A Meeting On a Park Bench

imagine
We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.”
-C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm

I hope you like the following story. I have had it in my files for some time and decided to dust it off and share it in this post. The story is about a chance meeting on a park bench that was, simply, divine. Here is the story.

There once was a little boy who decided he wanted to go find God. He knew it would probably be a long trip to find God, so he decided to pack a lunch, four packs of Twinkies and two cans of root beer. He set out on his journey and went a few blocks until he came to a park. In this park on a bench, sat an old man looking at the pigeons and feeding them.

The little boy sat down beside him and he watched the pigeons too. After a while he grew hungry and so he pulled out some Twinkies. As he ate, he noticed the man watching him, so he offered him a Twinkie. The old man gratefully accepted it and smiled at the boy. There was something about his smile that fascinated the boy. He thought it was the most beautiful smile he had ever seen, and he wanted to see it again. So he brought out the cans of root beer, opened one and offered the old man the other one. Once again, he smiled that beautiful smile.

For a long time, the two sat on that park bench eating Twinkies, drinking root beer, smiling at each other, and watching and feeding the pigeons. But neither said a word. Finally, the little boy realized that it was getting and late and that it was time to go home. He started to leave, took a few steps, then turned back and gave the old man a big hug. The old man’s smile was brighter than ever before.

When he arrived back home, the boy’s mother noticed that her son was happy, yet somehow strangely quiet. “What did you do today?” she asked, trying to figure out what was going on. “Oh, I had lunch in the park with God,” he said. Before his mother could reply, he added, “You know, he has the most beautiful smile I have ever seen.”

Meanwhile, the man had left the park and returned to his home. His daughter noticed something different about her father. “What did you do today, Dad?” she asked. “Oh, I ate Twinkies and drank root beer in the park with God,” he said. And before his daughter could say anything, he added. “You know, he is a lot younger than I had imagined.”

God appears in our lives in surprising places. It is not often a dramatic blinding revelation like on the mountaintop as the disciples experienced with Jesus, or as Moses experienced on Mount Sinai, or as Paul experienced on the Damascus Road. Sometimes it is more a matter of removing our blinders and looking at what is right in front of us. And God is right there, on the park bench, in the grocery store, or in the kindergarten. I am not one who believes in the concept of God as a being that resides above the clouds and watches over us. For me, religion is not a journey into an external deity, but a journey into the heart of our humanity for that is where we will really find whatever we call God.

Many people want to find God in their lives. They yearn to feel God’s presence, to know that God is with them, that there is something greater than they are, something that they can count on and trust.

I came across a poem by an unknown author that speaks to that yearning to feel the presence of the divine. It goes like this:
The man whispered, “God, speak to me.”
And a meadowlark sang.
But the man didn’t hear.
So the man yelled, “God, speak to me!”
And the thunder rolled across the sky.
But the man didn’t listen.
The man looked around and said, “God, let me see you.”
And a star shone brightly.
But the man didn’t notice.
So the man shouted, “God show me a miracle!”
And a life was born.
But the man wasn’t there.
Finally the man cried out in despair,
“Touch me, God, let me know you are here!”
Whereupon, God reached down and touched the man.
But the man brushed the butterfly away and walked on.

Two monarchs
The man in the poem missed out because God’s presence was not packaged the way he expected. Yes, God delights in being where we least expect to find God – and where we often forget to even look. Chances are that God will be right where we least expect. Most likely, we find God In the dark and dusty places, in the unlikely places where we are tired and thirsty and hungry, in the places where we have wandered away and forgotten that God’s gifts of infinite grace and unconditional love are to be found. The young boy and the old man in our story, found God in a surprising place.

Perhaps it is time to behave like the little boy in the story and risk leaving home to look for God. Have we packed our Twinkies and root beer?

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The Parable of the Prodigal Father

PRODIGAL
Presence is more than just being there.
-Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, publisher of Forbes Magazine

Unconditional love is total. In unconditional love, we enter into relationships with others that are based upon being loved even when we have nothing to offer in return.

Skeptical of this line of thinking? Many people are, and if you are one of them, I want you to hear a story that I read some years ago and have adapted from Philip Yancey’s book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (I love that title) for it dramatically illustrates this point. But let me warn you in advance. Wait until you have the time to read the following words because the story is a bit longer than the average post, but I guarantee you it is more than worth your while if you stick with it to the end.

