Benchmarks

By God's grace we can provide for others a gold standard

My 15-year-old Royal Apricot tree died last year. It had borne the nectar of the gods. Taking an axe to its roots, I mourned as if a beloved monarch had passed on. I closed my eyes in memoriam to savor once again the rich harmonics of its flavorful, exotic fruits.

Bluejays and orange-breasted sparrows knew what sweet treasure hung from my tree. When my green apricots would blush with a golden hue, those smart marauders would swoop in and peck at them. They’d be singing a cheery dawn chorus with intimations of immortality. I’d be lucky to salvage a small basketful by season’s end. Sharing what few I had with friends, their smiles showed sudden amazement at being surprised by joy.

Such memorable experiences served to restrain me whenever I might be attracted by a display of apricots in a grocery store. They’d look tempting, but past trials taught me they’d be insipid. I rarely found any that could beat mine, even at a Farmer’s Market.

One day at the local health food store, I sampled an organically-grown apricot that was worse than bland, and I complained to the store owner. The following week he had small baskets of tree-ripened royal apricots for sale, as delicious as mine. But the cost for perfection was four times the green-picked, shelf-ripened, tasteless fruit next to them.

If the experience of homegrown fruit hadn’t become my benchmark, I too, like most consumers, would’ve purchased those worthless apricots and never been the wiser. That made me zealous for sharing samples of what paradise on Earth tasted like.

I read a passage in Scripture that took on more significance. Luke 13:6-9 warns that we are like a fruit tree that must avoid being cut down, but can do so only by bearing good fruit. We should provide for others the gold standard for “good taste” in whatever we say or do. True nobility is not inherited but borne of God’s grace. Modeling it would help those accustomed to the ignoble words and deeds of mortal men to prefer more of that divine ambrosia as a promise of better things to come.

One day after shopping, I spotted a woman in her fifties standing outside. Written on her sign: Hungry. I offered to buy her a healthful sandwich if she’d tell me her name.

“My name is Valerie, okay? Why not just give me money instead?” she complained.

“So you don’t go spending it on junk food.”

After we came out of the store, she said, “Been homeless for months. I need cash.”

“I can empathize with your situation. I was homeless for years.”

“Years?” We sat down at a table. She unwrapped her sandwich and I opened a yogurt.

“I was on a penniless, homeless pilgrimage for about ten years,” I told her.

“Wow, and you survived! Why’d you do that, and where’d you go?”

“I wanted to follow Jesus’ instructions to the letter, so I lived his Gospel across America.”

“Geez, I’ll bet you did what 99% of us wouldn’t have dared.”

“Maybe so. . .  Care to tell me what happened that made you homeless?”

“My husband was an addict and abusive. Always punching and kicking me hard.”

“Alcoholism?”

“No. Constant pain from a back accident at work got him addicted to Oxycontin. And it changed him till he became a monster. He finally lost his job and then me, after he spent all our rent and food money on drugs.”

At this point she was almost inhaling her food, as if to somehow compensate for the husband and home she’d lost.

“You figured it was better to be alone, hungry, and homeless than live that way?”

“You can say that again.” She finished her sandwich and bit into a Pink Lady apple.

“Have you sought help? InterFaith Council has beds and showers for the homeless.”

“I was there awhile, but they much prefer military veterans. I felt ignored so I left.”

“Where do you sleep?” I knew before I asked.

“Under bridges, behind bushes… on that rolled up mat and sleeping bag.” She nodded toward her backpack.

“Are you scared sleeping outside, alone?”

“At first, yeah, toothless bums made passes at me. But not any more. They know I won’t do the deed. So every night I gaze up at the night sky… until I own the stars, then I fall asleep.”

“You’ve got the makings of a poet.”

“I wrote some poems when I was young and single. Don’t know where they are now. They’re not the only thing I’ve lost.”

“You got family hereabouts that can help?”

“Yeah, three adult sons, but they’re busy and saddled with their own needy families.”

We both finished eating and sat in awkward silence for a few moments. What more could I say? I suppose I could rent her a motel room and buy her groceries for a week, like the Good Samaritan. But then what? Reasonable answers weren’t forthcoming and frozen food was thawing in my trunk. I stood, handed her 20 bucks and wished her well.

She nodded and thanked me, but we didn’t shake hands. She didn’t ask for my name. All she knew was that some anonymous guy had helped her out and vanished from view.

Compared to the frauds I’d met in my travels, I could tell she was being honest with me. Our close encounter allowed me to assess the look in her weary eyes, her facial grimaces, and the tone of her voice. It wasn’t so much what she said but how she said it. Maybe she could sense that I was homegrown, different from the cheap, tasteless variety. Her realizing this might have encouraged her to trust me with the details of her lamentable story.

I saw her a few more times and whenever we’d pass each other, I’d say, “Hello there, Valerie.” She’d pause a moment and turn her face up to me, puzzled for being unable to recall my name. Then she’d suddenly smile — as if a dark cloud had just parted for the sun — as if amazed and surprised by joy.

 

Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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