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A Miscellany 425
Word, man

by: Ray Charbonneau

Ray Charbonneau is the author of a number of books. That number is currently four. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor, Marathon & Beyond, and other publications. Ray has run more than thirty marathons and ultramarathons, including one and a half 100 mile races, without winning a single one. But there's always tomorrow. Find out more at www.y42k.com.

Ray previous wrote Meditation 891: Waterfall Evolution for this site.

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The Jesus Lady capered by the side of the road as I turned the corner into the strip mall parking lot.

The Jesus Lady was my name for the tiny, wrinkled Japanese woman in unremarkable grey clothes who was there almost every day when I stopped in on my way to work, dancing on her corner and holding a sign saying "Jesus Loves You".

As always, she smiled and waved and hopped from one foot to the other with her sign teetering cheerfully back and forth along with her in the sunshine. She might skip a day when the snowplows were out, but otherwise she was consistently there in front of the coffee shop and the convenience store, cheerfully sharing her message of love.

It was a straightforward message. No cutesy little hearts replacing the 'o' in loves, no bearded head circled in light. Just "Jesus" and "You" in dark blue and "Loves" in bright red in a large block font on a plain white background.

If I was a believer, the Jesus Lady's religion that I pictured was the sort that I imagined I'd want to believe in. No demands, no requirements, just happiness, dancing, and unconditional love.

But I wasn't a believer. I went to church when I had to while growing up, but it didn't take. If I ever thought about it, I dismissed God (under whatever name) as just an imaginary friend for adults.

So I enjoyed the show when I passed by the Jesus Lady each morning as I stopped in for coffee, but I never nodded or waved back to acknowledge any connection.

Today was Memorial Day, so instead of heading on to work, I went back home after I left the coffee shop. Some friends were coming over for a barbecue at noon and I still had a lot to do to get things ready.

I decided I'd start in the kitchen, so I went to the sink and turned on the hot water. I looked out the back window while I waited for the water to warm up. That was when I first saw Jesus.

It took a minute to figure out who it was, sitting at the picnic table in my backyard, munching happily on what looked like a meatloaf sandwich dripping with ketchup. At first I focused on the white hair, which was pulled back into a one-inch ponytail. Enough of the hair had worked loose to create a frizzy nimbus glowing around his head in the bright morning sun.

Then I took a closer look at the sandwich, and saw that the red wasn't ketchup, it was blood dripping from stigmata on his wrists.

Jesus? In my yard? The blood was convincing. I stood at the window in a daze, watching it drip. Luckily, it disappeared when it hit the surface of the table. Otherwise it would have been a pain to get the stains out once the blood soaked into the wood.

I struggled to wrap my brain around the apparition, but the only clear thought I had was that Jesus might be handy to have around. I still hadn't gone to the store to buy food for the barbeque. If Jesus were to replicate his loaves and fishes trick, that would be convenient.

I shrugged and opened the back door. Jesus heard me coming out. He finished chewing and swallowed before calmly turning his head to acknowledge my presence, nodding and saying, "Hello, my son."

"Um, hi?" I stared at him. The sun shone into his eyes, but he stared back at me without squinting. I fumbled for something to say. "I've always wondered. What wine goes best with meatloaf?"

"How should I know? I never really got into the whole 'wine snob' thing. Back in the day we drank a lot of wine because we didn't have a lot of fresh water. Well, that and for the buzz. When I turned water into wine, I wasn't worried about the vintage. I just wanted to keep the party going.

"If you're offering, I'll take whatever you've got. But water would be fine too. Or soda. You ever have that grapefruit Jarritos from Mexico? I really like that stuff. Sweet, but the grapefruit adds a nice bite."

I brought him a glass of water and sat down across the table from him. "You're… well… Jesus, right?"

"Got it in one, my man. By the way, thanks for not calling the cops. I can usually sort things out, but it's always easier when I don't have to."

"Not a problem," I told Jesus. "Not doing something is one of my strengths."

His lips twitched at that. "Self-awareness is good, man, but don't put yourself down. Too many people see evils and danger where there is none. Learning to see the good in everyone is hard, but it's much harder when your default starting place assumes bad motivations." A slightly stilted tone crept into his voice. "There are always bugs, but the programmer should not fear to release code, for nothing is hid that shall not be made manifest; nor anything secret, that shall not be known and come to light."

"Thanks, I guess," I said. "Some of that sounded sort of familiar."

"The times change, but the tune doesn't," said Jesus. "I just update the lyrics sometimes."

