Today I visited with Larry.
I used to spend a lot of time at Panera Bread, a local place where they have free wireless internet, cheap iced tea, and complimentary bread to munch on. Last summer I was hanging out there on the computer in order to get some writing done for a book I had just started. As I went up to get a refill I just happened to be there around the same time the gal behind the counter was doing her normal schtick to a customer.
"Hi and welcome to Panera! How are you today."
"Terrible," came the reply.
Huh? That's not how people in our society are supposed to respond to that question. I looked over and there was this guy standing by front counter - perhaps in his late 50's - who looked worn down not only by life but by whatever he was going through that day. His hands shook, his gaze seemed elsewhere, and his body seemed a bit slumped over.
The gal didn't seem to know how to respond, so she went with, "Oh... um, I'm sorry. Do you want to order something?" And then the guy did.
I moved on to get my refill and thought, "Huh, that was weird." Then as I sat down by the computer, I had this sense that it was like really weird. Like, so weird that it made me uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that I didn't feel I could stay seated. So much that I didn't feel like I could stay seated that I found myself standing up and feeling a bit anxious. So anxious that I started to walk over to where this guy was sitting in the faith that maybe this was God working in me. So much acting in faith that I had no idea what I was about to say but that I was about to say something.
Ever have one of those moments?
"Um... hi." I stood by the table and the guy looked up. "I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but I overheard the conversation at the register and wondered about what might be making today a hard day for you. I know I'm a complete stranger, but maybe talking to a stranger might just be the perfect thing to do right now. My name is Tony."
"Oh, hi." He didn't give me his name. Don't you hate it when people do this? Again... that's not the way it's supposed to work in our society. Get with the program, man.
"Can I sit down?" I asked.
"Uh, yeah..." he said, adding, "Actually, um... I'm fine. Well, it's just, um... in this past week I've gone through the deaths of two different lives I really care about... one of them happened today."
"Wow... I'm so sorry."
"Yeah, well... that's just life. So who are you and what do you do?"
Dang it. The identity question. Do I let him know that I'm a pastor? If I do then whatever baggage he has about Christianity will begin to filter this conversation. I'd rather just minister as "Tony" and not as "the honorable Reverend Pastor Tony, former church rock star for Jesus."
Then again, I wasn't pastoring at the time. So technically I didn't have to say anything about that, did I? In fact, I was at Panera to work on a book. Maybe I could sidestep this one.
"Well, like I said my name is Tony. I'm actually working on a book and I came here to do some typing."
"Hmm... what kind of book? Who's it for?" he wondered.
Nuggets. I was busted.
"Well, It's a book for those who work in churches and it will deal with the relationships staff members have with one another."
He smiled. "Ah, so you're a minister, huh?"
Check, but not checkmate. This was when I scrapped the defense and went for the offense. "Well, that's one part of who I am. But what I do isn't who I am... it's actually the other way around. In any event, that's a sliver of me. How about you? Could I ask your name?"
"Larry... and yeah, I'm okay. I mean, I appreciate you coming over and all, but I'll be okay. Maybe I shouldn't have said anything."
"Well, I'm the intrusive stranger. I just wanted you to know that someone cared about what you were going through today. Maybe I'm just a reminder that God cares about your concern, too. I don't know where you're at with that, but I just wanted to check on you and let you know that a stranger is praying for you today."
We ended up chatting a bit more, and things ended on a positive note. He even asked to someday see something I'd eventually write (if I ever did write anything). And that was that. I went back over to my little booth and was able to sit down with a feeling of comfort... I'd taken a risk and planted a seed.
Anyway, that was all last summer. I saw Larry occasionally here and there at Panera, but never in the timing or moment that I felt led to reconnect.
Today I ended up at Panera again... it's been a while (mainly because I always feel like I should buy something instead of stealing free internet and haven't had a lot of spare change to do so). I needed a quiet place to work, had a hankering for some tea, and had the cash in my pocket to get some.
I walked in and Larry was sitting at one of the first tables.
"Did he see me? Did he recognize me?" I wondered. I'd gotten so out of the habit of talking to him that I wondered if it was even worth the time to check in. Since things were so weird last time, maybe he'd be embarassed about it if I did. "Yeah," I concluded, "it was just be too weird, so I think I'll just go sit down and mind my own business."
Then as I sat down by the computer, I had this sense that it was like really weird. Like, so weird that it made me uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that I didn't feel I could stay seated. So much that I didn't feel like I could stay seated that I found myself standing up and feeling a bit anxious. So anxious that I started to walk over to where this guy was sitting in the faith that maybe this was God working in me. So much acting in faith that I had no idea what I was about to say but that I was about to say something.
And so today I visited with Larry.
(pt 2 coming soon)