Max: Part 2
What priceless lessons I’ve learned from the homeless and prostitutes living on the streets. What a blessing it’s been to witness broken lives being transformed by the power of God. The examples of servitude and sacrifice set by some of these folks have set me back on my heels. I’m certain they would cause even the most pious servant of God to stand amazed.
One unforgettable example of Christ’s love was set for me through Max. You’ll remember that after months of witnessing, sometimes under very harrowing circumstances, I had the privilege of seeing Max come to know Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. Along with the miracle of salvation, God seemed to have placed in Max a deep understanding of what it meant to share in Christ’s suffering. I soon discovered that I had much to learn from this Skid Row bum. It was January in downtown Portland, and the weather conditions were ripe for one of Portland’s infamous ice storms. These storms create extreme danger for those living on the streets; unless one is lucky enough to find shelter, there is no place to hide from the devastation. When an ice storm is approaching, the smartest thing to do is to find a shelter before all available space is taken, leaving others, quite literally, out in the cold.
As the temperature began to drop on that dreary, rain-soaked January day, Max and I located a shelter that still had some availability. I was grateful as we took our place in line and began to anticipate the reprieve from the rain and ice that was sure to follow. Slowly, with Max right behind me, I worked my way to the front of the line. But as I eagerly stepped inside the shelter, Max grabbed my arm.
“Max, come on,” I said impatiently. “Let’s get in before there’s no more space. It’s freezing out here, and it’s only going to get worse.”
Max just stood there holding my arm and asked, “But if Jesus were here, wouldn’t He let those other guys go first?”
I didn’t know how to respond. I was so cold, and I knew that surviving this storm without shelter would be nearly impossible. I looked at Max, then at the long line of guys behind us in the freezing rain, then back at Max.
“Well,” I stammered, “umm, maybe. Yeah, that’s what He’d do.”
So Max and I stood back and let the other men go in before us. Helplessly I watched as the shelter filled to capacity and the doors closed in our faces.
With no time to lose, we began our frantic search for another shelter, then another. Each time, Max did the same thing. He’d step back and wait for the other men to go in first. To be completely honest, I wasn’t as anxious as he to set Christ’s example. Gripped by the realization that I might die in this storm, my mind was less on the other men than on my own survival. I knew, however, that Max was right, so I stayed with him.
Finally, we stood on the threshold of the only shelter left open that night. Max grabbed me as I started to walk in. “Look at the line,” he said. “Shouldn’t we let the other guys go first? Isn’t that what Jesus would do?” I looked with longing inside the warm building at the multitude of men already snuggling into their blanket-cocoons for the night.
With a half grin, I sheepishly answered, “Well, Max, I think He would have seen this as a great opportunity to go in and witness to all those guys. What do you think?”
Chuckling and shaking his head, he answered, “No, He wouldn’t.
He’d let these guys go in first, too.”
I looked at Max’s worn face, his eyes sparkling with the love of Jesus, and stepped aside. Within a few minutes the doors closed for the night, shutting out our last hope for safety and shelter from the storm.
The rain gradually changed to ice and painfully stung our skin as we searched the deserted streets for some type of covering from the elements. Eventually, we stumbled onto a cubbyhole and began to adorn ourselves with the winter wardrobe of the homeless. First, we scavenged for old newspapers and rotting food to stuff inside our shirts and pants for insulation. Then, along with the few others who couldn’t get into a shelter, we formed a human “pile” by layering ourselves on top of one another. Squeezing together like that allowed us to use our combined body heat to stay warm—although the top man had to absorb the brunt of the pelting ice and cold. Every hour or so, we’d rotate our position in the pile so that the same man wasn’t always on top.
That night we squirmed and pushed against each other until we became comfortable enough to catch a few hours of sleep. The smell of stale alcohol and rotting garbage was hard to stomach, but it was better than the alternative. Somehow I managed to fall asleep.
“Hey, get off me!”
I awoke the next morning to the voices of grumpy, cold men as the pile of bodies came to life. The layer of ice began to crack as we freed ourselves from the tangle of humanity. The morning sun felt gloriously warm on my face, and I looked around to survey the destruction created by the terrible storm. Unable to remember ever having moved, I wondered who the unlucky men were who got stuck on the top of the pile throughout the night.
