Up for a unique story? Good. Because I promise you haven’t heard anything like this before nor will you ever again.
My greatest fear is that you’ll think I made this up. That I just got a little too creative with the keyboard. Trust me, I’m not that creative.
And if someone were to use the true character sketch that follows in a fiction book, people would complain that it was overdone, not realistic enough.
But as sure as God made ground squirrels, this really happened.
A Day On the River
My mentor, Russ, and I decided to take an afternoon to river fish several years ago. Our destination was over an hour away in northern Indiana. We took one vehicle so we could talk on the drive and save gas.
Each of us had a Fish Cat 4 Float Tube which is like a seat with inflatable pontoon sides and your feet dangle in the water. You wear fins on your feet to propel yourself as you sit. The result is that you move backward like a crayfish to wherever you want to go.
“I’ll just drop you off with our gear by this bridge. Then I’ll drop my car off at a park down river. After that, I’ll jog back and meet you here and we’ll start,” I said.
“Sounds good,” said Russ.
I ended up jogging a little bit and then walked most of the way back to Russ. I wasn’t in as good of shape as I’d pretended to be.
We started out and caught a few dinky smallmouth bass. What we didn’t factor in was how fast the river was moving. We quickly drifted back to the car.
“Want to float to the next bridge and then I’ll jog back to our car and pick you up?” I asked.
“Sure,” said Russ.
We ventured on.
Several things ended up being wrong with this idea. First I wasn’t exactly sure where the next bridge was. Second, I assumed the river would continue at its hurried pace.
After a while, we rounded a sharp bend. The river grew drastically deeper and the current slowed down to a crawl. Maneuvering in a float tube is painfully slow. We paddled down the river as fast as our legs would allow, fishing as we went. We gradually tired.
“There has to be a bridge soon,” one of us would say. The other would agree. This went on for quite a while until we realized that there would not be another bridge today.
The banks were rocky and steep on both sides now. As I wondered what we should do, Russ who was several hundred feet ahead of me, kicked over to the river bank where a group of about seven people greeted him.
He got out of his float tube and began to pull it up the rocky ledge as the group helped. I felt a little uneasy about our new companions but what else was to be done?
It wasn’t long before I got there and did the same and was assisted up the same rocky ledge. The group was having a party and there was beer on hand. They offered us a drink. We thanked the group and declined.
There was one man in the group who lived by the river with his girlfriend. We’ll call him “Charlie.” He was the talkative one of the group and offered to take me back to my car while Russ stayed behind.
Charlie’s facial hair was uncommonly scraggly. His hair was dark, long and interspersed with gray. It looked like Charlie’s hair clippers broke down so he just started using a weed wacker.
“I like to make bonfires. I get wooden pallets from work, pile them up and light them. My bonfires get so high that they melt our street light,” Charlie said.
As soon as I heard about melting street lights, I figured Charlie was lying. He must have sensed my disbelief so he pulled out his phone and showed me and Russ a picture.
Sure enough, he had photographic evidence of a bonfire that reached to his streetlight.
“The cops warned me not to do it anymore but I do it anyway,” Charlie said.
Ok. So, Charlie wasn’t lying. He was, instead, sort of a legend.
I had misgivings about getting into Charlie’s old pick-up truck. After all, I wasn’t sure if Charlie had been drinking. There were only two choices I saw, though.
We could stay the night with Charlie and his friends or I could get in the truck. I finally got in the truck and Charlie started down a winding backroad, noisy muffler and all.
Russ later shared with me, “I wasn’t sure if I would ever see you again.” I think he was only partially joking.
Profanity adorned nearly every sentence that came from Charlie’s mouth as our trip began.
“I take this way when I’m drinking so the cops don’t find me,” Charlie said.
His words weren’t comforting, especially since he now began sporadically interjecting that he badly had to relieve himself.
There was something on the dashboard of Charlie’s truck that I couldn’t take my eyes off. In the center of the dash, a miniature, plastic, chubby, bare-chested Budah was glued. It was no more than an inch tall and an inch wide. I had to ask.
“What’s the Budah for?” I said.
“That’s in memory of Old Blue. Man, I loved that truck,” said Charlie.
“Old Blue was a truck?”
I wanted to ask more questions but no words came. The conversation, which mostly involved Charlie talking and me listening changed direction.
“My neighbor’s getting way too flirty with my girlfriend.”
“Really,” I said.
“I could drown him in the river and no one would ever know.”
“You don’t think someone would find out?” I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation.
“No, there’s no way they’d find out,” said Charlie.
Again, I didn’t know what to say and again I regretted getting into the truck.
Charlie changed the subject.
“I got struck by lightning once.”
