I've been feeling "under the weather" for the past couple days. My sister thinks I may have the flu (she's a nurse, so she knows what’s up). I'm inclined to agree. My sickness has precluded me from completing virtually any work and I'm just now recounting events that transpired Tuesday – events that give an expression like "under the weather" whole new meanings.
I woke up early for the worship team meeting, as per usual. I walked past Joe’s spot which was regrettably empty. I haven’t seen him for about two months now. But on my way back around 9:30a, I saw a black jacket huddled in the freezing rain just steps away from where I usually run into Joe. Before it was a sign that read (with remarkably good penmanship):
I HAVE LOST MY WIFE, MY 5 YEAR OLD SON,
MY CAREER AND MY HOME. I AM BADLY IN NEED
OF YOUR HELP. I AM FREEZING COLD AND HUNGRY.
ANY HELP WILL BE GREATLY APPRECIATED.
9.5 WEEKS ON THE STREETS – LOSING HOPE.
I casually walked past but didn't get far before my conscience got the best of me.
I turned on my heel, pulled my notebook from my pack and wrote down his sign's message, all whilst standing in the rain. I wanted to help him but I didn't feel compelled to give money. What more could I offer?
"Hey there. I'm sorry I have nothing to give. But I want you to know that I've read your sign and I really care about your story. I don't know if you're a religious person..."
"I'm Roman Catholic."
"Would you mind if I prayed for you?"
He shook his head no.
I put my hand on his shoulder and began, "Father..."
Again I didn’t get far as I suddenly began weeping uncontrollably. I considered what God must think about all this – a man who’s lost everything, sitting in the freezing rain, begging for change. And as my heart strings sympathized with God’s, I couldn’t help but weep.
Once I was again composed, I finished the prayer and we made introductions. His name is Joe, the irony of which was not at all lost on me. We talked for a time longer as he told me more about his current life situation and how he got there. He gave me his name to look up on facebook and I handed him my business card, in case he ever needs someone to talk to. For the time being I left him standing in the rain.
Later in the day I was busking at the Columbus Circle train station. A commuter was standing nearby appreciating my music. I dove into a Flaming Lips tune, which begins with perhaps the most beautiful and profound lyric of all time:
“Do you realize that you have the most beautiful face?”
I was about halfway done with the song when I heard a voice from my left, “can you give me a dollar?”
My case was open with twelve or thirteen dollar bills, but I’ve learned that it’s a bad idea to give to someone when I’m there to make money myself. After all, what’s to stop her from asking for two dollars, or three, or all twelve?
I respectfully declined, “Sorry, but I can’t give you any money.”
“Can you give me a dollar?”
“No, I’m sorry.”
“Can you give me a dollar?”
“Umm. No? I’m sorry, I can’t.”
This went on for a time until she slightly changed her pitch: “If you give me a dollar, you’ll receive blessings!”
“Oh, is that how it works? Well then, if you give me a dollar, then you'll receive blessings!”
She wasn’t amused. A train pulled up and the commuter who’d been enjoying my music shouted at the beggar, that she’d ruined his musical experience. I appreciated the sentiment; but my new friend was still by my side.
“I’m not leaving until you give me a dollar.”
And she was persistent! She was at my side for at least another twenty minutes, insisting that I might as well give her a dollar, since nobody would give me money as long as she was standing there. Turns out she was right about that, but I refused to give in to intimidation – even as she became increasingly violent. She began insulting and cursing at me, flipping me off, threatening to kick over my guitar case.
I tried my best to love her back, recalling Jesus’ teaching, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:44)
I tried introducing myself to her. No dice.
I asked whether she liked the Beatles, “I’ll play you a song!”
I wasn’t sure what she meant by that, but it helped me to think of my next song to play, Let It Be.
“I’ll spit on you.”
“Why would you do that? I haven’t said or done anything mean to you. I’m just trying to make money here, this is what I do for a living and you are making it very difficult for me.”
Perhaps she felt compassion on me as she spit on the subway platform instead; but then changed her mind and spit on my guitar case as well.
“Give me a dollar.”
I’m not sure this woman understands how generosity works. At this point, the most generous thing I could do was to remain calm, to continue to love. I was determined not to be overcome by evil but to overcome evil with good, as Paul recommends in a letter to the Romans. (12:21) She was probably confounded, as she could only have expected one of two responses from me:
1) to finally fork over a dollar
2) to beat the living snot out of her
Since I wasn’t making any money and was feeling increasingly uncomfortable, I told her I would just play one more song and go home. I probably would have gone to a different station instead. But as I sang the song, a beautiful lament by Against Me!, she continued to shout and jeer over my music until she finally gave up and left. She came back after the song just to spit on my case again – she really made this one count – and then she was gone.
I wouldn’t have to leave after all.
I played for a couple hours longer and left feeling a bit dejected. I hoped that I’d at least pleased my Father in Heaven, that I’d behaved in love, goodness, and righteousness. But as Jesus follows up the aforementioned exhortation, “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
I guess we’re all under the weather in some form or another.