror, I found myself feeling indignant. How dare that homeless guy reject a perfectly good beach towel! Didn’t he know that a family of four would now only have three? We were going to have to share a beach towel now. Or go out and buy another one. Sheesh! What a jerk! I didn’t want someone so prideful and selfish to have MY beach towel anyhow.
Okay, so I’m not that shallow. But it did hurt my feelings. Can you imagine that? My feelings were hurt because a guy that I don’t even know didn’t want a towel that I didn’t ask him if I could leave beside his head for him to use instead of a t-shirt.
This brings us back to the original lesson that I learned at age 12 or 13 and so conveniently forgot during this entire escapade. I did to that poor unsuspecting stranger the same thing that was done to me all those years ago. Not only did I put him in an extremely uncomfortable situation, but there was more at stake for him than a giant Pooh Bear. I took a little bit of his dignity. See, he is a grown up. I was a child. The situation was far graver for him.
I never once asked him his name. I never gave him the chance to tell his story, even though I wondered about it. Everything I thought I knew about him may have been completely wrong. Because it was based only on what I saw. Or maybe, what I thought I saw.
The beach towel stayed in the sand where the stranger placed it all afternoon. It stayed long after he had left. It stayed until the sun started to disappear behind the row of beach houses in the west. I avoided the beach all afternoon, too ashamed to show my face to the sun. But I kept visiting the balcony, where I stared in despair at the colorful bundle so lonely in the sand.
Finally, long into the evening, I went down to beach and rescued the thing from the fast approaching tide. It felt limp and useless in my arms. I got into an argument with God.
Why? I asked. Why did you tell me to reach out to this guy?
The answer came in little bits and pieces during the rest of the trip. Over and over I saw those images of myself as a young girl, accepting the giant sized Pooh Bear. And I squirmed.
Then, the Lord told me through scripture: Be still, and know that I am God. I had to try very hard to stop the fretting. I quieted my mind, and listened.
When I gave the situation to Him, I felt at peace with the whole mess of it. He whispered to me that He wanted me to show that man kindness. Not so that I could get a feel good fix and a hurray for me feeling; but so that the stranger would feel God’s love for him. I wondered when the last time was that anyone had smiled at the stranger and spoken kind words. I wondered what had happened to him to make him avoid looking into the faces of other people. And I understood the wisdom of God for just one tiny little millisecond.
God always surprises me in the way He reveals Himself to me. I guess I’m a slow learner. He has to get very creative with me. It makes me smile when I think of it. He never gives up on me.
I still feel that need to put my faith into action. But I think I’m going to be still for a while and wait upon the Lord. He’ll let me know what I’m supposed to do next. He has ways of getting my attention. I just hope that next time it doesn’t involve a beach towel.