I don’t really remember who taught me to not judge a book by it’s cover, but I do know it’s a hard lesson I’ve had to learn over and over again. The easy thing to do is to jump to conclusions. You size a person up with one piece of information and conclude that you have him figured out.
The old preacher used to say of the church gossip, “She’s got bunions on her feet thick as leather from jumping to conclusions.” Same goes for the men.
I’m sitting at a table in the fellowship hall for the Wednesday night meal. This is small church America. The mid-week service. Food is served and the hall echoes with the chatter of thirty people who haven’t seen each other in three days. I’m making goofy faces at my infant granddaughter who sits in the highchair across the table. My buddy, Shawn and I are talking astronomy.
In mid-chew, Rick comes up behind the two of us. He puts a hand on each of our shoulders and leans in close enough to speak in a quiet voice. By his demeanor I can tell that something is up.
Rick is rarely this serious at a Wednesday night meal. “Hey fellas, we’ve got a visitor who just walked in that I want you to meet.”
Already, I’m sizing up the situation. The typical church visitor normally walks right into a room full of strangers who all look up from their tables. There is an awkward pause followed by an onslaught of fundamentally conservative smiles and handshakes. We are like ducks on breadcrumbs and usually scare the bejeezus out of them, as if they weren’t already nervous enough to walk through the door.
A hushed call to step out and meet with one guy usually means something altogether different. I’m reading the book cover.
The last time this happened, we sat with a guy from up north who was trying to make his way with his family to Florida. He got laid off from the plant where he’d been for 10 years and had fallen on hard times. His brother had a job waiting on him down in Weekiwatchee. The wife and kids were sitting out in the parking lot in a car that looked like it had been through two world wars.
“We haven’t eaten since yesterday morning,” he says. You can smell the liquor either on his clothes or on his breath. Hard to tell. “All I need is a few bucks so we can buy some food and gas. I’m just trying to take care of my family.”
It’s a real heartbreak of a story that I’ve heard many times through the years. You give them money and wish them well. When they pull out, you notice that there’s an Alabama plate on the car, and you wonder what’s really going on. “Godspeed,” you say as you watch them head down the road in a cloud of blue smoke.
We step into the hallway just outside the fellowship hall. Vincent is sitting in a chair with his back to us. Head down. He’s a clean-cut gentleman. His clothes are neat. No scraggly beard. It looks and smells like he showers regularly. A pair of crutches lean against his chair. His right leg is missing above the knee.
We make a few pleasant introductions, and he begins the conversation.
“I know I don’t belong here, but I just needed somebody to talk to.”
I’m still trying to read the book cover on this one. Where is this going? I’m thinking about the food on my plate.
Vincent talks to us about the break-up he just had with his wife of 18 years. “I love that woman like nothing else in this world. I’d do anything for her. But she’s been seeing another man. She says there’s nothing going on. ‘We’re just talking,’ she says. But ain’t no man talking to another man’s wife with but one thing on his mind, if you know what I’m saying.”
We do. We’ve gotten beyond the book cover and on to the first chapter.
His eyes are floating in water as he pours out his story. He’s been staying with his brother just up the road a piece the last week. He’s seen our little church building and tonight when he saw the cars in the parking lot, he made the bold and frightful decision to turn in and come inside.
“I’ve been drinking,” he confessed.
We could tell.
“I don’t want to solve my problems with a bottle. The Lord gave me better sense than that. My brother’s been good to me, but he don’t want to listen to my problems. I didn’t know what else to do but to come in here and talk to you fellas.”
In this moment, I am embarrassed and humbled to know how out of touch I am with the hurting and broken souls of this world. My life has been fairly smooth sailing for the last 65 years. I’ve hit a few bumps along the way. I’ve had my losses, but so have countless others. I have no experience with the kind of comfort needed for the things that trouble Vincent.
“What made you decide to come here tonight?” I asked him.
This was my fumbling way of trying to get down to the point of this conversation. Trying to figure out what it was that he wanted us to do for him. The book cover tells me that there might still be a request for money at the heart of the matter.
“I’ll tell you,” he said. “I don’t know how to explain it, but I just felt God tugging on me. There’s some folks in there who will pray with you, He said. I didn’t know what else to do but to walk through that door.”
We talked about trials and hardships. We talked about how hard it is to wait for God to move in our lives when it seems like everything is moving in the wrong direction.
Vincent held his face in his hands as he listened. He talked of betrayal with the sting of an inconsolable pain in his voice. “I would never do that to her,” he said. “She’s got cancer and I’ve got the money to get her what she needs, but she won’t let me. She says she don’t love me anymore. Can you believe that? It just hurts.”
We are way beyond the book cover and the first chapter by now. Forgive me for all the wrong assumptions and the impatient thoughts about my food getting cold.
The four of us held hands in prayer for a few moments. Rick spoke the words. Whatever inadequacies we hold in our own lives are overshadowed by the unseen strength of Another in our presence.
When the words ended, we stood together. Vincent held up by his crutches and the tight wrinkles in his face less visible than when he came in.
“You fellas don’t know how much I appreciate this.”
No Vincent. You don’t know how much we appreciate you.