Some people like hanging out here… they’re comfortable and they see friends. I’m not and I don’t. Don’t get me wrong, I love to see the smiling faces, the handshakes that linger as only handshakes of old friends do. I love to see people content to just sit near each other and not talk, or talk just to repeat, “Uhhh huu,” to each other over and again. Countless wrinkles around countless eyes, wrinkles from a hard life now turned up with a smile of friendship. I see it all, and that’s part of the problem. I see it all.
I don’t just see what’s happening, I see what could happen…. always, the man walking in with a cane who puts no weight on it… a potential weapon that might fool the minimal security here at the VA hospital but not me. That man with the cane can move just fine and has a dangerous grace about his posture. With my back to the wall I can see everyone coming in through the automatic glass doors, young, old, happy, angry, male… female… some on walkers, some in chairs. We’ve all been a little chewed up by the military (ours or someone else’s) and some of us bear the scars (outside or inside) a little better than others.
I think I’m somewhere between totally broken down and doing just fine. Maybe it depends on the day? This day I had to come and wait to get some bloodwork done and talk to a physical therapist about some exercises I can do for the physical brokenness. For the spiritual breaks I seek other help. The VA does try, the first thing you hear when you call them up is a kind voice asking if you are thinking of hurting yourself and who to call if you are, operators are standing by….
Spiritually I turn to God, I just recently met him, met him and His Son. Funny thing is I always knew they were there, but didn’t know them until I was introduced a few months ago. That was one of the most painful and most joyful moments of my life, death and rebirth I guess will do that to you. At any rate God’s got my spirit, even if I have to spend some nights on my knees clutching my cross tightly to my chest. So tight that blood drips down to the carpet as I pray, the points piercing my palms as I try to forget the stigma of my ways. I pray that God would take over, because I know the mess I make when I’m in control.
Draped in the armor of His love, that’s how I leave my place, a cross around my neck cross on my hand on a silver ring that once was lost but now was found. Scripture on a steel ring and on a leather band around my wrist. Simple shiny cross around my neck on a plain black leather cord. I wear it all on the outside, with pride, with humility to offer myself as a sacrifice to God’s grace.
Today the crosses would cause some trouble. Like I said before I see everything, the young woman pushing her dad’s chair, his shoulders slumped in defeat, eyes weary and sad to be a burden, young woman’s eyes determined but sad to see her dad depleted. I see the guy pacing, back and forth, he’s about 55, 5’10”, and even through his heavy cotton duck coat he looked to be a lean 180. I see him pace back and forth, casting glances at me out of the corner of his eye, looking away when I meet his gaze. I see him sweating in his heavy jacket. A big, heavy, concealing, jacket worn on a 95 degree Texas day.
One of his furtive glances sticks and eye contact is made, his aimless wandering turns to a determined walk right in my direction. His eyes never left mine and he approaches my seat against the wall. With a stiff back and a little rasp in his voice words erupt from his mouth, “I see you wear all those crosses, I’m gonna ask you something.”
His body stiff and his actions jerky, his body language was influencing me, I felt myself getting angry with this man I didn’t even know, I take a calming breath before responding, “Ask away my friend.” I force a smile and try to make it real, I ease my posture and unclench my fists to make my body tell my mind there is no threat.
The man sits down to my left, his jacket is unzipped but he’s using his right hand to keep it closed over his red t-shirt, “Do you call yourself a Christian?”
The question startles me to a moment of silence, “Um… yes, but it’s really new to me.”
“What does that mean?” he barks as he leans closer to me, his posture reminding me of a coiled spring.
I pause for another breath and gather my response, “Well to be honest I got tired of being who I was and finally asked God to help me…”
“God or Jesus,” he interrupts me with a shine in his eyes, a little foam of saliva gathers at the corners of his mouth, “do you claim to follow Jesus?”
I try to stay relaxed but my body is on high alert, I don’t know exactly how to answer him. “I’m Bob. what’s your name brother?”
It was almost as if I slapped him to ask, “I’m Ryan” he says quickly going back to his earlier track, “Do you follow Jesus.”
I’m given a brief moment to think as the intercom announces, “now serving number of 49”… I know my ticket reads, “67,” but I see Ryan glance at his, I hope I might get out of this uncomfortable conversation. No luck, his wrinkled ticket reads, “70.”
“Like I said Ryan I’m really new, I hope I’m following Jesus.”
“How do you know, what books do you study?”
“I have this app on my phone, a Bible app, it gives me lessons and chapters to read. I just started one called “The bible in one year. Where I..”
“Old testament or new testament!” again he can’t wait for me to finish, it was more a rushed accusation than a question.
I barely have time to tell him that it’s a little of both before he’s back at it voice rasping with the quiet anger of one who doesn’t want to be overheard, “You’re in the new testament, you follow Paul, you’re not a Christian, you’re a Paulean!” as quiet as he started he hits “Paulean” with a crescendo of triumph and as he finished his left hand pounded the table next to him.
I jump a little and I can feel the monster inside, pulling for control, for a chance to be let off the chain. In Inhale….pause…. exhale. I feel the energy drain from my body with by breathing. “What does it mean to be Paulean brother? I haven’t heard of it before.”
