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He was sitting on the curb in front of the barbecue restaurant. White haired, simply dressed but clean. Alone. Was he trying to catch my eye? It was hard to tell. His glance was quick, pleading, afraid. “Do you need some help?” I asked him, seeing that he was shivering. (It was cool, but not cold — was it Parkinson’s? Delirium tremens?)

“I have nowhere to go,” he said. “I’ve been living under that bridge [gesturing]. I don’t have any money. I can’t even catch a bus.”

As my husband trotted off to the car to get one of the bags we carry with us to give to those less fortunate than ourselves (we haven’t got the right ingredients down just yet; the ones we’re carrying now hold money, a first aid kit, a hands-free flashlight, wet wipes, breath mints, a meal replacement bar and an emergency camping blanket), I listened.

“I’m scared,” he said. “I don’t know what to do.”

“We’re going to give you some things you might need.”

“I’ve been trying to get someone to buy me something to eat.”

“Oh! What would you like?”

“Anything! A sandwich. Anything.”

I gave him a “blessing bag” and went inside, where we ordered him a large sandwich with slaw and a bottle of water. When I went out to give it to him, he seemed startled. He kept saying, “Thank you.” I kept saying, “I’ll pray for you.” By the time we finished eating, he was gone.

This is not about doing a good deed for someone. In fact, it’s rather the opposite. In this man, I saw the face of God. What would you do for God? What wouldn’t you do? And yet I know what I did was not enough. Could I have taken him to a shelter? Where is our local shelter? Would they have had a bed for him? How would that have helped him tomorrow or the next day or the next?

I realize, of course, that most of the people we’ve given bags to are panhandlers rather than actual homeless people. They probably throw away everything but the money. But I have a feeling the man we met last night was the real McCoy. And I failed him.

Yes, I believe prayer is powerful. And I am keeping my promise to him by praying for him. But I could see in his eyes, even as I said the words, “How is that going to help me right now?”

I saw the face of God and was unprepared. But isn’t that the way of things? Won’t we always be surprised by where and how we see God? Won’t we always be unready?

As we drove home, I noticed a garbage bag tucked into the corner of the underpass he’d earlier indicated. Were those his belongings? Maybe. If I go back there, will I find him? What do I have to offer him? Am I willing to open my home to him? (And if I’m not, aren’t I saying, “You are the face of God except maybe not”?)

I wish I had answers. Instead I can only tell you: Look for him — not the man I described, but for God. And try to do what you can. May you fare better than I.

For every cause, there is a backlash. Express dismay at the killing of African lions, and you will inevitably hear, “Who cares about lions? What about the poor?” Express compassion for immigrants, and someone in the crowd will doubtless pipe up, “Forget about immigrants! What about our veterans?” Whatever cause one takes up, whichever banner one chooses to fly, someone out there is ready to criticize.

As if there isn’t enough love and concern for everyone. As if human caring had limitations, a “use-by” date, or came in tiny bottles that could never be refilled. The truth is that God is love, unlimited love, and God courses this love through us and to us, to be sent out of ourselves and into the world in great gushing floods. There is no using up love.

There is also no limit on suffering. People suffer — children, the elderly, all races, all creeds. Animals suffer. The environment suffers. At times, it can seem overwhelming. That is where God comes in.

God has given each one of us finely tuned sensitivities toward certain sufferings. Some of us feel keenly for animals. Others feel a bond with those suffering from a particular disability, physical or mental. The point is, there are no wrong answers. Just because your neighbor chooses an interest in politics as a means of social change while you would rather help out at the soup kitchen doesn’t make either of you less than. All caring is important. And all means of caring — whether it’s hands-on or in the silence of prayer — matters.

Instead of chiding one another, why not celebrate the diversity of caring, the multiplicity of channels for the outpouring of love? In the end, we all have the same goal in mind: the betterment of the world. That’s good. That’s what our mission on earth is, as human beings. We are meant to love, built to love. And no two persons are going to do it in quite the same way.

And that’s okay.

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Have a Mary Little Christmas

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