Jenny was a teenager who grew up on a cherry orchard just above Traverse City, Michigan. Her parents, a bit old-fashioned, tended to overreact to her nose ring, the music to which she listened, and the length of her skirts. They grounded her a few times, and she seethed inside. “I hate you!” she screamed at her father when he knocked on the door of her room after a particularly unpleasant and heated argument, and that night she acted on a plan that she had mentally rehearsed scores of times – she ran away to Detroit.

She had visited Detroit once before and because the newspapers in Traverse City reported in lurid detail the gangs, the drugs and the violence in downtown Detroit, she concluded that was probably the last place on earth that her parents would look for her.

On her second day there, Jenny met a man who drove the biggest car that she had ever seen. He offered her a ride, bought her lunch, and arranged for a place for her to stay. He gave her some pills that made her feel better than she had ever felt before. She had been correct all along she decided: Her parents were keeping her from all the fun.

The good life continued for a month, then two months, and after that into a year. The man with the big car – Jenny called him “the Boss” – taught her a few things that men like. Since she was underage, men paid a premium for her. She lived in a penthouse and ordered room service whenever she wanted. Occasionally, she thought about her family and friends back in Traverse City, but their lives now seemed so boring to her that she could hardly believe that she had ever lived there. Jenny had a brief scare when she saw her picture printed on the back of a milk carton with the caption, “Have you seen this child?” But by now she had blond hair, and with all the makeup and body-piercing jewelry she wore, no one would mistake her for a child. Besides, now most of her friends were runaways, and, to paraphrase a saying: “What happens in Detroit, stays in Detroit.”

After a year, the first ashen signs of illness appeared, and it amazed Jenny how fast “the Boss” turned mean. Before she knew it, she was out on the street without a penny to her name. She still turned a couple of tricks a night, but they did not pay much, and all the money was spent to support her drug habit. When winter arrived, she found herself sleeping on metal grates outside the big department stores. “Sleeping” was the wrong word, for a teenage girl at night in downtown Detroit could never relax her guard. Dark bands circled her eyes. Her cough worsened.

One night, as Jenny lay awake listening for footsteps, all of a sudden everything about her life looked different. She no longer felt like a woman of the world. She felt like a little girl, lost in a cold and frightening city. She began to whimper. Her pockets were empty and she was hungry. She needed a fix. She pulled her legs tight underneath her and shivered under the newspapers she had piled atop her threadbare coat. Something jolted her memory and a single image filled her mind. It was an image of springtime in Traverse City when a million cherry trees bloom at once – an image in which she was with her golden retriever dashing through the rows and rows of blossomy trees in chase of a tennis ball.

“God, why did I leave?” she said to herself, and pain stabbed at her heart. She thought, “My dog back home eats better than I do now.” She was sobbing, and she knew in a flash that more than anything else in the world she wanted to go home.

Jenny made three straight phone calls, each making the connection with the answering machine. She hung up without leaving a message the first two times, but the third time she steeled herself and said, “Dad, Mom, it’s me. I was wondering about maybe coming home. I’m catching a bus up your way, and it’ll get there about midnight tomorrow. If you’re not there, well, I guess I’ll just stay on the bus until it hits Canada.”

It took about seven hours for the bus to make all the stops between Detroit and Traverse City, and during all that time Jenny realized the flaws in her plan. What if her parents were out of town and missed the message? Perhaps she should have waited another day or so until she could talk to them! Even if they were home, they probably had written her off as dead long ago. She should have given them some time to overcome the shock of her phone call and its message.

Jenny’s thoughts bounced back and forth between those worries and the speech she had prepared for her father. “Dad, I’m sorry. I know I was wrong. It’s not your fault; it’s all mine. Dad, can you forgive me?” She said the words over and over, her throat tightening even as she rehearsed them. She had not apologized to anyone in years.

The bus had been driving with lights on since Bay City. Tiny snowflakes hit the road and the asphalt steamed. Every so often, Jenny saw a billboard. She saw a sign posting the mileage to Traverse City. Oh, God!

When the bus finally rolled into the bus terminal, the driver announced in a crackly voice over the microphone, “Traverse City. Traverse City, Michigan. Fifteen minutes, folks. That’s all we have here.” Fifteen minutes to decide her life. Jenny checked herself in a compact mirror, smoothed her hair, and licked the lipstick off her teeth. She looked at the tobacco stains on her fingertips and hoped that her parents would not notice. That is, if they were there at all.

Jenny walked into the terminal not knowing what to expect, and not one of the thousand scenes that had played out in her mind prepared her for what she saw. There, in the bus terminal in Traverse City, Michigan, stood a group of forty family members – brothers and sisters and great-aunts and uncles and cousins and a grandmother and great-grandmother to boot. They were all there wearing ridiculous-looking party hats and blowing noisemakers, and taped across an entire wall of the terminal was a computer-generated banner that read “Welcome home!”