I was bemused by the idea that the Jesus was here, in my yard, sharing a version of the same lesson that he'd shared with his disciples as they traveled through Galilee. Sermonizing certainly came easily to him, but that was to be expected, I supposed. After a couple thousand years, preaching had to be something of a reflex.

"So not to minimize my importance or anything, but what are you, Jesus, doing hanging out at my picnic table?"

Jesus finished his sandwich, then licked his fingers and wiped them on his jeans before answering. "I've found that I accomplish at least as much wandering around at random, staying under the radar and meeting new friends one or two at a time, as I do when I try to build organizations. When you build temples, it's hard to keep the moneychangers out. Now I prefer to work in the background, around the edges.

"Also, by keeping a low profile, I've cut way back on the persecution. The resurrection you know about was only the first one. It took a few more painful lessons over the years, but at least I finally learned. Lately I've managed to keep it going long enough for my hair to turn white. And that turns out to be helpful, too. People feel less threatened by an old guy, and more receptive of his 'wisdom'."

"Keeping a low profile might be a problem if you're looking to hang out for a while," I said. "I've got people coming over for a party later."

"No worries," said Jesus. "I play these things by ear. If I'm still here, I won't try to convert your friends. That is, if you don't mind if I hang around. I wouldn't want to crash the party."

"Nah, stay if you want," I said. "Though the stigmata might be hard to explain."

Jesus looked down at the oozing wounds on his wrists. "These? They're useful for establishing bona fides, but I don't always have to flash them." As we watched, the stigmata slowly faded away.

Jesus seemed pretty mellow, so I figured it was worth a shot. "You know, I still haven't picked up any food for the party. Maybe you can help there. Want to conjure up a few loaves and fishes? Salmon goes good on the grill."

Jesus's face clouded over. "No!" he shouted, pounding a fist on the table and leaping to his feet. "Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do!"

I recoiled from the table, my heart pounding. Up until now, this scene was weird, but I'd been lulled into accepting it at face value. But Jesus? Really? Anyone who thinks they're Jesus has to be insane, right? And possibly dangerous. I had to be stupid to sit here with a crazy stranger.

Jesus held his stern look for another beat before he broke into a laugh and sat back down. "Gotcha, man!" he said. "You should have seen your face. Of course I'll help with the food. 'Ask and it will be given to you.' But do you really want loaves and fishes? How about burgers and buns? And I do a great potato salad."

I wasn't reassured. "I don't know. This is all getting a little too weird. Maybe you should just leave."

"I'm sorry, man," said Jesus. He leaned forward, and his expression shifted again, from playful to sincere. "I didn't mean to scare you, I just wanted to have a little fun. I know how I'm portrayed, always with the 'Thou shalt nots' and 'So I say to yous'. That stuff has its place, but no one can be that serious all the time, right? So please, relax. I may be unusual, but I'm not dangerous."

In spite of myself, I found myself calming down. Whoever the guy across the table was, he did have a certain charisma. I found I wanted to believe him. "Stay. It's cool, I guess. Just, it's a lot to absorb, you know, the 'Son of God' showing up in my yard. I mean, why here? Why me?"

"You know," Jesus replied slowly, "if I'm honest with myself, I don't really know for sure why I'm here either. 'Here' in your year, and just plain 'here'. I might be the 'Son of God', or maybe I'm just someone with voices in my head who can do some party tricks, and who can't die."

He looked down before continuing, almost to himself, "I have to have faith, too."

Then he looked up and his face brightened, saying, "I do know one thing - that if I have to be here, making things as pleasant as possible for everyone around me makes things better for me, too."

I was still absorbed with what this meant for me. "When I woke up, all I expected was a nice quiet morning where I could do some shopping before my friends came over. Now you're here. If I accept that you're, um… you, there's a lot that I'll have to change. For one thing, and this might sound trivial, but church every Sunday is really going to cut into the time I have for marathon training."

"Don't believe all you hear from the establishment, man," said Jesus. "How you spend Sunday mornings is your own business. I never wanted anyone to 'worship' me."

"So I won't go to Hell if I skip church?" I asked.

"Hell? You won't even go to Heck. After my first resurrection, once I realized I wasn't going to change the world in one swell foop, I did a fade. That left a vacuum, and the establishment took advantage and twisted my message to build a power structure they could control. Unfortunate. Some good has come from it over the years, but on balance, not so much.

"Actually, with the right attitude, running is a perfectly good way to wash away fear and anger and refocus on what's important. But so is a morning spent playing golf, or mowing the lawn, or working through a few hands of solitaire.

