I had just pulled the big, white Suburban, full of kids, into the driveway. It had been the second day of Vacation Bible School and I had volunteered. The baby had fallen asleep immediately, even before we had pulled out of the church parking lot and I intended to keep her asleep and transfer her into her bed as soon as we got home. I opened the rear passenger door to get her out, unbuckling the seat belt as gently and quietly as I could. I lifted her up and turned around and almost bumped into my neighbor, Richard. He had come over and was standing right outside the door of the SUV, waiting to talk to me. It was a little past noon and already I could smell the alcohol on him.
“Just give me one minute,” I pleaded, hoping the interruption would not wake the sleeping child in my arms.
“How many kids do you have now?” he remarked as I frantically grabbed at my keys and opened my front door and swept upstairs to put her down to sleep, wondering all the while what in the world Richard had come to talk to me about and if I could accomplish my task of keeping the baby asleep and then gather my boys and their best friend, whom I had left unprotected in the car.
I came downstairs as the boys wrestled and laughed their way inside. I noticed my purse and the diaper bag inside the house and Richard just outside my door.
“I brought your stuff inside,” he said to me, motioning to the bags on the floor.
I panicked, but recovered quickly and apologized for leaving him as I explained the importance of making sure the baby stay asleep. As I talked, I walked outside and closed the door behind me. The midday sun beat down upon us and the windless humidity and smell of his intoxication hung heavy about us.
Richard began by telling me that his daughter (with whom he lived in the house across the street) was moving to a different house and that he needed to get rid of some of his things and he had a wood lathe that he wanted Jason to have. He said he couldn’t sell it, but needed to get rid of it, or else it would be thrown away.
I told him I would talk to Jason about it, but that we did not have a truck to move it and that we were trying to get rid of some of our things in order to simplify our lives. Then I asked him where he was going.
And his answer has broken my heart.
“To a shelter,” Richard said, worn eyes looking down. “My kids are done with me and this is the end of their help.”
I stood there silent. There were all of these churchy answers floating around my brain, wanting to come out like, ‘Just trust in Jesus,’ or ‘God will heal you, just ask him.’ But I couldn’t say any of that. Maybe he didn’t want to get well. Or maybe he had already asked for healing and healing hadn’t come. And I don’t have answers for an alcoholic.
I said all I could think to say. “I’m so sorry, Richard.”
After telling him I would talk to Jason, he squared his shoulders and walked as dignified as a broken man could walk back to his daughter’s house.
I wish I could tell you a happy ending to this story. But my fear got in the way of my love. A couple days later I noticed a pickup truck in their driveway and the hustle and bustle of packing and loading. When we came home from VBS that afternoon I could see Richard sitting in his garage, amid cardboard boxes and a mattress leaning against the wall. I deliberately parked the car, got all the kids out on the opposite side of the driveway, so Richard could not see us and I ushered the kids inside the house quickly. I even scolded Thaddaeus for hanging back on our front porch, looking for a toad he had trapped earlier that day.
I was afraid of Richard.
I was afraid to even wave at him and acknowledge his presence.
I was afraid of his brokenness and so I hid inside my house.
This morning I opened up the garage door to take a walk and I noticed that Richard’s car was gone. He had moved and my last chance to say goodbye had been wasted because of fear. I wept as I prayed and repented for my lack of love. And then I remembered something that had happened last year. I remembered my daughter, Addie, had written a bunch of notes that had said, “Jesus loves you,” and she and Jeremiah had run around the neighborhood ringing doorbells and leaving the notes, to the infuriation of some neighbors and to the blessing of others.
I remember one evening being outside with my husband as our boys rode bikes on the street with the neighbor kids. Richard had come out of his house and walked over to Jason and had told him, in a choking voice, just how much that note that Addie had left meant to him. Jason asked him, in the sincere and strong way that he has, how Richard was doing. Richard’s eyes had filled with tears and he said, “Not good.” But then he squared his shoulders and walked away back to his house.
Why am I afraid to love? I think it’s because I believe the lie that in order for God to love me, I must be perfect. When I see the vagabond and the addict and the homeless man, I start to believe that love is dependent upon the wise choices we make. They have not made wise choices and therefore are below me. Not worthy of my time or my attention or my money. Not worthy of my love.
But I forget that I am the ragamuffin. I am in desperate need of the love of God and He loves, oh He loves me, not based on anything good that I do or any good choices that I make!
As Brennan Manning, one of the men most humble and secure in his own brokenness and belovedness in the Father, has written:
Our trust in Jesus grows as we shift from making self-conscious efforts to be good to allowing ourselves to be loved as we are (not as we should be).
You see, my daughter had it right when she wrote the notes with the cheerful and uncomplicated message.
Jesus loves you.
When I allow myself to believe that this is true, it casts out my fear and empowers me to love others.