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They Never Knew I Saw Their Shameful Act

April 30, 2014

I slipped into the service late and was relegated to one of the back rows of the mega-church auditorium that would seat at least four thousand.  I had been doing a bit of camp work ministry in that area of central Ohio and I wanted a chance to get a respite and enjoy a night of Christian worship and instruction.  The sanctuary was filled to capacity, for sure; very few spaces were left in the vast auditorium.  I settled myself in the middle of a long pew almost elbow-to-1bbbelbow with folks, but it wasn’t unusually uncomfortable.  The message was rich, the music was meaningful and the folks around me were quite friendly.

Halfway through the service, a grizzled old man with scraggly white-hair and a decrepit patched suitcoat sauntered in and slid into a seat in the row in front of me.  There was a bit of room on either side of him; about three feet to his right sat a sixty-ish couple dressed nattily and crisp.  He looked at them almost apologetically as he ventured into the pew.  The husband was nearest to the vagrant, and the sharp-dressed wife was to her husband’s immediate right.    The couple’s eyes glanced over to the visitor and then quickly back to the speaker.  I noticed an irony here; both the vagrant and the nice-looking couple looked to be about the same age.  Poverty had made a great divide, though. The grizzled old man stumbled a bit, and I noticed that he seemed a bit disoriented as he quietly sat down.  It was a cold night out; perhaps he came in to get some warmth.   I looked up from my Bible and viewed his tattered collar, unkempt hair and patchwork coat.  My heart ached; I had personally known poverty and its problems.  What could I do for him, I wondered?

As the service was concluding, the pastor urged us to stand and pray during the invitation time, a part of the service reserved for allowing a counseling time for anyone with a need, be it salvation or a spiritual question.

“Would you please bow your heads and afford some privacy for those who might want to make a personal decision?” the speaker asked.  We closed our eyes – but I stopped and glanced up quickly.

Something was going on in front of me.

The well-dressed older husband and wife who were sitting about a yard away from the vagrant were having an animated whispering conversation.  I wondered if the wife was in conviction, because she seemed extremely agitated as she continually put her hand to her face, covering her mouth and nose.  I saw the husband whisper something and shrug.

Yes, I know I should have been keeping my eyes closed, but I didn’t.  And because I didn’t, I witnessed something that I will never forget.

The husband whispered and nodded towards her purse.  She reached in and retrieved something and handed it to him quickly.  I could not see what it was but I noticed that he was fumbling with it quietly as the invitation music continued to play and people kept their heads bowed.

Then he glanced quickly at the tattered old man to make sure he wasn’t aware of him.  The vagrant wasn’t.

The husband quickly flicked his wrist hard toward the vagrant in a secretive motion several times and then looked away.  I focused as best I could.

The husband was splashing the old man with something.

After a moment the wife shook her head and the husband subtly leaned toward the tattered man and repeated the motion.  That’s when I was able to see what he was doing.

I couldn’t believe my eyes.

The husband was splashing the old man with perfume.1bbb

On the second or third motion, the tattered man must have felt something wet on his hand.  He glanced quickly down and then glanced towards the well-dressed husband.

He caught him in the act.

And the face that I saw on the tattered man…

That face.

That face will haunt me the rest of my life.

That tattered man’s face spoke volumes.

I know my stench.  I know my grime. 

But at least I thought I could have been accepted here.

Oh, how my heart broke.  And oh how it raged.  I was in a quandary as the service ended.  I was torn between reaching out to the old vagrant man or chasing down the uppity couple and ripping into them for their insolence.  I chose the former.

I fought my way through the thick crowd and reached the tattered man before he headed into the lobby.

“Friend, hello!” I said.  “It sure is good to see you here.  How are you?”   I determined to get his man some help in any way I could.

He turned to face me and I looked into years of fatigue and weariness.  He looked up at me and blinked. “I’m looking, ” he said.  “I’m looking around and I cannot find… I mean, I cannot find the place…”  His voice wandered off and he rubbed his eye.

“Can I get you something?” I asked.

“I was just looking… well, over here I was just looking…” He backed into the passing people and squeezed between a crush of folks.  I tried to step through them but in the lobby’s crowd I could not find him.

He was gone.

As I sit at this keyboard I have conflicting emotions, and am not sure which one is the greater.  On the one hand I have a deep sorrow that I could not grasp this man’s hand and pull him towards a dollar bill or a McDonald’s hamburger or some kindness.  I lost him.  I lost him.  I regret that I did not bowl people over to reach a dazed and confused man who was just shown one of the greatest rudenesses I have ever witnessed.

Which takes me to my second emotion…

That high-minded couple.

I read the call by James in his book to be doers of the Word and not hearers only.  I see James call out to be wary not to imitate the indifference of the world, but to display my Jesus by my actions.

Sir and Ma’am, what were you thinking?

A man comes in in obvious need of comfort and you insult him this way?

In the farthest reaches of your mind could you ever, ever conceive of Jesus acting this way?  Was your nose that sensitive that you deeply hurt a person who could have used a kind action that cold night?

Maybe he shied away from me because of your actions.

I will never get the opportunity to know.

Sir and ma’am, you thought your selfish action went unnoticed.  You thought you would keep up a religious air.  But I saw you for who you really were.

As Robert Burns so aptly put it:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!

“Oh, that a higher Power would give us the gift
To see ourselves as others see us.”

I saw you – how you hurt that poor man.

What a dirty, rotten shame.

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  1. Oh, my goodness! How sad! My heart aches for that poor man. And actually, for the couple as well. Saying a prayer for all three.

  2. Your words brought tears to my eyes. Maybe the question we ought to keep in our minds is ‘am I seeing YOU Jesus, naked, hungry and in some kind of prison?” I am going to keep that question in my mind anyway….and then reach out with filled hands and heart ready to meet a need. Jesus saw your heart and I hope somehow that can take away the sting of what you saw.

  3. I heard of an evangelist who would dress like an under-the-bridge type of bum, complete with dirty hands, face and hair. He would walk among the people for a good half and hour before the service, trying to make contact with them. Most of them gave the same type of reaction as the couple in your story, while almost none of them gave him the respect of even eye contact, a smile, a warm welcome or anything of the like. — Then the gasps of surprise as HE would be the one working his way to the front after the guest speaker was introduced. Of course his sermon was “As you’ve done unto the least of these, you’ve done it unto ME”. A challenge we’d all do well to remember daily. How often, in contrast, we display by our example, and raise spoiled, arrogant children like the “Tom” you wrote about, (who was embarrassed in an earlier blog)

    • Right you are, Matt. I must always keep a heart … And an eye … Open for opportunities to serve. In fact, we were leaving a pizza place years back when I almost missed a homeless person siting by the side of the road. My son asked what we could do, since I never carry cash, only debit cards. We decided to give the fellow our take-out pizza. The man’s face was priceless. I will admit, though, it was my boy who initiated the kindness.

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