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June 03, 2006

I found myself on a train to the Atlanta airport weeks ago. There was an aggressive panhandler in my car, the kind who stands right up in your personal space and holds out his hand while mumbling about money for food. He walked like a chicken, his head bobbing and feet shuffling as he went from seat to seat, pecking with his outstretched hand. Unlike in, say, D.C., most of the people, themselves dressed little better than him, dug into their pockets to offer change. His right pocket acquired a hefty chink, chink as he walked.

He stopped next to a young man of maybe 25, dressed in jeans and work boots. The man had a baby boy in a stroller with him. The young man offered the panhandler his work gloves.

The beggar's face registered what a rooster must look like when he confronts a raccoon. "What's that for?"

"So you can get a job."

"I been looking for a job."

"Well you ain't looking hard enough," and with this the young man gestured at his fellow passengers in their work boots and fast food outfits and hospital scrubs, "because all of us have one."

"I been down at the temp agency since six o'clock this morning."

By now everyone was watching, most with amusement. The young man looked at his watch. "It's four o'clock. How come you ain't still there?"

"It ain't easy to get a job. I need to eat."

"What you need to do is stop drinking." There were chuckles and nods and some of the black women made that "Mmmhmm" sound that captures life and truth in all its splendor and sadness. The beggar had lost his home-field advantage to this man with work gloves and a little boy.

"Well, yeah, I have a problem. I'm not perfect. Ain't nobody perfect."

"You don't got to be perfect, you got to stop drinking and get a job and stop asking all us for our money."

There was laughter now, not ugly, but the kind you might encounter at a family reunion, provided you have the kind of family that won't hide the fact that they think you are a fool or a mess but who will easily tolerate your presence regardless. But the beggar wasn't going to get any more money in this car.

He reached out his hand to the little boy, to give him a little fist bump. The boy responded, and then the panhandler shook his hand. The dad pushed his hand away, as if whatever had afflicted the bum was contagious. It was an easy gesture, like brushing off a fly, or wiping a nose or one of the thousands of movements a parent makes in a lifetime to guard and guide a little one.

The doors opened, and the beggar shuffled out. Everyone returned to their quiet conversations or looking out the window or, for many, tilting their heads backwards or forward or against a window and closing their eyes. The young father played with his son's hands, calm and gentle and bone-tired.

I wanted life to go well for him, and for his little boy. I found myself praying for them both, praying for the first time in too long, asking God to give this man every blessing I have received and squandered, every kindness I have repaid with indifference, every strength I have parlayed into weakness. I prayed as if the good things are limited and I had been given too many, because I have, and here was someone who maybe would do more with them than I.

I don't know why God persists with me, and sometimes I wish He would stop. I wish He would just move on, rush into someone else's life with the storm or the whisper and shake the dust of this barren garden from His sandals. And still He is here, on a fool's errand, leaving me no ground to claim hopelessness in anything, for He remains, with the absurd grace of Heaven, hopeful for me.

We find grace at the bottom of our shame, once we have wept at our own transgressions until we have no more tears, past the silence that follows, into the laughter at the sheer lunacy of it, this knowledge that there is no separating, that He of infinite knowledge is infinitely, mercifully forgetful.

So the prodigal son returned, scarred by the world he pursued, to a father who saw only the broken flesh of his flesh limping through the gate. The son, hoping to be blessed with the lowest servanthood, was instead to be the guest of honor. Rather than recrimination there is restoration and beyond this, a celebration.

It makes no sense, to the point that I marvel how anyone who knows shame could imagine we have manufactured grace to soothe our souls, for a fiction must be, at some root, believable. Grace, however, is inexplicable, wildly at odds with nature, thoroughly unbelievable.

And yet I believe, to the point that I ask Him to stop, as if I could cause one less stripe on the bloody back, shorten one of the nails by putting an end to this impossible venture when He in stubbornness will not.

I remember squeezing drops of nourishment through my daughter's clenched teeth after the doctor told us to let her starve, not out of faith, but because I could not give up on her life. I suppose it's something like that.

There's a reason Christ told us to call His father "daddy." Any man can father a child, but only a daddy persists past reason, binding himself to his child even though it lead unto death. Only a daddy sees the son return after shaming him and thinks not of comeuppance but of killing the fatted calf, for the presence of his child makes his home complete.

So He pours the living water through these clenched teeth, and I know that He will no more stop than I would, than that daddy in work boots would leave his son on the train platform, even if you told him the boy will only break his heart. It's how daddies are made.

Posted by Woodlief on June 03, 2006 at 12:50 PM


Well said.

Posted by: Josh at June 3, 2006 1:21 PM


Posted by: Llana at June 3, 2006 2:45 PM

I checked your site yesterday to see if you were posting, and nothing for the last few months. Now you put up another good one today.

