If you are heartsick at all the hatred and strife going on in our country right now, I have an encouraging story for you.
My wife and I recently returned from a beach vacation. It will come as no surprise to those who understand ministry life that I do my best not to look pastoral on these trips. I wear shorts, sandals, and sunglasses everywhere, along with a big hat. I don’t shave. I keep to myself and do things that recharge my emotional batteries. And except for sending a few photos to my immediate family, I also disconnect from email, news, and social media.
Even so, it was hard to miss the headlines about police brutality, racial strife, and riots. Tybee Island, Georgia, where we stayed, is just outside Savannah. We couldn’t help but wonder how that old southern town would be affected. Would there be sullen looks and incivility between the races? But when we stopped at a visitor center staffed entirely by African Americans, we were greeted with smiles and great courtesy.
The same was true on the beach, where the racial mix is relatively even. Every African American individual or family we encountered, in fact, everyone black or white, seemed to make it a point to make eye contact, smile, and engage in polite conversation.
Then one morning, I got up at 5:30 and walked out to the beach to enjoy the sunrise and take some pictures. I found my spot and just stood there facing east, letting my inner thoughts bob like a kite in a capful of wind.
Several people were out by then, jogging, strolling, and some just standing like me, waiting to meet the sun. Then along came a smallish barefoot man maybe thirty-five years old, round John Lennon glasses, long black hair in a double segmented ponytail down his back, scruffy beard, grey shorts, loose-fitting beige short-sleeve shirt. He walked with a quick, nervous gait, a slender stick like a cane in his right hand, and made a beeline toward me up the sand berm. As I kept my eye on his cane, I thought, six o’clock in the morning, and I’m about to be hit up by a homeless guy.
“Excuse me,” he said, “but are you a pastor?”
You could have knocked me over with a feather. “What did you say?”
“Are you a pastor?”
Only two beings could have told him that. I wonder which one it was, I thought.
“Well, so am I. Latter-Day Saints, you know, but it’s all the same. Are you the pastor of…” He named some church nearby that I missed.
It was about that time that I noticed the ten-inch lizard—perched would be the wrong word, more like molded—onto his left shoulder. I guess I hadn’t seen it before because it was facing backward and blended perfectly with his shirt, tail hanging down another eight inches or so across his chest, utterly still.
“What’s your name?” I asked, thinking, this guy is right out of Lewis’s The Great Divorce. I wonder if it talks to him?
“And who’s your friend?”
“Oh.” I considered taking his picture but felt it would be impolite.
“Well,” he said, “don’t let the (garbled in the wind) get to you. It’s the new millennium, you know!” And off he went into the morning gloom, Melinda staring over his shoulder, never having moved a muscle.
I’ve been reflecting on that encounter ever since. It occurred to me that everyone we met on that trip, black, white, Asian, Latino, and even a guy with a lizard on his shoulder who I thought was going to ask me for money, acted with an extra measure of courtesy and civility toward one another. It was refreshing.
So, when the world is full of hatred and strife, and you feel helpless about it, remember, we cannot solve the world’s problems. But we can love the neighbor that is right in front of us—even the ones with pet lizards on their shoulders.