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Christmas Fill-up

By Dan Baumgartner on
Dan Baumgartner
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Dec 15 in Musings
Robert was in his late fifties when I knew him in Seattle. We became friends through our church’s urban ministry outreach. I never heard his whole story, but enough to know it had chapters of depression, anger and family difficulties. Most of the time Robert was disheveled and unshaven. His baseball caps changed frequently, all equally dirty. He had no front teeth. Robert loved Jesus, but was frequently unsure of his salvation…which actually puts him in good company with many of the saints. Robert also played the piano.  He never had a lesson and couldn’t read music, but when he sat down at the piano and turned those cracked and dirty fingers loose, he transformed. Visibly. 
One December night around 2004, Robert attended a meal at the church and came to the small Bible study I led afterward. When the study was over, he pulled me aside to talk. I was surprised when he asked for money. I couldn’t do that, per our ministry’s guidelines and he knew it. But I’d known Robert for a long time and he had never approached me for cash before. He then confirmed my suspicion– he had lost his public housing and was living in his car. He needed some gas.

A number of thoughts flashed through my mind. Maybe I should break our rules “just this once” and hand him some cash.  Who was I to say “No,” knowing there were green bills in my wallet and that Robert needed them far more than I did? I took a middle road and said “Robert, I can’t just hand you money. What I CAN do, if you can wait about ten minutes, is meet you down at the gas station and put gas in your car.” Robert’s instant smile convinced me this was a good choice.

Ten minutes later, I walked down to the gas station. I didn’t see him anywhere, but almost immediately I heard him. He came tooling around the corner in a very loud and beat up 1981 Toyota Corolla that had once been blue. There was a rack on top with a bunch of flattened cardboard, a large red cooler and Robert’s bicycle bungie-strapped on. The door handles were broken off. He leaned out of the car and said with a huge grin, “I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to git ‘er started, because I don’t actually have a key, but she finally took off!” I leaned in to talk to him, noticing a number of empty pizza boxes, pop cans, clothes and some worn blankets inside. He WAS living in this wreck.
 
I wondered aloud how he had ended up with the car. “A friend gave it to me, but there wasn’t a key.” No problem. The screwdriver jammed into the ignition seemed to do the job. I didn’t ask more questions. I pointed out the gas pump, and Robert went forward a few yards, then ground into reverse to back it into the pump. I stopped him just before he hit the cement protective pole. He went forward a few yards, and tried it again. His aim was better, but the gas tank was on the wrong side. Finally, I played air traffic controller, waving my arms and shouting to turn the wheel the other way, and somehow Robert got to the right place.
 
I flipped open the gas tank lid, and found there was one other thing the previous owner hadn’t passed along to Robert – a gas cap. There was a dirty rag stuffed into the spout to keep gas from sloshing out. I knew this was not a good thing, and in fact downright dangerous. I pulled out the rag and stuck the nozzle in and started pumping. Then I went into the station to buy a gas cap so that at least one thing on Robert’s mobile living quarters would function properly. No luck. The station didn’t carry gas caps.

Finishing the pumping, I paid for the gas, and hung around as Robert tried to turn
the screwdriver to start the car. I waited, just in case. With the screwdriver fully engaged, the Toyota gave a few pathetic cranks, then one heroic but failed try and then miraculously roared to life. Robert gunned it in neutral to keep it from dying, stuck his head out of the car window and said “Thanks a lot, Pastor Dan!” with another grin, “I really appreciate it!  And maybe I’ll see you on Friday!” Friday was Christmas Eve, and there would be three worship services full of happy people crowding into the sanctuary for a night of gentle beauty and worship. “If…” and now a mischievous grin grabbed Robert’s face, “…I don’t fall asleep!” The Toyota’s clutch groaned and ground into gear and Robert pulled out in a cloud of dirty smoke, off to find a place to park for the night.

I walked to my car, threw my briefcase in, shut the door and started to cry. Someday I’ll have a chance to ask God these questions that never leave me, it seems. Why is life so very hard for some folks? What can I do that matters? Why is my life so good and easy? 

Later that night, I sat in front of a fire and journaled about my evening with Robert. The next morning it was still heavy on my heart, and I described the encounter to my friend Brad on the phone. Brad was one of the church’s elders, with a huge heart for people. 

On Christmas Eve, I never did see Robert at church. I guess he couldn’t stay awake. I did, however, see Brad after the five o’clock service at the door.  He wished me Merry Christmas and handed me a little box, nicely gift-wrapped. I thought it was a Christmas present for me, thanked him and continued to say goodnight to our community. When everyone was gone, I picked up the little box and shook it. I spent four years of college and eleven years of my life working in the automotive parts industry. I know what a gas cap sounds like when you shake it.
 
There are many large and systemic issues to engage in our world. It’s important we do so. And then there are thousands of small, often anonymous actions to be taken. Somehow it all adds up for the Kingdom of God.
 
See you soon,
            Pastor Dan

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