"Or, you know, a picnic with friends."

I'd almost forgotten that people were coming over. I looked at my watch, and when I saw it was past 11, I muttered "Jeez-," cutting myself off when I remembered who I was with.

People were supposed to start showing up at noon. If I was going to be ready in time, I'd have to hurry. Unless....

"Were you serious about helping with the food?" I asked.

"Sure," Jesus replied. "I can do pretty much anything edible. Will burgers and dogs do?"

"Can you throw in a couple of veggie burgers?"

"No problem," replied Jesus. "No glass or plastic, though, so you might be better off with store-bought drinks, condiments, and the like. Both for convenience's sake, and so you and your friends can relax and enjoy the party instead of having it revolve around the "magic-Jesus-food-dispenser". And I can work with paper, but I can't do coated plates, so you'll probably want some of those, too."

"OK," I said. "Then I'd better get going. Will you be alright waiting here?"

"Of course," he replied. "Grab me a couple platters before you go so I can start the food. And here." An apple cider donut appeared in his hand, and he passed it to me. "Never shop while you're hungry."

I took a bite from the donut while getting Jesus some plates from the kitchen. It was really good, like the ones my grandmother used to make on summer mornings. So I took the donut with me in the car as I drove back to the strip mall to pick up the rest of what I needed.

The Jesus Lady was still on the corner with her sign. I turned into the parking lot, ran into the convenience store, picked up what I needed, and carried the bags back out to the car.

As I was driving out, an impulse struck me. I stopped next to the Jesus Lady and rolled down my window. The Jesus Lady stopped waving her sign and walked over to my car.

"Hi there," I said. "Could I ask you something?"

"I've seen you driving by before, right?" she said. "Why did you stop today? Did you decide you wanted to learn about the Lord Jesus?"

"Well, about that," I said. "This might sound odd, but I'm having a barbecue at my house in a little while. It's not far away, just down the street. Would you like to come by and have something to eat?"

She paused, surprised by my question, and considered the idea. Then she smiled. I could almost hear the extra capital letters when she replied, "Thanks for asking. Offering food to strangers is doing the Lord's Work, but I don't need a meal, so I'll stay here and keep spreading the Word."

"About that," I said. "I know that this might be a little hard to believe – I'm still struggling with it myself - but Jesus is actually waiting for me back at my house. He's helping with the food. How would you like to meet him?"

She paused again. This time her eyes got wide and the smile turned flat. Then her face convulsed in rage and she swung the sign high over her head before repeatedly bringing the edge down on the roof of my car. "I'm <BANG> sick <BANG> of <BANG> you <BANG> heathens <BANG> making <BANG> fun <BANG> of <BANG> me!"

"Hold it a minute!" I said. I reached up and caught the sign before she could hit my car again. "I'm not messing with you. Seriously, it's Jesus." With my other hand, I showed her the partially-eaten donut. "Here, he made this for me."

That probably wasn't a good idea. The Jesus Lady slapped the donut from my hand, sending pieces skittering across the asphalt as I flinched away.

The Jesus Lady shook her head and stepped back, pulling the sign away with her. She planted one end of the sign on the ground and leaned against it, breathing heavily, her eyes still wild. "Get out of here!" she yelled.

I rolled up the window and drove off. That certainly didn't go well.

When I got back to the house, Jesus came to help unload the car. While we carried the bags into the kitchen, I told him about the incident with the Jesus Lady.

"Don't let it get to you, man," said Jesus. "And don't blame your Jesus Lady – actually, if you wanted, you could blame me for starting the framework that bent her loving impulses to where she couldn't accept your invitation. But looking to assign blame rarely helps. You gotta move on."

Jesus put his bags on the table, and straightened. His voice shifted momentarily back to his 'preacher mode'. "Whereunto shall I liken my efforts?" he said. "They are like heat, which the craft brewer adds to his mash, making the flavor richer, with more body."

He relaxed, grinned, and started emptying the bags. "I'm still working on that one. Not everybody is a homebrewer.

"Anyhow, keep reaching out. I can use the help. This stuff isn't easy," Jesus said. "I've been at it for more than 2000 years. Still, think back, then look around you –I'm doing OK, I think. Change is slow, but it happens. 'He that has ears to hear, let him hear.'"

That's when the doorbell rang. Nothing was ready yet, but there was nothing to do but shrug, hope things would work out, and go answer the door.

