In a culture where “I was naked and you clothed me” means we donate used items to the Goodwill, where “I was hungry and you gave me food” means we offer a couple of bucks out the window to a panhandler, and where “I needed shelter and you took me in” only makes us cringe, how do we show love to the least of these?
What would you do if the Still Small Voice whispered, “take him home?”
On Saturday evening I insulted the dignity of a fellow human being, but wouldn’t realize until I drove away. Walking across a large parking lot with hands full of bags and a baby on my hip, I caught the voice of a man calling from a small distance, asking if I needed help.
“No–thank you, though!” I called back.
Leaning on a cane, his grey stubble reflecting the street lights and his heavy overcoat cloaking a large stature, the man looked uncertain before calling again, “are you sure? You look like you could use help.”
I laughed. “No, my van’s right here. But if you had asked me five minutes earlier, I would have taken you up on it!” A lie, of course, because I would have turned him down.
It being a dubious part of town, and the hour being after dark, I kept an eye over my shoulder as I strapped down the baby and loaded the van. He kept his distance, but he was deciding something, and so was I. I took note of the deserted nature of this corner of the parking lot, took in his elderly and obviously homeless appearance; I swept my eyes and senses around for a potential accomplice, but there was none.
“Um, pardon me, ma’am, but…”
I thought through the contents of my purse and knew there was no cash.
“Do you, I hate to ask you, but I am just a harmless homeless guy and, well, I’m wondering if you might have a spare dollar or two so I can get myself a small burger. I’m awfully hungry.”
Setting my reservations aside–oh you blasted individualistic culture!–and following my heart, I walked toward him and made the gesture of flipping through my wallet. We chatted in the chilly dark. Bits of his story–I asked questions, I wanted to know. Bits of his soul–he laughed, and wiped the back of his fingers at his eyes.
“Well, look,” I said, “I don’t have any cash, but I’d love to get you something to eat. Do you like Arby’s? It’s right across the street.”
Lighting up, he made as if to ask a question, but I deflected what I feared would be his assumption that he might ride in my car–“just give me your order and I’ll bring it right back.” He complied, and though it took me twenty minutes, I returned with a bag full of food and drink and a hot cup of coffee. I had just pulled up to him then, and was reaching the gifts through the window, when my eyes locked on his face. What did I expect? To be a hero?
My Mama is the type who keeps individual gift bags of water bottles and snacks next to her driver’s seat, and she hands them out the window to any who might approach her car. When I was 13 she invited a homeless woman and her small children to spend Easter week at our house–and they came. The idea of helping the homeless, of reaching out to those in need, is built into my psyche. Not only is it a Christian duty, it is a merciful virtue that put on flesh in my childhood home. And yet, with my own attempts at helpfulness there has been a sense of dirty work, a sense of something not quite right. I have never been able to put my finger on it–wasn’t I offering to meet a need? Wasn’t I interested in their stories? Didn’t I try to offer dignity and respect to a fellow human being?
Yes. But, no. No, because there has been an idea inside that somehow I (without meaning to, sure!) was positioned higher (when we have Houses and Cars and Things we are higher!) and that it was kindness for me to condescend (it feels ugly to write!) to the level of “the least of these.” Hello there, I’ll bend down and offer you a trifle. And even though this feeling has been fought against inside (what are motives if we don’t try to make them pure?), I have not been able to win.
But here in a parking lot on a Saturday night, a veil lifted. I saw in the place of an elderly, scruff-faced man, myself.
With gratefulness and humility he received the gifts, but distraction marked his countenance as he looked about with–yes, it was!–uncertainty. And I don’t know his thoughts, of course, but suddenly I saw him as a person; I imagined my own thoughts into him. He was a person: no higher, no lower, no richer, no poorer, no greater, no lesser than I. He was like any friend. He was a person who now struggled in the dark to balance a coffee cup, a water bottle, a bag of food and a cane in his two hands, with no place to set them and with no where to sit down.
He walked away and I drove out of the parking lot, because I didn’t know what else to say. From my window I watched him limp toward a bus stop–a bus stop that would provide what I couldn’t or didn’t–a seat for resting upon and a shelter which would guard him from the wind.
How do I write for you what I am trying to convey? Just this: as I watched this man a true picture was painted on my mind of the source of my condescension. I saw him, and in his place I saw Jesus, and then I simply saw my own self, stripped of my privileged place in life. What if I didn’t have a bed to sleep in that night? What if I hadn’t eaten food all day? What if I had no home to which I could return, and no people waiting for me when I did? What if I had been outside all day–for many days!–and a cold night was coming on?
What if I had been handed a cup of coffee? Would I not rather sit at a table in the warmth of a restaurant lobby to sip it and whittle the hours away–rather this, than to stand full-handed in a dimly lit parking lot? Why did I not drive this man–this image of Christ–across the street to buy him food inside? Why, if I had reservations, did I not offer to meet him there, at the very least?
What is it about our culture that makes us stand so far apart? Why is it that we can no longer take strangers into our vehicles, or more, give them shelter in our homes? Why does the mere thought make us cringe and offer a tongue-full of reasons–the danger! The children! The electronics! The knife he’ll probably use on us in our beds!
I’ll tell you. It’s fear. Oh, sometimes it’s just laziness and selfishness. But usually, it’s fear. It’s fear that makes us keep our distance. It’s fear that causes us to feel superior. I would go so far as to say that the root of even our squirmy feelings at a big-city stoplight (when we pretend to turn the radio dial rather than look at the sign-holding woman) is fear as well.
It’s fear that prevents us from seeing persons as persons, and relating to them as such. We may not need to take someone home, but then again, we may. Do we see the person as a person and make a judgement based on commonality and wisdom, both? Where is the boldness of following Jesus despite what the culture says? Where is the courage to listen to the Voice if he breaks our societal norms? What if one knows with confidence the sound of the Spirit, and it’s not a question in the mind of when he speaks? What if the Spirit says, “give this person a bed”–can we do it? Or if he doesn’t say so and merely whispers, “offer food”–can we put ourselves in the shoes of our new acquaintance to offer in a way that realistically meets their need? Can we resist the temptation to fiddle with our radio and smile at the woman, instead? Can we remember that we are all but people?
What if we did not merely feed bellies, but fed hearts? And fed them truly, by opening our own hearts in return? Can we touch a life by letting them into our own? In the pressure of the moment, can we silently say, “Let me learn from you, friend. Let me see what you have to teach, for you are the grace of God to me in this moment. We are fellow travelers on this road of life. In the Kingdom of God you are more highly esteemed than I.” Can we put on the Upside-Down-Kingdom-Crowns and look up to those whose needs are externally apparent–rather than look down?
We are commanded at all times to love. Love places oneself in another’s shoes. Love opens hearts to really know. Love casts out fear.