I had a one o’clock appointment, and I went to prop the door so the person could get inside. I looked out through the window in the door to see if they had arrived, and I noticed a thin old man sitting on the stoop in the shade. I figured he was cooling down. I had a momentary twinge of ‘I should go see if there’s anything he needs’, but I hesitated. His clothes were a little dirty & he was unshaven; he had a plastic crate with him with a number of empty liquor bottles next to him. Plus, I had an appointment.
I hemmed and hawed for 5 minutes or so, avoiding opening the door, hiding inside trying to avoid being seen. He might ask for something, that damn voice was whispering in my head. Finally, I couldn’t ignore how ridiculous this was, so I opened the door to prop it and greeted the man as I did.
What followed was a solid hour of listening, which included laughing at the same story 3 times. …And one of those quiet spiritual experiences when God says “See me? I’m right here. Didn’t expect me in a grizzled old man sitting on the stoop, did you? Well, here I am.”
I had simply asked how he was doing today and if he wanted to come inside to sit in the air conditioning. “I don’t particularly like air conditioning,” he replied, not moving from his concrete seat. “I’m just tired; I’m walking from the dumpster back to my house,” he said pointing across the street on the other side of our parking lot.
I learned that our neighbor, Donald MacDonald (“I’m a Mac sandwiched between two Donalds”), has lived in this neighborhood for 50 years and was one of the stonemasons who finished the columns holding up the very roof that was providing the shade we were enjoying. Mr. MacDonald is 85 years old and walks everywhere he goes, mostly to McDonald’s for 53-cent coffee or one-dollar chicken sandwiches and to the dumpster in the alley behind the Union Jack pub a block over. Then he cuts through our parking lot on his way home, and when he’s carrying something, he stops at our stoop for a rest. I can’t believe (and I’m a little embarrassed) we haven’t crossed paths before!
Dumpster diving––well, that dumpster––is his treasure hunt. It’s a glass recycling dumpster in a neighborhood with lots of bars and restaurants, so there’s quite a variety of bottles to be found. Mr. MacDonald checks the dumpster nearly every day for beauty, and he’s rarely disappointed. He keeps a special stick hidden nearby to help him retrieve the treasures he finds, and then he carries them back home to add to his collection.
He told me about one bottle in particular that he found this week and how his neighbors, the twenty-something couple, got to see it the day he brought it home. They were sitting out on the porch and called him to join them when he walked by. When they insisted on seeing what he had in the bag, he warned them with a twinkle in his eye: “I’m afraid to show it to you; it’s so beautiful you might be shocked. You could have a heart attack.”
This particular find was so beautiful that Mr. MacDonald asked if I would be around long enough for him to run home and back. He wanted to give me the chance to see this little piece of heaven. How can anyone (even me, even after an hour of listening and ignoring my ‘real’ work and my growling stomach protesting that lunch time was 2 hours ago) refuse an offer like that?
So Mr. MacDonald shuffled off across the parking lot to retrieve his newest prize. Five minutes later, he was back, with two empty bottles in his hands. He made sure I knew that these were precious, and he was holding them very carefully. Then he handed me an empty Russian vodka bottle with a silver label and a little raised sturgeon fish token glued onto it. Beluga Vodka, the label announced, best enjoyed with caviar. As he handed it to me, he reminded me sternly not to drop it.
If didn’t know better (and my brain hadn’t been obsessing about how unclean this dumpster-rescued liquor bottle with a little bit left in the bottom was), I would have thought he was handing me a delicate crystal treasure from a museum. He genuinely saw beauty in this bottle. When I handed it back, he slowly turned it over in his hands, admiring it again, drinking in the details of this worthless piece of trash. …Well, that’s what I see in it. But he saw beauty. Valuable, delicate, wonder-inducing beauty.
“There’s beauty all around us. So many of us are around things or people day after day, in our families or our homes or our neighborhood, and we never notice the beauty.”
I asked if I could take his picture, because I’d like to share this story with my congregation. I told him he was showing me something about God, and I’d love to tell people about him as an example. He agreed to be photographed, and then, after thinking for a moment, he said I could borrow some of his bottles for that sermon if I liked. “But put them on a table and put a sign that says DO NOT TOUCH, PLEASE next to them.”
What generosity in our eccentric neighbor! I was touched by his trust. I was moved by the presence of the Divine in him. I am grateful for a glimpse of such beauty (and the opportunity to admire a bottle).
I feel embraced by the God who reminds me I’m a used-up liquor bottle sitting in a recycle bin. And God’s a grizzled old man with a twinkle in his eye who delights at my beauty, whether anyone else gets it or not.