Out of the crowd of well-wishers, stepped her dad who ran to her and embraced her. Jenny looked at him through tears and began her memorized speech, “Dad, I’m sorry. I know. . .”

Jenny’s dad interrupted and whispered to her. “Hush, child. We’ve no time for that. No time for apologies. You’ll be late for the party. A banquet’s waiting for you at home.” There were no solemn lectures. There were no words of reproach. There was no unkindness hidden behind the hugs. There was simply love. Unexpected! Undeserved! Love!

I told you it would be worth it if you stuck with this story to the very end. The story is a tale about a young woman who did not expect the loving welcome that she received. But then, this is not a story about receiving what we expect. It is a story about being loved even when we have nothing to offer in return, even when we have no expectation of being loved. Listen and learn from that father’s tender whisper to his daughter: “Hush my child. We’ve no time for this. No time for apologies. You’ll be late for your party.”

True love is total. It is unexpected, undeserved and unconditional! Of course, any similarity between this story and the story that Jesus told in Luke’s Gospel is purely intentional.

Prodigal love comes to those who fail; to those who recognize their failure, and to those who return home for a new start in life. The word “prodigal” means extravagant, lavish, and unrestrained, even to the point of being what some would consider wasteful. Yes, Jenny was a prodigal daughter; she had lived wastefully. But so too was her father; he loved wastefully! It was Jenny’s father’s extravagant and unrestrained love for her that knew no limits, his forgiveness that knew no boundaries, and his joy that knew no restraint. For me, John Shelby Spong, the retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark sums up this story best when he writes: “My mission as a Christian is not ‘to convert the heathen’ as we once asserted, it is rather to assist in the task of helping all people to live fully, to love wastefully and to be all that they are capable of being.” This is a Christianity grounded in a radical understanding of humanity.

More Mrs. Leonards, Please!

bird

I have never met a person whose greatest need was anything other than real, unconditional love. You can find it in a simple act of kindness toward someone who needs help. There is no mistaking love. You feel it in your heart. It is the common fiber of life, the flame that heals our soul, energizes our spirit and supplies passion to our lives. It is our connection to God and to each other.
-Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Swiss-born psychiatrist and author.

When Eliza Doolittle launches into her musical tirade against Freddy Eynsford-Hill in Alan Jay Lerner’s and Frederick Loewe’s My Fair Lady, the audience is treated to one of the great moments in the musical theater. Eliza sings of her irritation with Freddy, her new suitor, in the following lyrics:
Words! Words! Words!
I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?
Eliza follows her tirade with a plea to be shown Freddy’s feelings via actions instead of just his talking about how he feels about her. “Show me,” sings Eliza. Her song is a great song and a show-stopper, but consider for a moment about how crucial words have been in our lives. Many will recall that old adage from our childhood days: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words [or names] will never hurt me.” Whoever coined that phrase was never bullied. That saying might have been thought to be a useful thing to teach children who were being bullied, but the problem is that the expression is not true.

Words do matter. Words do have power. Words do hurt. Words are forceful tools and have a profound effect on each of us. Words of praise can make us feel cheerful and words of love can fill us with compassionate sentiments. Words of unkind criticism can make us feel depressed and words of harsh anger can make us feel despondent. Mean-spirited words have more power to damage one’s soul than any stick or stone. Some comedians have made careers out of insulting people. In the full glare of stage lights, they say what most other people only think or at best say only in whispers. Such insulting words demonstrate the dark side of language – the power of words to wound. Such words tear down a person.

How damaging it is for a child to be told that she will never amount to anything. Similarly, how disparaging it is for an employee to be told that he is expendable. At one time or another, all of us have been hurt by words that cut us like a knife and as a result we have either lived up to or down to the expectations of such words.

The incalculable influence of words is movingly presented by Mary Ann Bird, who first shared her moving story in her memoir entitled The Whisper Test.

Mary Ann Bird grew up knowing that she was “different,” and she hated being “different.” Mary Ann was “different” because she was born with a cleft palate, a disfigured face, a crooked nose, lopsided teeth, and deafness in one ear. When she started to attend school, her classmates constantly teased her and made it clear to her how she looked to them: a little girl with misshapen features and somewhat garbled speech. She could not even blow up a balloon without holding her nose, and when she bent to drink from a water fountain, the water spilled out of her nose.

