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Sunday, January 1, 2017


"Earn this!" Tom Hanks's character urges Private Ryan, for whom others have given their lives in the eponymous 1998 film. 

But Private Ryan can't earn something he doesn't deserve, any more than my friend, Georg, can earn the gift he received from a drug that was supposed to make him more comfortable while dying, but had the unintended effect of eradicating the cancer that was killing him. 

Neither can I earn the kindness shown me by a stranger on New Years Eve 2016.

When I felt my car scrape his, I knew I was in trouble.

It was dark. I had made a u-turn after missing my friend's street and cautiously (I thought) edged back onto the road, this time going in the right direction.

I hadn't seen his vehicle before it happened, and I didn't see it then. Maybe the car came out of nowhere or, for all I know, he was parked on the opposite side of the street and I swung too wide and clipped him. I didn't know if I'd bumped the car of a man or woman, a wealthy business tycoon or a little old lady from Pasadena.

What I do know is what happened next. I pleaded, "Lord, let him be merciful!" before exiting my Mazda. I held my breath and blurted out, "I'm so sorry! I just didn't see you!"

His face was friendly – what I could see of it. It belonged to a tall man wearing denim (I think). He was Social Security age and driving an over-sized pickup truck. His words will be indelibly etched on my mind.

There were no recriminations, no four-letter words, not even a mild reprimand or suggestion that I visit my optometrist. Any of these would have been well deserved, in order, and a reasonable prelude to demanding my insurance information and a police report.

What came out instead was simply, "I'm OK. Are you OK?"

Was I ever OK!

"I'm fine," I replied in disbelief, then inquired tentatively about the health of his truck.

He barely glanced at it, declared it first-rate, and threw his arm around my shoulders.

"Are you sure?" I pressed, wanting to show enough concern that he wouldn't change his mind and call for a cop. He just laughed and prepared to exit the scene. I asked him to wait, wanting to offer something to this gracious stranger who was letting me off the hook with nary a scolding.

I fished around in my front seat for a tract to share with this dear man, something to tell him about a long ago Traveler who also traded compassion for justice. I came up empty handed, so settled for thrusting a king sized Payday candy bar into his calloused palm. The irony of the name of the confection I’d just bought didn’t hit me till later.

The Traveler he reminded me of had calloused hands too, from long hours spent in a carpenter's shop. Those well-used hands would one day accept nails that were meant for me.

"What's your name?" I asked, adding, "I want to pray for you."

"Paul," he replied, then chuckled, "Somebody ought to!"
I guess I was pretty rattled (and amazed) by the whole incident, because it took me five minutes to locate my keys (I was sitting on them). Paul's headlights illuminated my car while I searched for them. Indeed, his truck remained parked behind mine until I at last pulled away, feeling inadequate and special all at the same time.

Paul never once hurried me, but he did bellow, "Happy New Year!" before driving off into the remaining hours of 2016.

I viewed my car later, and it may have one or two new scratches on the passenger side, but nothing to speak of. Paul's pickup was larger and heavier than my ride, so I imagine it got away unscathed as well. Still, in this world of groping greed and Looking Out for Number One, his selflessness stands out like a lighthouse.

Like Ryan and Georg, I'm just going to have to pay it forward.

Check out "Grace Wins" by Matthew West!