Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore, let us go forth to him outside the camp, bearing his reproach. For we have no continuing city here, but we seek one to come.
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“The Lifter Up of My Head.”
“Many there be which say of my soul, ‘There is no help for him in God.’ Selah.
But you, O Lord, are a shield for me; my glory, and the lifter up of my head.”
I want to tell you a true story.
During the summer of 1973, I was an actor in the Lost Colony outdoor drama at Manteo, NC. During the course of that summer, I became acquainted with the gentlemanly old fellow named Tom who ran the concession stand at the theater. Tom was reserved, but carried himself well, with a kind of quiet dignity. I also discovered during our conversations that summer that Tom was fairly well educated; however, Tom’s knowledge was too sound and simple to have been the product of a public educational system. Tom’s knowledge carried with it the meekness suggestive of a self-taught man.
Tom never talked much to anyone, but he seemed to enjoy my company, and he would pause to spend a few minutes with me if I happened to be down by the theater during the daytime. I really enjoyed our short conversations. They were always short because Tom became uneasy if a conversation went on for more than a few minutes; it was as if he was afraid that I would get to know too much about him if we talked at length. I never pressed him for information, but in time, I pieced some things together. Tom pulled back the curtain of his life just enough to let me know that he was married and that he had worked at odd jobs around the country his entire adult life, constantly on the move. It became clear to me that something had happened to Tom when he was young, something he would not dare tell anyone, and that as a result, this gentle, humble man had spent his entire life running from somebody, or something. But what? We will come back to Tom.
Once we actors had mastered our parts and needed no more rehearsals, life for me and most of my fellow Lost Colony performers was like this: Do the show at night, party until whenever, sleep late, go to the beach. Do the show at night, party until whenever, sleep late, go to the beach. Do the show at night, etc., etc., etc. It was the heyday of my generation’s drugged and amoral stab at finding peace and true freedom, but even at my worst, I feared the hard stuff that some of my friends took. LSD, cocaine, and injections of drugs did not attract me at all, and I kept myself from situations where that was happening — but as Paul said, “evil associations corrupt good conduct”, and I found myself one night after the show in a situation too much for me. I had been invited to a new friend’s apartment for another party, and late in the night, I was chatting in the kitchen with some guys, when one of them pulled out a handful of “hits” of LSD, tiny little star-shaped pills. The pressure of my peers was too great. I was one of the “cool” guys. How could I say no?
My friend gave me two hits to take, and everybody began to down theirs. I managed to get rid of one of mine by “accidentally” dropping it on the floor, where (thanks to Jesus, I am sure) it somehow disappeared. Anyway, I downed the other one, thereby maintaining my social standing among my fellow fools.
I don’t know what would have happened to me if I had taken both those hits. All that night, and all the next day, and even during the production the next night, I was hardly able to function. There were gaps of time in my mind. I would be surprised to find myself somewhere, and would wonder for a moment or two how I got there. I remember right before the show that night, jerking with surprise when I looked in the mirror and saw an Indian standing there looking back at me. I had forgotten already that I was in the dressing room and had just applied the deep red “Texas mud” on my body so that I could perform my role as an Indian chief. Now, let’s get back to Tom.
On that same day, as I was wandering around, trying to deal with my stupor, I found myself down by the concession stand where old Tom was quietly going about his daily tasks. He smiled when he saw me and stopped what he was doing so that we could spend some time together. We sat down at one of the picnic benches that was under the shelter. I do not recall anything Tom said, but I do remember that he had chosen that day to open up his heart to me as never before. I don’t remember what he was saying to me that brought it about, but burned into my memory is the picture of old, white-headed Tom sitting on the picnic bench in front of me, weeping as though his heart would come out of his chest. What had he said to me? I didn’t know. I don’t even remember how the conversation ended, or how we parted that day. Nor do I remember having any other conversations with Tom before the summer ended.
By the close to the season, I was sick of the kind of life I had been living. After the shows, I began to go to my apartment instead of to parties. And when it was day, I sat alone on my porch, waving goodbye to my friends as they, as always, took off to the beach for another day of sun and fun. I didn’t realize that it was Jesus affecting my spirit, calling me to him. But the point of my story is still to come.
Fast forward about a year. My whole universe by that time had been rearranged by the Lord. My wise father had suggested I enter the seminary, which I did. One evening as I lay in bed in the seminary dorm, talking to Jesus, old Tom came to mind, as he had often done during the previous year or so. This night, however, I felt grieved to the bottom of my heart for him. What was gentle Tom’s story? Was his name really even Tom? Where was he now, and had he found someone he could confide in, to help him bear his secret burden? I began to weep for Tom and to ask Jesus please to send somebody to him who could help him. I felt so ashamed, even a self-loathing, that I had been so worthless to my elderly, meek friend at the very moment he had decided to reach out to me and allow me to help him bear his mysterious burden. The pain in my chest was very deep, and suffocatingly heavy. Then it happened.
As I was praying, I suddenly felt a weight, like the weight of heavy quilts, being lifted off me, from my head to my feet. It was so real that I can only describe it in physical terms. It was not imaginary, nor was it an emotionally-produced hysteria. Jesus was really reaching down from heaven and relieving my broken spirit of my shame and my deep pain for Tom my friend, whom I knew I would never see again. Then, all of the pain was gone, and the worry was gone, and in its place was an absolute confidence — a knowing — that wherever dear old Tom was, God was going to take care of him and that if Tom needed to know Jesus, God would send someone to guide him to the Lord.
As for me, I was left there astonished, staring at the ceiling with tear-stained cheeks, marveling at the incredible grace of God. Then, I also realized that in the place of that bitter heaviness, Jesus had given me strength to forgive myself and to go on with my life, following Him who had been so merciful to me.
That is my story. Jesus taught me that none of us has to sink in the mire of a shameful past. He came to take our burdens on himself and make our life seem worth living again. Jesus will be for all who put their trust in him what King David said the Lord was for him, and what He became for me as I prayed with tears so many years ago: “The Lifter Up of My Head”.