I got a call from my doctor at the VA to come in for an extra blood test, to fast and walk in anytime. So I decided to go in this morning. I left home at 10 AM and was on my way. The day was perfect, a spring day, not too hot, plenty of sun and a gentle wind, yes an altogether fine day. Traffic was good, was able to go the usual 10 miles over the speed limit. Here in Atlanta it is best to go with the flow, safer that way.
I was going into East Atlanta, near the Atlanta Airport. I got off at the Cleveland exit and as is my habit, since this is one of the places that I give money to those who stand with signs saying: “will work for food”; I had some money in hand in case I needed it. I guess I do it more for myself than for others, since I feel that to continually pass someone in need and not help, would be harmful for my heart and soul. This is just me, not speaking for anyone else. So as I got off at the proper exit, I saw at the end, near the light, a man sitting down waiting. He did not have a sign, though I did recognize him from some past encounters. So I drove up — the light was green — and put my hand out of the window with some money, he got up, and took it, thanking me.
Now some of the men I help out there, look good enough, that there can always be some doubt how they will use it, so I tell myself that it will be used for food, which I am sure some of them do. However, this man’s look was truly downtrodden to say the least. His eyes bloodshot, clothes looked like they had not been changed in a very long time, and he had the look of someone who simply drinks and perhaps eats only when he absolutely has to. As I was pulling through the light I wondered if I did the right thing, or if I ever actually do the right thing in this kind of situation.
The mystery of the other, their dignity, even if the person not known, or even loved; I feel is the center point in understanding the Christian faith, and I am sure the same can be said for other religious paths, though of course stated in different terms. Who was that old, bedraggled, dirty man? Do labels actually work in trying to box someone like him in? I then thought what if I could see below the drama, the masks, and the misery that was apparent; what would I see? What would happen if I saw everything about him, his past, the present, and understand the deep reasons, of why he is where he is? Is it really something I want to do? If I felt his shame and pain, his wounds, what would happen? Would I just be seeing a ‘drunk’, an ‘addict’, or would I perhaps see, well….. ‘Me’?
Christ said some interesting things about how to perceive others. He went so far as to say that whatever you do to another, to the least, you do to him. What does that mean? Does it mean that poor man had Jesus hidden somewhere inside, waiting for me to see him? What if it meant more, what if the reason the Christian faith so often fails to really change the world is because this is not pondered enough. Perhaps people are so busy quoting the ‘word of God’ that the real message is overlooked and perhaps at times even forgotten? Maybe it will begin to be understood in a thousand more years, and then perhaps this mystery will be lived out on a daily basis by a people filled with awe at the other being before them. Perhaps that man, with whom Jesus identifies, is Christ, a union so intimate that we simply don’t have the words to express it, for as St. Paul says: “in him we live and move and have our being”.
If I could see deeply beneath the dirty surface, saw and experienced the beloved-ness of this creature made in the image and likeness of God, perhaps it would turn my world upside down, which is perhaps is what Jesus desires to do. We find Christ in the unlovable, the unattractive, the unwanted and the unwashed; yes in the least. Of course we find Christ in everyone, but the love we are called to goes beyond what is common and natural, it is something that only grace can bring about. The fruit of this all encompassing love for others is found in many diverse people, in people that travel many different spiritual paths, which shows that grace is at work everywhere. The gifts of the spirit are freely given to those open to the experience. The fact that I have to consciously act shows how far I am from truly living out this reality, it does not flow naturally from me.
Contempt, anger, and hatred can be ways to protect one-self from feeling the pain of others, for the gift of empathy can be a heavy burden to carry. So no wonder ways are sought after to protect oneself from its onslaught. In the end, each has to decide for themselves what needs to be done for those in need. For me, for some reason, seeing people at stop signs pulls me, for others it could be something else.
A friend once told me that I am enabling those that I give money to. I believe in that concept, but not in the way my friend seems to. People in my life, those I love and care about, at times need to be confronted (just as I do at times), if they are on a course that is leading to disaster. Also if they are having a negative impact on my life and my loved ones, then measures may have to be taken, this goes without saying. However, for those I do not know, I simply don’t know enough to be able to make that judgment. Hence my giving money at certain sites in the city (four all together), for those in need, and like I said above, I am also doing it for myself. My heart has a tendency to harden; I don’t need to develop a practice, or habit, of passing others by to make that hardening easier.
I don’t expect many to agree with me, why should I? This is an issue that we each have to work out for ourselves……yet I am haunted by the saying of Christ: “Whatever you do for the least you do for me”. There are no ordinary people, for are we not made in the image and likeness of God? A mystery that perhaps will take thousands of more years for Christians, and of course I am the first in line on this, to even begin to understand what this means. I get fleeting glimpses of it, but then it is gone, the luminosity of those around me. Perhaps the reason is I have yet to “learn to love my neighbor as myself”, for I do not love myself enough to truly see Christ in others. Yet another saying, that could take me a lifetime to even begin to understand. Yet in the end, it is grace at work, in secret in the depths that does the work, so yes I need to stay open and to learn to live the mystery more deeply and to do whatever needs to be done to keep that avenue open.
What would change?
Old and filthy, stumbling toward me, he looked drunk and downtrodden, so easy to label, then to store him away.
Who is this man?
Below the surface, deeper than any man can look, is there anything at all, is there light, would I find the answer for the question, who are you and who am I?
What would change at the union achieved?