It was a Friday afternoon, and as is often the case in Yakima, it was sunny. The ravages of time spent pursuing my master’s degree have pulled me away from all things maintenance or repair for over three years. My trees and shrubs have stood in desperate need of trimming and care. It could only have come as welcome relief then to have a smiley, albeit toothless, lass show up at our door advertising late-season, cut-rate landscaping. In typical impulsive manner I jumped at the opportunity, as did they – a little too quickly as I was about to discover.
The team, hiding behind the very arbor vitae they were about to attack with a vengeance, was already busily scurrying about, donning gloves and prepping power tools. I was whisked away by the business owner to hear of the state of my trees – much worse than I otherwise might have guessed – and given what seemed a genuine offer of help in the midst of these woes. Like some insidious romantic waltz of gullibility I succumbed to their convincing arguments, agreeing to a price for work they could do, apparently, in hours; work that hadn’t been done by me in far too long. I was giddy with anticipation; a good price, a fast turnaround, and big check off my enormous to-do list.
Most grown-ups would have caught on to the questionable practice of money down, the rest on completion. I, however, was already inwardly rubbing my hands together with glee at the notion of a quick, cheap fix to one of many tasks that had faced me down for too long to rationally consider this reality. I clumsily wrote him two cheques for the same amount each from two separate accounts to get the party started.
After this first breach of protocol, even the dullest of the dull would have thought it odd that the tree cutting procedure already underway at a break-neck speed was already over for the day and had been done using my ladders. Within mere minutes of beginning they complained of an issue with one of their tools and that they would need to shut down long enough for them to get a part to fix it. They left my yard, cheques in hand; one tree all but demolished with branches strewn about like a noisy hurricane had blown through, a broken gutter and…quiet.
Normally quiet is a rare commodity sought out in the eye of any given Rife-induced storm of chaotic self-absorption. This one however would last for weeks. What would follow was a flurry of unanswered phone calls and a host of inane excuses with both my yard and my pride lying in ruins. I received a call from somewhere that one of the cheques I had written was NSF and they begged me to obtain cash for them so they might carry on with the job, tools intact. That’s when I snapped out of it. Right? Nope, even that didn’t wake me up to the completely idiotic nature of this scenario!
I actually drove to the bank where I secured for them the desired amount. Upon returning home, one of the crew showed up to collect their cash and then promptly left. At least two of them stayed long enough to give my remaining trees a buzz cut providing my neighbors their first full view of that particular side of our house.
When they left that evening, I didn’t see them again for days. Many days. I grew increasingly restless and nervous about my hasty transaction. My trusting wife, reminding me of her own discomfort (justifiable, to say the least) with the whole affair, did little to assuage my swelling fear that I may in fact not see these people again. But, hey, I didn’t have to worry. After all, they had given me a contract signed by both parties. I possessed their actual number since we had spoken on it at least once before. It would all be fine…right?
Again, my feeble attempts at self-exhortation were failing and I found myself at a crossroads. Not to call would be a show of passivity on my part, an easy target so to speak, ripe for bullying. To call risked possibility of discovering just how stupid I really was in pursuing this “business” relationship. Besides, that meant conflict. I don’t like conflict. It doesn’t like me. We don’t do well together and just end up staring each other down from across the room where the elephant awkwardly sits chuckling to himself.
I explained my plight at our weekly staff meeting. To my chagrin I was told that a landscaping scam had been uncovered only weeks before and had been all over the news. The name of the company and its owner? You guessed it, the one I had hired, unwisely as it appeared! His face had even been plastered all over the evening news. He was a convicted felon with a cocaine addiction. I felt like the guy with the proverbial fly open or green stuff caught in his teeth. Common sense has rarely been my gift.
A subsequent Internet search confirmed these things. Over a month went by along with yet more unanswered phone calls. This time, however, it also included a call to the local Sheriff’s office. A very pissed business owner actually called me, moments before my Christmas concert, shouting obscenities at me for alerting the police. Now, my anger met with his sense of betrayal and an already terrible situation was exacerbated to epic proportions.
I was starting to succumb to fear, not so much that they would never finish but more out of a lack of trust in their intentions. I now sincerely wanted them away from our home and out of our lives. Yet more days passed. When they finally did return, they asked me to turn on the power to the outside receptacle for their task. I flew into an angry tirade, loudly suggesting that any normal person would have fired them by now but I didn’t want to see them, as workers simply caught in the middle, not be paid for jobs they obviously needed. They mysteriously left again. I was at the peak of my frustration and, quite frankly, embarrassment that this debacle had ever come into our surroundings.
I am uncertain why Johnny decided to show up about an hour later with his own tools to personally complete the job. His demeanor was clearly one of remorse, even humility, at the way the whole thing had descended into such a Slough of Despond. He shared how thankful he was that I had not given up on him, had given him a number of opportunities to prove himself, all of which had failed miserably. Within hours he had finished my yard and wrote those words I thought I’d never see in this transaction: paid-in-full.
Johnny had only recently been released from jail and was literally starting all over again. Everything: ID, job, vehicle, bank account – everything that average middle class, employed suburbanites take for granted. There’s a desperation that comes when we can see no hope on the horizon; when there seems to be no road that leads anywhere. Worse still, if we have already betrayed every trust, sullied our own name, proven tacitly untrustworthy, hurt others and succumbed to every temptation, we can easily give up hope and give in to our lower instincts. Who really cares about me? Then, why the hell should I care about anything? When every move I make only ends in further disappointment and shame, then why not get good at it?
As I step back to consider what there might be to learn from this (other than the obvious!) I am left with the echo of those words, paid-in-full. What is it that is so eminently satisfying about those words? At the time of writing I am nine years, one month and twenty-nine days sober. I remember times when I was this desperate for money as well. I also remember spending a fair chunk of it on booze. I remember well the lostness I felt when I was trapped in my own addictions. I’m not so far removed from this guy. With the benefit of some distance and not a little reflection, I actually feel sorry for him. I kinda…get it.
Both Johnny and I are men in need of grace. He, fresh out of jail, not knowing if he’ll make or not; me, often completely blind to my own prisons, only thinking that I know the way forward, walk the same road. It is the road of dependence – not merely on a job to help pay the bills, as great as that is. No, together we walk the same dark road of sin. We are brothers in wandering away from God and the good that is promised by God. Although our paths are very different, our prospects widely divergent, our place in the social strata unequal, our friendships just as needed, our possibilities for betterment unfairly placed, we yet have equal need of grace.
Sin is the great equalizer of humankind. In this, we are all the same. We are on a level playing field in matters of the human soul and its need for conversion. Where one may covet, rob and steal, another, believing himself above such things, is marked with other unseen, perhaps more insidious darkness. The Psalmist cries out, “O Lord, all my longing is known to you; my sighing is not hidden from you.” We may think the deepest sighs we utter are for employment, respect, family and freedom. Ultimately however, they are, in fact, for release from bondage to sin and death. Everyone deserves a second chance.
At least God seems to think so.