During the summer months, our church attendance here dwindles from around a hundred and fifty in the winter to five or six -- or even two. On that July day, eight of us were meeting to discuss Philip Yancey's What's So Amazing About Grace?
I was facilitating our discussion. We had just reached the final question: "What do we do when God gives us an opportunity to show His grace?"
That is when he walked in. Almost as if on cue.
Bicycle shoes. Bicycle jersey. Bicycle hat. And, yup, bicycle shorts.
Having been to law school, I dusted off my inductive skills to conclude this fellow was somehow associated with bicycles. The only thing missing was a Parlee slung over his shoulder -- in Lance Armstrong style.
Our group stopped talking and welcomed the stranger in to join us. We are like that. If a guest arrives, he has our full attention.
He sat down, but he was not there to join us in worship. He had a tale to tell.
His name was Gerhard von Kopfschrumpfen -- or something like that. And despite the vaudeville German accent, he told us he was a psychotherapist specializing in therapy through bicycle riding. (Remember, he said he was from California.)
When I asked if he was a psychotherapist or perhaps a cyclotherapist, he did not crack a smile. But he did relate a tale of woe in Teutonic tones.
He was on his way to Manzanillo (about an hour south of us) to participate in a meeting concerning his therapy of cycles. He had spent a night in a hotel in San Luis Potosi. In his haste to leave, he had left his wallet in his room. (I could empathize with that.)
He had driven the 460 miles to Melaque and arrived the prior evening. It was not until then that he discovered his wallet was missing when he stopped for gasoline. Without any money in a town where he knew no one, he slept in his car.
In the morning, he went to the Catholic church for assistance. The priest referred him to us.
All he needed was some gas money to get back to San Luis Potosi to retrieve his wallet. Of course, that would mean missing his meeting at noon in Manzanillo.
Without any discussion, we put together a couple thousand pesos to let him get to both his meeting and back to San Luis Potosi. All we asked him to do was to show the same grace to the next person in need he met.
We then re-initiated our group discussion. Oddly, Dr. Kofschrumfen stayed to join in the discussion.
Our group unanimously agreed that we should be generous with the people we need who say they are in need. Giving to an "impostor" still helps someone who has needs.
Dr. Kopfschrumfen disagreed. He claimed that our position would only enable fraudsters. That struck me as an odd note --considering what we had offered him.
When we closed our worship service, I asked the good doctor if he wanted to join us for lunch. I thought he would say "no." After all, he would barely have time to get to Manzanillo for his meeting. He surprised me by saying he would come with us -- asking if he would be a guest.
I am very free with my charity. But the lawyer in me constantly monitors circumstances. Even though I put a few pesos in the doctor's hand, I thought his story needed a bit of work.
Driving 400 some miles all day without discovering a missing wallet is -- well, a narrative sieve. Let alone sticking around after he made is mark when he had a meeting to attend.
When I asked him, at lunch, where he had done his internship, he started to show me his credentials on his web page -- and then showed me photograph after photograph of him (and several beautiful female assistants) on bicycles. I let the matter slide.
I then asked him what school of psychiatry he endorsed. I am a Jungian myself. Or, at least, a proto-Jungian. Anyone with a rudimentary college education could have faked an answer. He slyly changed the topic by turning to another member of our group.
That was good enough as a scent of blood for me. I asked how long he had been practicing in San Diego. It was fifteen years or so.
I then said certainly he must know my friend Nathaniel Branden, the promoter of the self-esteem movement. After all, he operated out of La Jolla, just 13 miles from the doctor's purported office. (I checked it on my smartphone at the table.)
He had never heard of the self-esteem movement. But I just dropped it. After all, even Professor Harold Hill does not need to be tripped up every time the freight train is leaving town.
So, off he went in a very battered car -- with no bike rack and no bike.
That was almost three years ago. Even though we provided our email addresses and contact information for the church, none of us has received a bit of news from him. No "thanks." No "I made it." Nada.
But we do not show grace to receive thanks. In this case, my grace was not giving the cash. I gave that because I thought there was a possibility the guy really needed help.
The grace was not outing him in front of my fellow congregants. Even though my secular training would love nothing more than to shame a fraud, no good would have come of it. The "doctor" knew I knew what he was doing.
And it did not matter. After all, even though his story was absolutely bogus, he was a thirsty person.
It may not have been a coincidence that I had read another piece by Philip Yancey the day before my encounter.
That scene of Jesus and the Samaritan woman came up during a day I spent with the author Henri Nouwen at his home in Toronto. He had just returned from San Francisco, where he spent a week in an AIDS clinic visiting patients who, in the days before antiretroviral drugs, faced a certain and agonizing death. “I’m a priest, and as part of my job I listen to people’s stories,” he told me. “So I went up and down the ward asking the patients, most of them young men, if they wanted to talk.”After all, I am a thirsty person, as well.
Nouwen went on to say that his prayers changed after that week. As he listened to accounts of promiscuity and addiction and self-destructive behavior, he heard hints of a thirst for love that had never been quenched. From then on he prayed, “God, help me to see others not as my enemies or as ungodly but rather as thirsty people. And give me the courage and compassion to offer your Living Water, which alone quenches deep thirst.”
That day with the gentle priest has stayed with me. Now, whenever I encounter strident skeptics who mock my beliefs or people whose behavior I find offensive, I remind myself of Henri Nouwen’s prayer. I ask God to keep me from rushing to judgment or bristling with self-defense. Let me see them as thirsty people, I pray, and teach me how best to present the Living Water.