At that moment he was the last person I wanted to see. My day had been bad enough already; now I was sure it was about to get worse.
Yet there he was. A moment before he had poked his head into the cafeteria before walking over to the beverage station and pouring himself some fruit juice. I thought about ducking behind the table, but realized I'd look like an idiot. Maybe he wouldn't see me back in the corner. Slowly I moved my head downward and tried to hide behind my hands.
Out of the cracks in my fingers, I could see he had turned and leaned back against the counter and took a drink staring off blankly. Then he squinted towards me as he realized he wasn't alone and with a surprised look he started towards me. Of all nights, why here, and why now?
It had been our worst day ever in a long and torturous battle. Since three o'clock that afternoon when the asthma made its first attempt that day to strangle our twelve year-old daughter we had been on guard for her life. First we rushed her to the hospital watching her struggle for every breath. Then watched as the doctors and nurses battled with her asthma for the use of her lungs.
I admit I do not deal with this well at all, though you think I would with all the practice I've had. My wife and I have watched her suffer all of her life; never certain when a sudden attack would threaten her life and send us scurrying to the hospital. It makes me so angry to watch her suffer so and no matter how much we've prayed for her and had others do the same, the asthma continues to get worse.
Finally a couple of hours ago the medication finally kicked in and she began to breathe more easily. My wife headed home to get some much-needed sleep and spell her parents who'd come to be with our son. I offered to stay the night. Andrea finally fell asleep and I found my way to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee and a quiet place to read. I was too wired to sleep.
Grateful to find the place deserted, I poured myself a cup of coffee and sat down in the shadows of a distant corner. I was so angry I couldn't even think straight. What had I done so wrong that my daughter must suffer like this? Why does God ignore my desperate prayers for her healing? Other parents gripe about playing taxicab for all their children's activities. I don't even know if Andrea will survive her next asthma attack and I worry about the steroids she's on that stunt her growth.
Somewhere in the middle of a good wallow in my anger, he poked his head into my private sanctuary. Now he was walking over to my table and I honestly thought about punching him in the mouth if he dared to open it. I knew I wouldn't, though. I'm only violent inside, not on the outside where anyone else can see it.
I've never met anyone more frustrating than John. I was so excited when we first met, and honestly I've never met anyone as wise as he. But he's brought me nothing but grief. Since he's come into my life, I lost my life-long dream job, been ostracized from the church I'd helped to start 20 years before and even found my marriage in rougher waters than I've ever known.
To understand just how frustrated I am you'll have to come back with me to the day I first met John. As incredible as the beginning was, it doesn't compare to all we've been through since.
* * * *
My wife and I celebrated our 17th wedding anniversary by taking a three-day trip to Pismo Beach on the central California coast. On our way home on Saturday afternoon, we stopped in downtown San Luis Obispo for some lunch and shopping. This re-vitalized downtown area is a major draw for the whole community. On this sunny April day the streets were jammed.
After lunch we split up since our preferred browsing places are quite different. I went to loiter in the bookstores while she trolled the clothing stores and gift shops. Finishing before our scheduled rendezvous time, I had perched myself against the wall of a store while nursing a chocolate ice cream cone.
I couldn't help but notice the heated argument going on a few feet up the street on the curb in front of The Gap. Four college-aged students and two middle-aged men were holding bright blue handbills and gesturing wildly. I had seen the handbills earlier, tucked under windshield wipers and lying scattered in the gutter. It was an invitation to a play about the flames of hell being put on at one of the local churches.
"Who'd want to go to this second-rate production... ?"
"I'll never set foot in a church again..."
"Been there, done that, got the scars and ain't going back..."
In the few moments since I had begun my eavesdropping, I don't think any one of them actually finished a sentence. Another would interrupt as if they would burst from the pressure if they couldn't add their own venom
"Where do these arrogant people get off thinking they can judge me and..."
"I'd like to see what Jesus would think if he walked into one of these churches today..."
"I don't think he'd probably go, he seemed..."
"And if he did, he'd probably fall asleep."
Laughter drowned him out.
"Or maybe he'd die laughing..."
"Or crying," another voice offered which caused everyone to pause and think a moment.
"Do you think he'd wear a suit and...?"
"Only to hide the whip he'd sneak in to do a little house cleaning."
The increasing volume drew the attention of those passing by. Their pace would slow to try and figure out what the commotion was all about. Some drawn by the passion and intrigued by the assault on something as sacred as religion joined in like puppies at the food bowl. Still others hung around on the fringes to listen, some even asking me what was going on.
