My family and I recently moved from Mill Valley, California, our home of 10 years, to a town in Washington. This is my father’s home state. He hiked all over it in his 31 years of life. He spent his adult years in ministry, sharing the Gospel with hurting people.
This new town has a public library within walking distance of where we’re staying. I’ve used it on numerous occasions now to try and chip away at my dissertation, or edit and upload episodes of the podcast I co-host. The library I frequent is the main branch, located downtown. On my walk, I pass thriving businesses, sure, including little shops and large banking buildings. I also walk past businesses that closed so fast there are still salt and pepper shakers on the tables of a closed restaurant. (A “pupuseria,” which is one of my favorite Spanish words, by the way.) With it being downtown, I encounter all kinds of people. I see professionals headed to lunch or another meeting. I see busy moms with their hair up while pushing baby in a stroller. I see all kinds of folks waiting for the bus. And, occasionally, I see people struggling financially. Worn, dirty clothes drape their frames. Threadbare bags hang from their shoulders. Hair, and sometimes faces, walk past unwashed.
Today, not an hour ago, I stopped at an intersection waiting for the green light, listening to J.D. Greear talk about the Holy Spirit on my headphones. Clouds hang heavy up here today. (Big surprise for Washington, I know.) The sky has threatened rain for days, including today, and made good on that threat multiple times in the last week. Just a minute before this moment, thunder had rumbled inside the biggest rain cloud coming in off the water.
It rumbled again right before I stopped at this intersection. Immediately afterward, I heard a sound piercing through my headphones, but I couldn’t make it out. I pulled the headphones out and looked around. There, on the other side of the street, stood a man in dirty clothes, with matted hair hanging almost to his shoulders. His eyes were up on the cloud, and his finger pointed at it, and he was shouting with terror and anger.
I put headphones in my pocket as I watched him and waited for the light to cross to his side of the street. His eyes were still on the cloud when he began walking backwards. He continued shouting incomprehensibly. I still hadn’t understood a single word of it.
When the light turned green, I began to cross and planned my words to talk to him. Something like, “Hey, are you ok?” “Hey, can I pray with you?” “Do you want to go inside somewhere with me? Do you like coffee?” I was weighing the best words for the moment when he took off running away from the cloud, which, as it happens, was away from me. I tried to catch up, but he picked up his pace, shouting all the while in words I could not understand. A few seconds before he rounded a corner and got away from me, I finally heard something I could understand.
He shouted at the cloud, “I *am* real!”
When he was gone from sight, I stopped where I was with wet eyes. A moment later, I walked on, entering the library and finding my customary seat.
His shout still reverberates in my bones as I write this. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt unreal. Like a facsimile of a human being with a place in society. Most of those instances are in the distant past, but, sometimes, in the dark times, the feeling looms over me.
One of my favorite children’s books is The Velveteen Rabbit. Most people I mention it to have read it, but in case you’ve forgotten this one particular passage (which is my favorite part of the book), I’ll copy the text here.
‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.’
This is a picture of how I think of my life after Jesus changed it. I was one thing. I was dead in my sin. I had the likeness of one who has freedom and life, but was bound in sin and death. Then the person Jesus of Nazareth changed my life, and now I know I am “real.” When I feel like I am unreal, like that facsimile I talked about, I know it is the cold of the shadow cast by my feelings, who are frequent liars. When it creeps over me and I am tempted to shout at the sky, “I *am* real!” I also remember that I’ve been made real. I hope for this change for the man I saw today. I don’t know if he is mentally unstable or if he was high, but I hope this for him. I hope to see him again on my walks downtown so I can tell him about Jesus. If your faith is in Jesus, I ask that you would join me in praying for him. If you haven’t put your faith in Jesus, I’d be happy to talk to you about that. About what it means for me. And what it could mean for you.