January 20, 2016: The Homeless Man’s Sign

~by Louis Templeman


His disheveled hair crowned his head like a fright wig or like pine needles carelessly raked in the wind. I could see his eyes, pools of fear and frustration. His clothes needed to be tossed into a burn barrel. He stood apart from the other bus riders who hung closer together near the Plexiglas shelter on the corner. He was watching the passing cars. I doubted he was waiting for a bus. His dress easily categorized him as someone with no place to go and someone who would have to look far and wide to find welcome.

It was hard for me not to look at him. I felt like a rubbernecker at a wreck on the highway. I also felt ashamed at my thoughts towards him. In my life I have been a pastor, a social worker, a volunteer prison minister and spent many years as an active member in an inner city mission. I have seen and interacted with many men and women who were draped in raggedy clothes; who peered through vacant eyes that pooled in hunger and who were quick to beg for food, beer, cash or attention. I have never been able to help anyone in that condition make positive life style changes. Acts of kindness would only put me in the register of those who were an easy touch. Nevertheless, I believe kindness and generosity should mark the steps of a person of faith.

I only had a twenty dollar bill on me and that would have to do me until my retirement check showed up in my credit union account in a few days. I was mystified at my reaction to his presence. I would avoid his eyes but still look at him if possible. Seems silly now to recall the anxiety I felt.

I noticed his cardboard sign was extended at arm’s length, as if to indicate that his message was important. He aimed his gaze at each passing car and held the sign perpendicular to the front seats. He had a message. So, I decided to sneak a peek at it as I passed him. The light was green so I was able to cruise past without stopping beside him. As I passed I looked at his sign.

It stood out in bold relief, as if the man that held the sign faded away and became a post. The sign was fresh and not soiled at all. The sun was reflecting of its shiny surface. One quick look and I turned toward the on-ramp to I 95. As I sped up to the flow of traffic and eased in to the northbound stretch of highway I could not get his sign out of my head. It was completely blank. Empty of words, but profound in meaning.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. Romans 8: 26.

I do not know what the homeless man was saying. I don’t know that he had adequate insight to figure it out. For all I know he may have been holding the sign backwards. I do know the message his powerful display had for me. In my frailty, my wrong doing, my penchant for selfishness and immorality I often find my prayer time in a similar state. I stand before God in helplessness knowing that only his mercy can recommend me to him. Spiritually I am a ragamuffin; poor hygiene, disheveled, dressed in dirty clothes. I cannot think of anyway to impress him. I do not know how to call his attention away from more important people and truly beautiful lives to give me the time of day. I stand before him with my sign without words, with hungry eyes and my fear of failing and coming up short.

I find the words of the Roman Centurion in Luke 7: 6, 7 particularly close to my heart, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.” And, also those of the tax collector in Luke 18: 13, “. . . the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God have mercy on me, a sinner.’” Without the mercy I find in Jesus I am in much, much worse shape than my homeless man with his sign. It was good for me to encounter this strange experience. I am convinced that at those times when my prayers are as wordless sighs that the Spirit is there. I am not alone. He will supply the words.

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Louis writes from Jacksonville, Florida where he lives with his old friend and wonderful bride, Joy. They transformed their friendship into the sacrament of marriage on August 30, 2012. They share their home with two self-absorbed, playful, twin cats (Flo and Jet) and one very allusive and arrogant cat named D. Louis has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and is fighting the good fight. Much of what he writes these days he is sharing his journey with us. Please keep Louis and his wife Joy in your prayers.

CLICK HERE to visit Louis’ Catholic Journeyman Archive

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