By Shelley Powers
The lunchtime air was soft and inviting. Late summer in central Mississippi is usually miserably hot; but, the afternoon temperature that day earlier this year hovered in the mid-70s. Perfect for getting out of the office at lunch to walk through downtown Jackson and pick up something to eat.
I didn’t notice him when I first entered Smith Park; I was too busy watching the water slosh and gurgle as it funneled through the park’s impressive concrete canal water feature. But, as I neared the park center, I saw him, an older man with long, scruffy gray hair. He was shuffling across the walkway, hunched over and burdened with a tremor that was noticeable from more than 20 yards away.
I slowed my pace. I’m ashamed to admit this now, but I was a bit fearful of him. As I neared, though, fear shifted to pity.
He stood about 5′ 10″ and appeared to be around 60 years old, but I honestly couldn’t really guess his age. He was covered in filth and was so rail thin I could see his collar bones through his baggy t-shirt. He was missing all of his front teeth, and, from the hollow of his cheeks, a fair share of his back teeth were probably gone, too.
By the time I passed him, he had moved from the path, but I couldn’t stop myself from glancing at him when I walked by; his frailness made me wonder if the bottoms of his bony bare feet hurt when he took a step.
I hadn’t even made it to the edge of the small park when I had made up my mind to buy him lunch. I would pick it up with mine and bring it to him on my way back to the office.
I picked up my pace, excited by the idea.
A block later I was at Chick-fil-A. I jumped in line and began to study the menu. Fries? No; the grease might make him sick. Grilled chicken sandwich? No; without teeth, that would seem like a cruel joke. Definitely not a sugary coke. He needed water. So, I opted for a chicken salad sandwich, a fruit cup, and a bottle of water for him and then ordered my usual combo meal for myself.
I couldn’t wait to get back to the park. Afraid he would have moved on to another spot downtown, I quickened my step.
Then, I had another idea. Why don’t you eat with him, Shelley?!
Brilliant! (I mentally patted myself on the back.) He would probably welcome the opportunity to converse with someone at lunch or sit down and just share a meal with another person.
I was practically trotting now as I carried the bags of food and two drinks.
As soon as I hit the park, I began scanning for him. I looked all around and started to panic when I didn’t see him right away. I didn’t want him to miss out on my brilliant plan!
Then I spotted him. He had taken off his shirt and was sitting cross-legged on the stage of the park’s bandstand with his head hung down.
I slowly walked onto the stage and toward him. Without his shirt, I could see each of his protruding ribs; they seemed to be clutching his back and sides in a death grip. Although I was just a few steps away, he was completely unaware of me. He was shaking his head and muttering gibberish to himself. He was obviously not in his right mind.
All of a sudden I realized how incredibly naïve I had been. I wouldn’t be able to talk with him while we ate lunch. When I called to him, “Sir?”, he wasn’t even able to make eye contact with me. He was so lost.
“Sir, I got you some lunch,” I said, as I neared him and squatted down to set the bag and the water in front of him.
He looked toward me and past me at the same time then slowly brought a trembling hand up to his mouth, his pointer and index fingers making a crooked V over his dry, pale lips. It took me a moment to register what he wanted.
“I don’t have any cigarettes. Sorry.”
He looked down as if he was dejected. He wasn’t interested in the food or the water, so I knew I wouldn’t even be able to eat with him either.
Not knowing what else to say or do, I walked back to the office, myself dejected.
I’ve thought about this man several times since that late summer day. I’ve even seen him periodically and was just approached by him last week for a light. (I didn’t have one.)
I’ve wondered what it all meant—giving him food and having him only want a cigarette. I’ve paralleled it with how God provides us all with what we need when we, ourselves, don’t know what we need. I’ve thought about how I wish I had had the courage to talk to him longer or would have known how I could’ve handled the situation better. I’ve wondered if he even ate the sandwich. I’ve also been frustrated and felt completely unsatisfied that I did something for him and he wanted something else.
But today I had a realization; I had managed to take an act of what should have been selflessness and made it completely and utterly about me. (I tend to do that.)
Ultimately, giving shouldn’t be about the giver. And, if I gave more, I bet my expectations wouldn’t be so high.
That man owes me nothing. I should give to him and others (anyone…everyone) because to give is to be more like Christ. To give is to let go of our selfish side. To give is to grow. To give is to learn that the further you stretch to offer help, the more you realize how great the need is and, in turn, how little your needs truly are. To give is to become more thankful, not only for what you have, but for what you can give others.
So, as I sit down at my Thanksgiving table this Thursday with my family and eat until my belly is too full, I will give thanks that I am able to give to others. And I will show that thankfulness by continuing to give, be it by tithe or a chicken salad sandwich.
And mostly I’ll give thanks that God is showing me on a daily basis that the world absolutely does not revolve around me, but around Him.
I wish you all the happiest of Thanksgivings.