Now a full-fledged argument developed as some of the newcomers challenged the anti-church cynics. Accusations volleyed quickly in the crowd. Most of them I had heard before--complaints about extravagant facilities, hypocrites, boring sermons and burn out from too many meetings. Those that sought to defend the church had to admit some of these weaknesses did exist but tried to point out many good things churches have done.
That's when I noticed him. He could have been anywhere from late 30's to early 50's. It was difficult to tell. He was short, perhaps only 5'4"; with dark, wavy hair and an unkempt beard, both peppered with streaks of gray. In a faded green sweatshirt, jeans and running shoes, his rugged looks made me wonder if he was a holdover from the rebellious 60's; except that he wasn't shuffling by aimlessly.
In fact what had caught my eye was the determined purpose of his gait, moving directly toward the center of the rising argument. It seemed from some distance away he had picked out the crowd and now zeroed in on it walking slowly, his face as intense as a German Shepherd hearing an unfamiliar sound in the night. As he approached the crowd he seemed to melt into it. Within moments he emerged toward the center of the circle surveying the more vocal ones. When his eyes turned my direction, I was captured by their intensity. They were deep--and alive! I was riveted on him. He seemed to know something no one else did.
By this time the debate had turned hostile. Those who had attacked the church had turned their anger toward Jesus himself, mocking him as an impostor. As intended, that only made the church go-ers in the group even more livid. "Wait until you have to look in his face as you sink into hell!" I thought the combatants were going to start swinging at each other when the stranger floated his question into the crowd.
"You really have no idea what Jesus was like, do you?"
The words slipped off the man's lips as gently as the breeze wafted through the trees overhead and in stark contrast to the heated argument that swirled around him. They were so softly spoken that I read them on his lips as much as heard what he said. But their impact was not lost on the crowd. The noisy clamor subsided quickly as tension-filled faces gave way to puzzled expressions. "Who said that?" was the unspoken question that filled the eyes of each one as they scanned the others around them.
I chuckled under my breath because no one was looking at the man who had just spoken. For one thing, he was so short that it was easy to pass over him. But I had been watching him and the crowd for the last few moments intrigued by his demeanor.
As people were glancing around he spoke again into the silence. "Do you have any idea what he was like?"
This time all eyes turned downward toward the voice and were surprised to see the man who'd spoken them. Where had he come from? What does he know about it? The unspoken questions reverberated in the tense silence.
"What do you know about it, old man?" One of them finally spoke up, his mockery dripping off of each word until the disapproving gaze of the crowd silenced him. He laughed it off and looked away embarrassed, grateful that their eyes had swung back to the stranger. But he was in no hurry to speak. The resulting silence hung in the air, far beyond the point of awkwardness. A few nervous glances and shrugs shot throughout the crowd, but no one spoke and no one left. During this time the man scanned the crowd pausing to hold each person's gaze for a brief second. When he caught my eye, everything inside seemed to melt. I looked away instantly. After a few moments I glanced back, hoping he was no longer looking my direction.
After what seemed an insufferably long time he spoke again. His first words were whispered directly at the man who had threatened the others with hell. "You really have no idea what motivates you, do you?" His tone was one of sorrow, almost entreating. There was not a trace of anger in it. Embarrassed, the man threw his hands up and twisted his lips as if he didn't understand the question. Which was all he could think to do with everyone looking at him.
The stranger let him twist in the gaze of the crowd briefly, then looking around the circle he began to speak again, his words flowing softly and sweetly. "He was nothing special to look at. He could walk down this street today and not one of you would even notice him. In fact he had the kind of face you would shy away from, certain he wouldn't fit in with your crowd.
"But he was as gentle a man as one would ever know. He could silence detractors without ever raising his voice. He never bullied his way; never drew attention to himself nor did he ever pretend to like what vexed his soul. He was real, to the very core of his being.
"And at the core of that being was love." The stranger paused and shook his head. "Wow! Did he love!" His eyes looked far past the crowd now, seeming to peer across the depths of time not space. "We didn't even know what love was, until we saw it in him. It was everyone, too, even those who hated him, who wouldn't extend to him the simplest of courtesies. He still cared for them, hoping somehow they would find a way out of their self-inflicted souls to recognize who stood among them."
"And with all that love, he was completely honest. Yet even when his actions or words exposed people's darkest motives, they didn't feel shamed. They felt safe with him. His words conveyed not even a hint of judgment, simply an entreaty to come to God and be freed by him. There was no one you would trust more quickly with your deepest secrets. If someone were going to catch you at your worst moments you'd want it to be him.
"He wasted no time mocking others, nor their religious trappings." He glanced at those who had just done so. "If he had something to say to them, he'd say it and move on and you would know you'd been loved more than anyone had ever loved you before." Here the man stopped, his eyes closed and mouth clenched as if choking back tears that would melt him in an instant if he gave in to them.