I stood to stretch my stiff body and overheard someone mention a bar down the street that was serving coffee. “Let’s go,” I said, reaching for Max’s hand to help him up off the cold sidewalk. I pulled him up, but as I let go, he fell right back down.
“Come on, Max, quit playing around. My back hurts, I’m cold, and I want to go somewhere and warm up.”
Max just looked at me and smiled. “Hey, we made it didn’t we?” My impatience was obvious in my reply. “Yeah, Max, we sure did. Now, come on!” I grabbed his hand and pulled him up again, only to watch him fall as soon as I let go. I knelt to look at him and realized he wasn’t wearing any shoes.
“Max, where are your shoes? What’d you do with your shoes?” My voice was a mixture of grave concern and annoyance. “Well, there was a man walking down the street late last night,” he explained, “and he had holes in his shoes. I knew he’d never make it like that, so I gave him mine. That’s what Jesus would have done, wouldn’t He?”
I looked at him in complete disbelief. “Max, you crazy bum!” I reached down and touched his feet and toes, causing him to shudder with pain. That’s when I asked him where he had slept all night. He told me he’d stayed on top of the pile because he didn’t want any of the other guys to be exposed. He was sure that was what Jesus would have done.
“I didn’t want the ice to settle on you guys,” he said. The sincerity and love in his voice broke my heart. I left Max on the sidewalk while I ran to call the police. Several agonizing hours later they arrived and took him to the hospital.
I looked for Max’s return each day. Finally, one sunny afternoon, I spotted him on a street corner. Running to where he was, I asked,
“Max, how are you doing? Are you all right? Where have you—?”
The words stuck in my throat as I got close enough to see bandages where his feet used to be. Severe frostbite and gangrene had set in, necessitating the amputation of Max’s feet.
I stuttered and stammered as I searched for words to convey my grief over his terrible condition. Smiling from ear to ear, Max looked at me and said, “Yeah, but we made it, didn’t we? We made it.” Max seemed to be in constant pain, but instead of complaining, he asked me to read to him from the Bible about Jesus and what He had done for him. He loved the story of the cross. He loved the fact that at any moment, Jesus could have commanded the angels to slaughter His accusers. He could have cried out, “Enough! I’m done loving. It’s too hard!” Max was amazed that Christ loved us so much that He endured all that suffering. He touched my arm and said, “Read that part to me again from John, where it says in the same way Christ loved us, we are to love each other.” With tears threatening to spill down my cheeks, I read the verses, awed by the depth of this man’s love for those around him.
Max made several more trips to the hospital as the pain and gangrene continued to ravage his body. Each time, the doctors would amputate more, and then send him out on the streets to heal. I couldn’t imagine the pain this man endured, but his face shone with the serenity of one who knew there were better things waiting for him in heaven. He’d ask me over and over to read to him about Jesus, and he’d smile as the words reminded him of the price Jesus had paid for him on the cross.
One afternoon, an officer pulled up by the curb and rolled down his window. This usually wasn’t a good sign, so I turned to walk away. The officer yelled after me, “Hey, you! Come back here!” Turning around, I pointed to myself as if to say, “You mean me?” He nodded his head. “Yeah, you. Aren’t you the one who hung around the guy with no legs?”
I told him I was and asked if everything was okay.
“Well, he’s dead,” the officer replied.
My heart sank and tears filled my eyes. “Max,” I thought. “Oh, Max.”
The officer continued. “But wait. That’s not what I wanted to tell you. There was something different about that guy.” He proceeded to tell me of a night when the hospital was full from top to bottom with people who’d been injured in the ice storm, suffering from various injuries. People were laying everywhere, miserable, except for Max.
“The guy with no legs was wheeling himself around in his wheelchair, making people laugh and trying to encourage them.” The officer continued, shaking his head in amazement, “There was something different about that guy.” Rolling up his window, he drove off.
As I walked away slowly, I envisioned Max in heaven, running around on two strong legs. I saw him jumping and shouting praise to his Savior. I couldn’t help but look back at the man he once was, so full of hatred and bitterness. The officer’s words echoed in my mind: “There was something different about that guy.”
I smiled and shook my head. “Yes,” I thought. “It was Jesus.”