Tony Woodlief | Author


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.

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