Not so many moons ago I found myself pretty far into the southernmost parts of the country.

For weeks, the literal poverty of the place -- rural poverty -- beat me down, just looking at it, smelling it sometimes, being around it, trying to imagine pulling a life together out of its shredding, dispersing power over the soul.

One day Jesus came forth with the lesson of the place. Now I can see, from this vantage point, He would have wanted to teach me from the opening moments of that particular sojourn. But as usual, I was too thick-headed, too dim-bulb-spirited to notice. So it took me awhile, quite awhile.

I am writing this story in present tense, writing as though it happened only yesterday. That's because the story partakes of our ordinary time, but, like all stories actually (if you read them far enough between and beyond the lines), it also partakes of Eternity. So, in those terms, in fact, it even might have happened to me just this morning. That is how powerful and powerfully lingering its impact is to this day.

And in a strange way, maybe it did happen just the other day, a few hours ago even ... since these things co-habit our ordinary time as well as God's non-ordinary time ... taking on traits of time and Time ... that peculiar Time of fulfilled Time, of never-a-moment-lost Time which we call Eternity:

It is hot here, usually over 100 degrees every day.

There are few clouds in the sky.

The sun simply beats up on everyone and everything exposed to it: the granite-hard ground, dented metal house trailers, weather-scraped paint-flecked wood frame houses, grass-dead yards loaded up with paint buckets and unexplained washing machines and plastic tricycles and snoozing dogs and extra cars ravaged by rust.

Rural poverty settled here, dwells here, and is even less “romantic” than urban pg slumming here. It’s too raw, too real, too pointless.overty. No wealthy suburbanites, or subdivision-dwellers, would even dream of goin

It’s ­de-pressing, a word that here, at last, I understand quite literally: body and emotions and that hidden side of the soul, the spirit, all pressed down flat and hard. I under-stand it -- a word that likewise has taken on new meaning for me, here -- because, sojourning here, I have to stand under it, literally. It all presses down on me, too. And I came here at the leading edge of a life – my own -- vulnerable to depression anyhow, starting at my own Day One.

One man is the icon of this place, at least for me.

He rides around in a motorized wheel chair. Every day he is out, riding up this street, down that one, visiting the gas station, the sno-cone trailer, the long-abandoned drug store and hardware store next door, the laundromat where the doors are just vacant slots in the cinderblock walls and blast furnace heat goes to lie low, snarl, wait.

As far as I know, he’s out there every day.

He weighs surely 300 pounds. He has almost no visible hair, save for scraggly gray sideburns and, I’d guess, a wandering brush line of gray hair from ear top down and around to where the top of his spine lies hidden but outlined under the skin like a golf ball under a sheet of foam rubber.

He wears enormous blue overalls and boots that look chewed by every passing dog.

As far as I can tell, he wears nothing else, although I confess I have not been on an actual search. For sure, he wears no shirt.

And because he wears no shirt all day every day, in all this heat, he looks to me like an enormous potato broiled red. His head and face are broiled red, his hefty arms are broiled read, his neck and throat down to his chest are broiled red. Below that, who knows, but I suspect the contrast will be similar to that of a fire engine body on a chassis made of coconut.

If I can picture where he lives – and I torture myself trying to, each time I see him – I figure it surely is in one of those 30-foot (or so) domed metal house trailers. It would not be air conditioned. It would have stacks of clothes piled where they fell, some clean, some not. It would smell like the town where no one took a bath for 100 years.

One day last week, or the week before – the heat addles what’s left of my brain – I learned the lesson of the Broiled Potato in the motorized wheelchair.

And that is: He is the Christ.

Why it should have taken me so long is a wonder, to be ascribed solely to my sinfulness.

After all, Jesus said He dwells incognito among those whom we push to the edges of our consciousness, if we even keep them that close (Matthew 25). So why didn’t I see it from the very first moment, I ask myself with nasty snapping irritation but without question marks because it's not really a question.

What broke the spell of a fallen world, and its sordid fallen values of equating spiritual encounter with aesthetic pleasures, was the day I saw a man dressed in khaki slacks, short-sleeve white dress shirt and a tie so wide it probably dated from the 1930s, so wide you could set your coffee mug on it,walk up to the sno-cone trailer where the Broiled Potato Messiah was sitting out in the sun, reading the posted syrup flavor menu, perhaps just so he could look like he had a reason to be there.

This man walked up, bent over, and gave the Broiled Potato Jesus a great big sweaty hug.

That was something I immediately realized I would never have thought of doing. Jesus -- You can just go ahead and tell me 10K times a day forever that when I bend over to hug the wretched of the earth parked in the blast-furnace-heat outside the sno-cone trailer, I have bent over to hug You. Any of us have bent over to hug You.

Well, yeah, I think, I know that. I know that for us. It's just that it never circles around quite far enough to be for me. It just goes sailing right off over my head entirely, a Frisbee on a mission to nowhere.

So why didn’t I know. Why did I let the heat and the rural poverty and the desolation of the place get to me that way. Get to me so much that I gave in to the values of the world yet again, and fell into the trap of expecting my spiritually transforming moments to be all cuddly cozy warm, beautiful and “uplifting.”

There are no question marks following any of those questions, because they are entirely rhetorical. Their only answer is me: a damned sinner, saved only by the grace of God. I even have given up most hope that I can do any cooperating with it -- Jesus, You have to do it all or I'm wasted, I'm gone.

I let things get to me because I am a wretched sinner, quick to turn and run, inside at least, and leave my Jesus sitting incognito in His motorized wheel chair, broiled red in the potato-broiling sun.

Now, I don’t know the story behind this man in the wheel chair, nor do I know the story behind the man who bent over to hug him, nor anything about the relationship between the two. Maybe the man in the wheel chair is like the drifter picking up cigar butts on a street corner in a lively riverfront town in another state -- a clerk in the book store where I was gawking at books whispered to me, "See that man out there, picking up the cigar butt? He owns this entire block!"

So maybe the Masked Messiah here owns the entire town. What do I know.

What I do know is that none of those stories matter – whether singly or all added together – anywhere near as much as the one Story that subsumes all stories: that both men are images of God, both are Christ incognito, and that surely one reason Jesus disguises Himself this way is so that, if we’re ever gong to find Him, we have to get out of our self-enclosed, self-clenched, self-referred lives and values.

The Broiled Potato Messiah in the motorized wheelchair was the stiffest, toughest challenge yet that my Jesus has put out in front of me … to deny myself, to get outside myself and beyond myself … to, in other words, love.

Holy cow that's hard. You really do have to die in some ways, to get this stuff right. Don't you.

I hope, by the grace of God, I’ll get at least a speck of it right next time, although maybe I should pray first that God would be so kind as to trust me with a next time.


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