“Do you know the Tanakh? The Mosaic Law? Are women allowed to preach in your church?”
He’s erratic but I feel like he’s knowledgeable, I think I know at least that he’s probably trying to catch me in something Paul said about women teaching in Corinthians… my curiosity somehow calms me though, “No I don’t know what that is. Women give lessons in my church though.”
His left hand shoots up extending his index finger like a “#1” and his eyes are wide in triumph, “Exactly what I thought, you don’t follow the law! You think you don’t have to follow the law because of Jesus, but you still have to live by the old testament.”
I know that right now no matter what I answer with he will use against me. A part of me just wants to pacify him and go along so that he’ll leave me alone and I can calm down. The other side of my monster just hates the conflict and will do anything to avoid it. But I really believe that God is moving things for me to learn tough lessons, and this is probably one. I feel like I am supposed to have this conversation. I decide I might deflect some of his anger with questions, “Where do you go to church? Are you in a Bible study?”
With a brief shake of his head he addresses the question, “I don’t need that. I study on my own.”
“Well I thought that in order to interpret God’s will from scripture we had to read together with other people so we could interpret…”
Again his left hand shot up, “Interpret?!?! You can’t interpret God’s word, it is as it’s written!”
The loudspeaker stops his verbal assault, “67 please come to the window.” Relieved to be out of the conversation I excuse myself. I get to the window and the nice lady just needs to verify my name and DOB. No relief.
I stand there a moment… as I decide what to do my mind goes back to the dark day I realized I how badly I needed God. I was looking into beautiful blue eyes tearing up as she realized I had another side, a hidden dark side. I was hit in the face with the fact that I was living two lives, one a hero and one a monster… I had decided that I would never cause harm again and that God was my only hope. As soon as these thoughts pop in my head the idea that there is a lesson here moves my feet back to the chair next to him.
I know I have to go finish my conversation.
He’s craning his neck looking to see if I’ll come back as I walk around the chairs to my previous seat. I expected to see him relax when I sat back down on his right…
His face flashes read, even his ears, “I’m gonna show you!” His eyes glossy and wide look down into the left inside of his coat, his right hand reaches across slips inside….
My body is electric, with chills on my skin every option goes through my mind.
The minute I see the cold blue steel emerge from his jacket I reach with my right hand to his elbow, pushing it to extension so that his hand can’t draw the gun. I quickly step over his body to put my full weight on his elbow trapping the arm against his body, his exclamation is cut short as the claw of my left hand closes around his throat. His left arm is restricted against the arm of his chair but I still feel it clawing at my shoulder. I press hard against his trachea and just wait for his eyes to flutter and glaze.
That’s what I would have done had I seen a gun, that and three other scenarios played out in my head before I see nothing more dangerous than a pamphlet come out of his coat pocket. He unfolds the pamphlet as I try to remove the image of his body squirming while light fades from his eyes.
For one who came so close to death his voice is very animated now. He looks at his pamphlet and points a weathered finger accusingly into the page, “See, Jesus never said we are free from the law, it was Paul, you say you follow Jesus, but you don’t really study the books, the first books of the old testament….”
I almost can’t hear what he is saying, I feel nauseous as my brain tries to recover from my imagined fears. Now my face is red and the back of my neck is hot and sweaty.
Ryan looks at me, “Hey, are you listening?”
“Yea, I’m trying to understand you. Like I said I’m so new to scripture…”
Looking back at his paper Ryan begins again, “It’s all so simple, we aren’t free from the law,” he opens his left hand and smacks the page with the back of it. “It’s all here, you can’t keep on sinning.”
“Ryan brother, that’s the whole reason I’m trying to follow Jesus, I’m tired, I’m tired of doing these things that feel like it’s another person controlling me. I’m tired of lying to cover up the things that other person does. I’m tired of being angry, I’m tired of hating myself… I don’t have any answers but I sure hope and pray for a God who gives grace more than vengeance…”
Ryan looks at me again…. I’m embarrassed as I realize he’s watching the tears well up and roll down my cheeks. His body looks like a balloon loosing air as his shoulders slump and he leans forward. His face now relaxes, “Bob? Your name’s Bob right? Hey, God’s got you, I just want you to be careful…” He jumps a little as the speaker screeches, “Number 70, please to the window…”
Tucking his paper back into his inside coat pocket he gets up and walks to the window just as an orderly comes to take me to talk to the physical therapist. Ryan looks back at me as I start to follow the orderly, he looks back and gives a small smile.
O.k. so all that actually happened, no kidding. Of course the guy’s name wasn’t really Ryan but the conversation and where my hyper active brain went when he reached his hand into his coat were real. There was something just a little off with him, really, but God still used him to get something out of me and a lesson into me.
I often look back and feel like I was another person when I did those horrible things in my past. So much of what I did goes against so much of who I really am.
I don’t understand my own capacity to cause harm… when I’m really spiraling I remember what ‘Ryan’ told me… “Hey God’s got you…”
Sometimes I feel like a man broken in two, sometimes I feel like I’ve been two different people, but both still broken. But I work on trusting God to fill in those broken places.
The LORD is near to the brokenhearted And saves those who are crushed in spirit.