I just picked up the book "What's So Amazing About Grace" by Yancey, as I'm struggling with a few things myself and trying to live within the means that the Lord has provided. I pray that your heart will continue to accept the grace that the Lord has blessed you with, and that you'll grace us with an occasional post.

Your talent for writing is worth sharing, though I can appreciate the time constraints.

Posted by: Marc V at June 3, 2006 7:47 PM

Thanks! Your words and thoughts are more powerful and moving than you know.
So good to hear from you!

Posted by: angela at June 3, 2006 9:24 PM

"I wanted life to go well for him, and for his little boy. I found myself praying for them both, praying for the first time in too long, asking God to give this man every blessing I have received and squandered, every kindness I have repaid with indifference, every strength I have parlayed into weakness."

What did you ask God for the beggar?

Posted by: Shawn at June 3, 2006 10:33 PM

Way to hit the GodSpot.

Posted by: MMM at June 4, 2006 2:36 AM

"And still He is here, on a fool's errand..."

I burst into tears at this line. I feel sorry for His effort with me sometimes, but He's doing what Daddys do. Thank you.

Posted by: Katy Raymond at June 4, 2006 12:30 PM

You mean the type who call yoy all sorts of nasty names while using bathroom languge? WASH HIS MOUTH OUT WITH CLOROX

Posted by: sandpiper at June 4, 2006 5:06 PM

I, too, was just thinking I hadn't heard from SITG for awhile. And then today..

Anyway, funny you mention "there's a reason...(to) call God daddy." I just decided to pick-up some religious reading again, and in the first chapter of "Blue Like Jazz" , Don Miller talks about his lack of a father and wonders out loud why God does have us refer to Him as a father given their failings. I just started it, and I'm guessing he gets to your point later on. Just one of those things. Happy early Father's Day. (or is that every day?)

Posted by: dtuit at June 4, 2006 7:20 PM

I read your blog whenever you post, and love it, but have never said anything before. This, however, really resonated with me today:

"And still He is here, on a fool's errand, leaving me no ground to claim hopelessness in anything, for He remains, with the absurd grace of Heaven, hopeful for me."

After a solid week of exaggerated, unnecessary self-pity, I went to church this morning and left smiling for the first time in a week, realizing that my problems are trivial, and that despite them, I not only have a community to which I belong but a God who loves no matter what, and that that should give me hope even when I feel I have none. I could have saved myself several depressing days if I'd gone to church and reorganized my priorities, on, say, Wednesday.

Posted by: Kathleen at June 4, 2006 10:34 PM

Shawn, what COULD you ask for the beggar? For God to take over his mind and change it somehow? The beggar has free will, just like the rest of us. In the original post, he had an excuse for everything that was suggested to him. You can pray until your blue in the face, but you cannot get God to override someone's free will!

My brother became one of these, and my parents certainly prayed for him, and continually tried to help him, but he died. Did he die because no one prayed for him, or did he die because he would not LET God save him from himself?

An outstanding article; well said, and I've said the same things to myself many a time.

Posted by: KTO at June 5, 2006 10:47 AM

Thank you for writing. God has given you a gift, thank you for sharing it.

Posted by: Leni at June 5, 2006 1:59 PM

I will pray for the beggar just the same.

Posted by: Shawn at June 6, 2006 11:03 AM

Very well said. Glad you are back!

Posted by: Gray at June 6, 2006 1:48 PM

Once again the well is filled. Woodlief God does smile on you.

Posted by: cooper at June 11, 2006 8:18 AM

Good to have you back, Tony. Well-written and very thought-provoking. More of us need to stand up and speak like the man on the train did. Kudos to him! Maybe he changed the beggar's life. And it sounds like that man, in a way, changed yours =) And God used your words, in turn, to impact many of us.. =)
Blessings to you!

Posted by: Rachel at June 13, 2006 5:08 AM

I have missed you. Welcome back. Great writing. Inspired content. Thank you.

Posted by: David at June 23, 2006 1:44 AM

God calls those in the gutter as often, or more so, as he calls those with a respectable place in the community. We are not told to choose to whom we preach the Word or extend a helping hand. The weary father on the train did not call out a poor man, but a hypocrite. Tony, apparently, was moved by the character of the father's heart and wanted to ask for God's blessing on him.

Shawn, your question, "What did you ask God for the beggar?" does smack of a holier-than-thou attitude, whether you intended it to or not. Oh, look, I remembered to care about the poor beggar man that you have chosen to revile. If that was not what you intended, know that that is how it sounds.

KTO, when I saw Shawn's response I, too, bristled. Tony is a dear friend and his post was moving. It appeared Shawn was attacking him, and for self-serving reasons. However, the question is not an unreasonable one. I don't recall finding anyplace in the bible where Jesus said, "Do this for the least of these...unless they really offend your sensibilities, or you think they're a lost cause." Whatever else you may think of the man, would you really begrudge the beggar a prayer to God for his well being?

Posted by: Wisch at June 24, 2006 12:56 PM