"I'm not talking about mamby-pamby sentimentalism either. He loved, really loved. It didn't matter if you were Pharisee or prostitute, disciple or blind beggar, Jew, Samaritan or Gentile. His love held itself out for any to embrace. Most did, too, when they saw him. Though so few ended up following him for those few moments his presence passed through their life, they tasted something they could never deny even years later. Somehow he seemed to know everything about you, but loved deeply all that was true about who he made you to be."
He paused and scanned the crowd. In the last couple of moments perhaps as many as 30 people had stopped to listen, their gaze firmly on the man and their mouths suspended open in bewilderment. I can record his words here, but am bereft of an adequate description of their impact. No one within earshot could deny their power or their authenticity. They rang from the very depths of this man's soul.
"And when he hung there from that filthy cross," the man's eyes looked up into the trees that towered over us, "that love still poured down--on mocker and disillusioned friend alike. As he approached the dark chamber of death, wearied by his battle with sin, there was no finer moment in all the world. His anguish became the conduit for his life to be given to you. This was no madman. This was God's Son, poured out to the last breath, so that we could live free."
As he talked further, I was struck by the intimacy of his words. He talked like someone who had been with him. In fact, I remembered thinking, "This man is exactly how I would picture John the Disciple to be."
No sooner had the thought crossed my mind than he stopped in mid-sentence. Turning toward his right, his eyes seemed to seek something in the crowd. Suddenly his eyes locked on mine. The hair on the back of my neck stood at attention and my body quivered with a wave of chills. He held my gaze for a moment, then a brief but certain smile spread over his lips as he winked and nodded his head at me.
At least that's the way I remember it now. I was shocked at the time. Was he acknowledging my thought? That would be silly. Even if he were John, he wouldn't be a mind reader. What am I thinking? How could he even be a 2000-year-old disciple? It's just not possible.
As he turned away, I glanced behind me to see if anyone else could have been the target of his gaze. It didn't look that way, and no one around me even seemed to take notice of his wink and smile. I was stunned, like I'd just been hit in the head with an errant football. Electricity raked over my body as questions raced through my mind. I had to find out more about him.
The crowd was swelling in size and more and more people poking their heads in trying to figure out what was going on. Even the stranger seemed to grow increasingly uncomfortable with the spectacle the scene was quickly becoming.
"If I were you," he said sweeping his index finger across those who'd started the whole discussion "I would waste far less time ragging on religion and find out just how much he really loves you." With that he turned and made his way through the crowd in the opposite direction from where I was standing. No one moved or said anything for just a moment, unsure just how to end the conversation and break up.
I tried to move through the crowd so that I could talk to this man personally. Could he really have been John? If not, who was he? How did he know the things he seemed to speak so confidently about Jesus?
It was difficult to navigate through the pack of people and keep my eye on John. I pushed my way through just in time to see him turn down a gap between two buildings. He was headed up Bubble Gum Alley, a forty-yard stretch of brick wall that joined the shopping district with a parking lot behind. It had gotten its name from the thousands of chewed up wads of gum that had been affixed to the wall over the years. The array of colors made for an impressive if not somewhat grotesque sight.
He was only 15 feet in front of me when he went out of sight and I was relieved to know I'd at least get a chance to talk with him for no one else had pursued him. I rounded the corner prepared to call out for him to stop, but stopped instantly upon looking down the alley.
It was empty. My mouth agape, I turned back to the street confused. Had he really turned in here? I looked both directions up the sidewalk but didn't see any green sweatshirts like the one he was wearing. No, he did go in there. I was certain of it. But he could not have covered the forty yards in the three seconds it had taken me to get to the alley.
My heart began to race, fearful I would miss him. In a panic I finally ran down the alley past the brightly colored wads of gum. There was no doorway or nooks where he could have gone. At the end I burst into the parking lot scanning every direction at once. Nothing. A few people were getting out of their cars, but no sign of the stranger.
Confused I ran back up the alley and into the street, scanning quickly for any green sweatshirts all the time praying that I could find him again. I looked in nearby store windows and at passing cars, but to no avail. He was gone. I could have just kicked myself for not having followed him more closely.
I finally sat down on a bench a bit disoriented by the whole experience. I massaged my bowed forehead trying to pull together one cohesive thought. I could hardly finish a sentence in my mind before another thought would intrude. Who was that guy, and what happened to him? His words had touched the deepest hungers of my heart and remembering his wink at me still gave me the shivers.
I knew I'd never see him again and wrote off the whole morning as one of those inexplicable events in life that would never make any sense.
I couldn't have been more wrong.