The paint splattered shirt, lying crumpled on the path, looked strangely familiar as I zoomed by on my bike. It was 75 glorious degrees in sunny Florida and I was ecstatic to have escaped Ohio’s record breaking December chill. Taking immediate advantage of the tropical climate, I had returned to the pristine cycling path I discovered last April. But now I noticed quite a few bottles, cans and other debris along the eight-mile route. Most disruptive was the large article of clothing I swerved around. No other litter equaled the size of this extremely weathered, white button-down shirt marred by colorful blotches.
At first glance this dirty garment’s familiarity had much to do with the shades of its smudges but I gave little attention to its other details. There were more important things to consider as I sped along trying to make good time. Although initially intending to connect to another road leading homeward, I felt compelled to return the way I’d come. Tooling along at a good pace my wandering thoughts were again interrupted by the garment plastered to the asphalt just ahead. This time I stopped and gingerly pried the matted fabric off the pavement. Why was I so drawn to this nasty thing?
Stunned, I realized this was my favorite paint shirt! It was a Tommy Hilfiger, thrift-store find that had served me well as evidenced by the numerous smears — reminders of a green bathroom, gold hallway, red kitchen and blue bedroom I had freshened up. This might have been coincidental if not for the orange, tan, taupe, black and white that also spelled out my painting history over the last ten years. Yes, indeed, this was the handy outfit that I’d kept despite my family’s urgings otherwise. Probably because it was like a scrapbook colorfully recording the last decade of my life.
How did it get here, though? With no recollection of bringing this article to Florida, I wondered about its presence on this path. I seriously doubted I would have worn this unsightly shell as sun protection while cycling. Rolling the shirt up I stuffed it into my bike’s extra water bottle carrier. Pondering the situation further, I continued peddling.
This stretch of highway was flanked by woods on one side and on the other side it was the home to Lee County Jail and Work Camp. I remembered praying while cycling by these buildings last year since I have family members employed as correctional officers. Digging deeper into the mental recesses I recalled saying something about godly men ministering to the fatherless along with some other things about peace and safety. There seemed to be an anointing on the words that tumbled out that day. But that didn't explain how my old paint shirt landed on that stretch of asphalt.
Eighteen and even 24 months prior I had painted a few little things at the family condo but nothing required having this cover-up on hand. And even if I had brought it to Florida, I was not cycling around Fort Myers back then. I had only ridden this path eight months earlier, and I was certain there was no painting projects tackled on that trip. With my mind on spin cycle I tried to make sense of all these inconsistencies.
Was this the reason I couldn't find this ratty shirt in Ohio before painting our front door last fall? When it wasn’t hanging in its familiar place, I assumed it had finally been thrown away, although I had no recollection of that. While ruminating further the Bible story about Paul’s prayer cloths dropped into my mind. Maybe God “translated” this random “cloth” from Ohio to Florida to keep my prayers “alive” over this jail long after my departure. But that seemed so far-fetched!
Back at the condo, after hand washing the shirt, I noticed numerous holes and tears but still couldn't throw it away. On the right sleeve, I discovered a fluorescent green that I’m certain never graced my color palate. Did someone else use it as a paint shirt or was this bright blotch a supernatural addition to the kaleidoscope of colors - perhaps symbolizing new life or fresh oil? Or was God using the old shirt as a modern case study on prayer cloth phenomena? My brain was reeling with the endless possibilities.
A few weeks later while typing this story I pondered yet another potential scenario. Maybe God was highlighting the idea of something lost being found…maybe this torn and weathered shirt represented the battered lives of the inmates I had prayed for… people of every color and creed that have felt trampled and forgotten. People who needed to be picked up and washed with loving kindness and made sure they were lost no more. Whether a prisoner in a government facility or of life circumstances … I sensed God wanted me to know there were captives that needed to be found…crossing my path daily…all I needed to do was stop long enough to notice.
I (Jesus) was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me. (Matthew 25:43, emphasis added)