I believed him.
“Really? How did it happen?” I asked.
“I was in an open field with some friends when a really bad storm came in. Bam! Just like that, I got struck!”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I ran around the field like a crazy person and kept screaming, ‘I got struck by lightning!’”
As the discussion continued, Charlie pulled into the parking lot where my car was. I wanted to ask him more about his shocking experience but he was gone.
He ran to the porta-john, darted inside and the door slammed behind him. I waited to make sure he was ok. After a long time, Charlie emerged and I followed him back to his house.
After we arrived, Charlie struck up an animated and friendly conversation with us.
There’s going to be a big party here in a few weeks. You can come if you want. There’ll be plenty of beer. Clothing’s optional,” Charlie said.
Charlie gave me a scrap of paper with his phone number on it before we left. Regrettably, I lost it soon after.
“If you’re ever out here again and you need a ride just let me know.”
We could tell Charlie was sincere. Russ handed him some money which he didn’t want to take but finally did.
As Russ and I drove home, we laughed until it hurt as tears rolled down our cheeks. We especially laughed about being invited to a clothing-optional party since Russ was a pastor of forty years and I would soon head up to Canada to pastor a church.
And the Moral of The Story Is…
There must be a moral. After all, this is a Christian blog! As I look back on this experience, there are three things I learned from a scraggly river rat named Charlie.
Charlie Had God’s Spark
Charlie would be considered the dregs of society by most. He was unruly, profane and harbored homicidal thoughts. Still, he did something remarkably kind for us. There are Christians who wouldn’t have done the same for people in our situation.
He did something for us that we couldn’t do for ourselves and with no intention of being repaid. On a far larger scale, that’s exactly what Jesus did for all of us on the cross. Through Charlie’s act of kindness, something pierced through the darkness that couldn’t be hidden.
Despite all his flaws, he proved he was made in the image of God. Yes, even Charlie. The divine spark of God placed in Charlie shone brightly that dusky evening and proclaimed, “I am like Someone much greater than me!”
Charlie Wasn’t Much Different From Me
Having reached the first conclusion, I came to another I couldn’t ignore. There were many times that I could’ve offered help to someone but didn’t. But this man didn’t miss the opportunity when it came. He jumped at it. He even offered us beer which, had we drank it, would’ve cost him money. In his own way, he showed hospitality.
As I looked over the obviously sinful path of Charlie, I noticed something. My heart was still full of all kinds of sin that I couldn’t break free of. I’d just become better at covering it all up. Charlie knew nothing of that hypocrisy and just wore his failures on his sleeve.
I had to admit that, in some ways, Charlie was more honest and kind than me. God took me to the wood shed on this one but He did so to help me see things correctly. I concluded that Charlie and I were more alike than different. This led me to one more conclusion.
Charlie Mattered to God
Of course, I matter to God. I’m me. How could someone like me not matter to God?
“But wait a second,” a voice said in my conscience.
“You’ve admitted that you’re more like Charlie than different from him. There’s one more lesson you must learn.”
“You laughed in your heart at Charlie, proving that you didn’t value him like you should.”
“Do you think you’re more deserving of My love than him? No. I have mercy and compassion on whoever I choose and I don’t ask anyone’s opinion first.”
And so the final conclusion I came to was this: If I say in my heart that Charlie doesn’t matter to God, then I don’t matter either. After all, God shows no favorites. He knows the truth. We’re all the dregs of society but He chooses to love us anyway.
I end with this final thought:
If you’ve read this far, would you please pray for Charlie? I honestly can’t remember his real name anymore. But God hasn’t forgotten and Charlie matters to God.
A Bit of a Disclaimer: My original title for this post was 3 Lessons I Learned From a Drunken River Rat. My subscribers got that version in email form before I changed the title to what it is now. I altered it because the description was too harsh. I didn’t want to give you the impression that Charlie was slobbering drunk and that I willingly got in the vehicle with him.
The reality is that he didn’t show any obvious signs of intoxication at the time of our departure. Admittedly, my initial decision was somewhere in the grey and may have gone against better judgment though only God knows that for sure.
Certainly, some of my early apprehensions stemmed from the fact that I knew nothing about Charlie and he looked like a rough dude. Those apprehensions intensified after some of the statements Charlie made about his alcohol habits during the trip.
This article definitely is not meant to communicate that it’s wise or ok to drive drunk or ride along in a vehicle with someone who’s in that state.
This post is dedicated to Russ Howard: my ministry mentor, life coach, fishing pal and irreplaceable friend. Russ, I’ll always admire your adventurous spirit and servant’s heart. You’re the least judgmental person I know. Looking forward to our next adventure together!