When her schoolmates asked, “What happened to your lip?” Mary Ann would tell them that she had fallen as a baby and cut it on a piece of glass. Somehow it seemed more acceptable to have suffered an accident than to have been born with her disfigured physical appearance. By the age of seven, Mary Ann was convinced that no one outside of her own family could ever love her or even like her.

It was then that Mary Ann entered Mrs. Leonard’s second grade class and Mary Ann’s life was to change forever.

Mrs. Leonard was round and pretty and fragrant, with chubby arms and shiny brown hair and warm dark eyes that smiled even on the rare occasions when her mouth did not. Everyone adored Mrs. Leonard. But no one came to love Mrs. Leonard more than did Mary Ann Bird. And for a very special reason, as we shall see.

The time came for the school’s annual “whisper tests.” Mary Ann was barely able to hear anything out of one ear, and was not about to reveal yet another problem that would single her out further as being “different.” And so she cheated.

She had learned to watch the other children and raised her hand when they did during group testing. The “whisper test” however, required a different kind of deception: Each child would go to the door of the classroom, turn sideways, cover one ear with a hand, and the teacher would whisper something from her desk, which the child would then repeat. Then the same thing was done for the other ear. Mary Ann discovered in kindergarten that no one checked to see how tightly the untested ear was being covered, so she merely pretended to block her ear.

As usual, Mary Ann was last, but all through the testing, she wondered what Mrs. Leonard would whisper to her. She knew from previous years that Mrs. Leonard whispered such things as “The sky is blue” or “Do you have new shoes?”

Mary Ann’s turn finally came. She turned her almost deaf ear to Mrs. Leonard, plugging up the other solidly with her hand, and then gently backed her hand off enough to be able to hear. She waited and then heard the words from Mrs. Leonard’s mouth – seven words that forever transformed Mary Ann Bird’s life. Mrs. Leonard whispered softly, “I wish you were my little girl.” That seemingly small encounter changed Mary Ann’s life forever. Words do matter! A small act of kindness can make a significant difference! Sometimes all it takes is seven little softly-whispered words!

Physically, nothing really changed for Mary Ann Bird. She still had her cleft palate, her disfigured face, her crooked nose, her lopsided teeth, and her deafness in one ear. She was still the object of her classmates’ painful ridicule. But everything changed inside for Mary Ann Bird. She began to see that her classmates’ judgments were neither the only words about her nor the final words. She started to understand herself as loved and lovable and dared to envision a future not constrained by her circumstances, but a future that could transcend them.

And so the little girl who thought of herself as a reject and a loser, as someone outside, as unacceptable, found out that someone wanted her, and it changed her life. It should not surprise you to learn that when Mary Ann Bird grew up she became a teacher, following in the footsteps of the person who had set her free.

If love has a face what will it look like? We can make a fairly accurate educated guess as to how Mary Ann Bird would answer that question – love will look like Mrs. Leonard whispering those seven life-changing words. Mrs. Leonard may have been short and plump, but Mrs. Leonard was beautiful. Her radiant personality spoke of an acceptance and of a realization that the inner qualities of a person are what really matter.

That encounter with love, given form and substance for that moment in Mrs. Leonard, that encounter with love and compassion, altered how Mary Ann Bird saw herself and how she saw the world. I can only guess, but in my heart-of-hearts, I suspect that Mrs. Leonard’s less than perfect physique only increased her compassion toward the imperfections of others. The world has all the beauty queens it needs. We sure could use a lot more Mrs. Leonards!

Offering a Lifeline of Hope to Others

A view of the 14th Street Bridge looking toward Washington, DC from Virginia

A view of the 14th Street Bridge looking toward Washington, DC from Virginia

People do not decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things.
-Edmund Hillary, New Zealand mountaineer and explorer

The 14th Street Bridge is a complex of five bridges across the Potomac River, connecting Arlington, Virginia, with Washington, D.C. A major gateway for automotive and rail traffic, the complex is named for 14th Street (U.S. 1), which feeds into it on the D.C. end. Each of the complex’s five bridge spans has its own name. The northbound span, which opened in 1950, was originally named the Rochambeau Bridge, but was renamed the Arland D. Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge in 1983. Here is the reason for this name change.

It was a Wednesday afternoon in January, 1982 in Washington, D.C. It was a cold, bitter cold, snowy time of the year and there was a blizzard blasting the northeastern part of the United States. Air Florida Flight 90 was ready to take off. It had been sitting for an hour on the tarmac and no one had examined the wings for icing, and the plane took off at 3:59 pm EST, with heavy snow falling. At 4:01 pm EST, the airplane, a Boeing 737-222 airliner, smashed into the 14th Street Bridge and plummeted into the cold, freezing water of the Potomac River. It crushed seven occupied vehicles on the bridge and destroyed ninety-seven feet of guard rail and forty-one feet of the bridge’s wall as it plunged into the icy water.