A could minutes later, when I brought the first guests around to the back yard, the extra table was set up, platters were filled with steaming burgers and dogs, rolls, the condiments and other accoutrements of a typical picnic were neatly arrayed nearby, and Jesus was standing behind the hot grill, smiling and waving a spatula in greeting.

I shrugged again and introduced everyone. "Sara, Tim, this is Jesus."

"Great to meet you!" said Jesus. "Grab some food, have a seat, everything's ready to go!"

I walked over to the grill while Tim and Sara loaded their plates. "Want me to cook?" I asked. "You're a guest - you don't have to do all the work."

"No problem. I like manning the grill. It lets me meet everybody," said Jesus. "Besides, you know what they say - when you are invited to a party, don't sit and let others do all the work. It's embarrassing when the host has to ask you to help out. I'd rather start working unasked, so that when the host notices, he can tell me to take a break. 'For everyone who goofs off will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be invited back.'"

Sara paused in the midst of scooping up some potato salad. "Is there anything I can do to help?" she asked.

"Thanks for asking," said Jesus. "Sam and I have got it under control for now, but we'll let you know."

"Does he always talk like that?" Tim muttered as he sat next to me.

"It pops out every once in a while," I said. "He may have got the habit from his parents."

"Yeah. Look at the name they gave him," Tim said.

"I know," I replied. "It's a little uncomfortable sometimes, but he means well."

"I guess," said Tim. "Where did you meet him?"

"Actually, I just met him this morning," I said. "He seemed like a good guy, and I figured he might add something to the mix, so I asked him to join the group."

"I just hope he can cook." Tim took a tentative bite, then his face broke into a broad smile and he chewed happily.

Within a half-hour everyone had arrived. The party gathered steam until the yard was filled with noisy chatter, punctuated by laughter and pauses for the next bite. We talked about new movies and old friends, problems at work and the adventures of our kids. Jesus blended right in, emphasizing warmly with our stories and sharing a remarkable knowledge of Premier League soccer.

Whenever the food platters started to empty, Jesus opened the grill lid and refilled them. If anyone noticed that he never actually added uncooked food to the grill, they never said anything.

So things were rolling merrily along when Roland, my next-door neighbor, came out, glared over at my yard, and then started his lawnmower and began to mow around the border of his backyard. The noise from the mower made conversation almost impossible.

I got up and walked over. When Roland came around, I yelled over the roar to ask him if he could finish up later. He just cupped his hand to his ear and kept on mowing.

Jesus walked over next to me. Before he could say anything, I held up my hand to ask him to wait.

When Roland came around again, I tapped him on the shoulder. My neighbor shrugged my hand away, then sighed theatrically and turned his engine down.

As Jesus watched, I told my neighbor, "My brother used to have a landscaping business. He had a list of workers that he'd call regularly, paying them off at the end of each day. His business did quite well.

"One day, they were working on an important job when my brother realized that they wouldn't finish in time. He took his truck to a nearby barrio and found a few addition men who were willing to work. With the extra help, they were able to get the job done by the end of the day.

"When my brother paid his men, he paid the latecomers the same amount he paid his regular men, who had worked the full day. When one of the latter complained, my brother told him, "Didn't I pay you what we agreed? If I have to pay last-minute help more, isn't that my problem? Is your pay poor, because his is good? So today the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen."

My neighbor gave me a quizzical look. Jesus laughed, then said, "What I think Sam is saying is that there's still plenty of food, so if you come over now, you can still eat your fill."

"Um, yeah, that's it," I said. "Why don't you take a break and get your wife and come hang with us for a while?"

"Hey, sure, why not? Thanks for asking," Roland said. He shut off the mower and went to get his wife.

As Jesus and I walked back to my yard, he told me, "Nice try. Keep at it – there's one about 'sowing and reaping' that'd be really apt right now, but I'll spare you."

The barbecue went on for another hour of food and fun. Then things began to wind down and people started to leave. Sara took charge of the cleanup crew, leaving me with nothing to do but go into the kitchen for one last beer from the fridge.

When I returned, Jesus was gone. He disappeared without saying goodbye, leaving behind a platter piled high with warm cider donuts. A last message, perhaps?

I took a moment to breathe in the delicious aroma before sharing the donuts with my remaining guests. But first I put one donut aside to give to the Jesus Lady the next time I saw her. She might not appreciate the offer, but as Jesus might say, "Do not hoard the donuts, but give them away, lest you be left only with the hole." Though he'd probably find a better way to phrase it.

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