Following the crash, there was a momentary silence that seemed to last for an eternity. There was no noise, but only an empty silence. Suddenly, there were the sirens, the ambulances, the police cars, and the fire trucks onto the scene. Seventy-eight people died instantly, including four motorists on the 14th Street Bridge. The six people who were alive crawled out of the airplane and onto the wing and began looking for aid. Some were badly injured, with abrasions and broken bones. All of them struggled in the river’s arctic chill, shouting for help.

Though the six were just forty or so yards from the riverbank, jagged ice all around the wreckage made sending a rescue boat out to them an impossibility. It also seemed impossible for a rescue helicopter to reach the survivors. After all, Flight 90 was in the water because of the day’s snow, ice and wind.

A woman standing on the wing dove into the water and floated down the icy waters screaming for help. The people on the banks of the river stood there, panicking, not knowing what to do, but one man dove into the cold water and swam to the woman, rescued the woman and brought her back to the land. Later, the young man said, “Somebody had to help that woman.”

By this point, twenty minutes had passed since the crash. The sun was setting and with the darkening skies, it seemed that the six who had survived the crash would perish that day nonetheless.

But then the outlook became more hopeful. A United States Parks Service helicopter piloted by Donald W. Usher was on the scene. Paramedic Gene Windsor quickly sent down a lifeline – putting it right into the hands of Bert Hamilton, who was treading water about ten feet from the tail of the plane and who was whisked from the water and into the safety of the chopper.

The helicopter returned to the aircraft’s tail, and this time the lifeline was dropped to Arland D. Williams, Jr., a quiet, middle-aged bank examiner who had wrapped up business in D.C. and was setting off for his home in Florida on that fateful day in January 1982. When Williams took the lifeline, he did something both shocking and wonderful. Instead of wrapping it around himself, he passed it to flight attendant Kelly Duncan, who was taken to safety.

The lifeline dropped again and Williams again gave away the lifeline to another. On its third trip back to the wreckage, two lifelines were lowered for fear that the survivors in the water had only a few minutes before succumbing to hypothermia. Arland Williams again caught one of the lines, and again passed it on, this time to Joe Stiley, the most severely injured of the survivors. Stiley slipped the line around his waist and grabbed Priscilla Tirado who was nearly hysterical, having lost both her husband and her baby. Patricia Felch took the second line. Before they reached the shore, both women lost their grips and fell back into the water. Priscilla Tirado was too weak to grab the line when the helicopter dropped the line to her again. A watching bystander, Larry Skutnik, stripped off his coat and boots, and in short sleeves, dove into the icy water and swam to assist her. The helicopter proceeded to where Patricia Felch had fallen and Paramedic Gene Windsor dropped from the helicopter and attached a line around her.

By the time the helicopter crew could return to Arland Williams, both he and the plane’s tail section had disappeared beneath the water’s icy surface. Williams had been in the water for twenty-nine minutes. His body and those of the other occupants were later recovered.

The next morning’s news accounts called him a hero, but he remained nameless, faceless, and described only as a middle-aged man. His identity would emerge only after the coroner’s examination of all of Flight 90’s victims. Seventy-four bodies had been pulled from the river, but just one had water-filled lungs – Arland D. Williams, the man who had made it out of the plane only to drown. He drowned because, rather than save himself, the 46-year-old with much to live for, had chosen to put others first.

After his death, former classmates at the Citadel, the South Carolina military academy where he had attended college, were not surprised by Williams’ sacrifice. “Always take care of your people first,’’ his roommate Frank Webster has said in describing the training Williams had received at the Citadel. “That’s an unbreakable code. You go last. Your people go first.”

“His heroism was not rash,” observed his minister at Williams’ funeral. “Aware that his own strength was fading, he deliberately handed hope to someone else, and he did so repeatedly. On that cold and tragic day, Arland D. Williams Jr. exemplified one of the highest attributes of human nature, specifically that some people are capable of doing anything for total strangers.”

Rather than simply admire Williams’ selflessness, we might think of ways that we can offer a lifeline of hope to those in need around us. The sacrifices we might make today in extending hope to another person likely will not mean giving up our lives the way Williams did, but instead, probably will involve a net gain – with our lives enriched by the promise of hope we offer.

Arland D. Williams Jr

Arland D. Williams Jr