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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.

The zoo was crowded. The weather was unseasonably pleasant — a perfect day for a family outing. As my husband and I watched the antics of the howler monkeys, I couldn’t help overhearing a teenager giggling and repeating to anyone who would listen how stupid and gross the monkeys were; you know, what with their grooming of one another’s fur and all. I rolled my eyes, a gesture my brother once dubbed (in his childhood) “butterflies to the moon.” Man, my butterflies were way over the moon. The whole crowd seemed loud and coarse; weariness swept over me like a misanthropic miasma.

And then I had a revelation. Suppose you were at a party, a noisy and crowded, raucous get-together, and someone told you that God himself were present at the gathering, disguised as one of the guests. No outward sign would betray his identity. How would you behave, knowing this fact? How would you treat the other guests? The thought stopped me dead in my tracks. Would I roll my eyes at God? Of course not! I would treat every guest with the reverence, the devotion I feel for the Almighty. There would be no “butterflies to the moon.” If even one of those guests could potentially be God, it would be my honor to treat each one like gold.

And suddenly, everyone at the zoo took on a new light, a new identity. I was at that party, and God was among us. It was up to me to treat every person as I would treat God if I were to meet him face to face. What a difference this made to my attitude! Suddenly, the running, shouting children were adorable, the giggling teens heartwarming. Everybody was beautiful. The whole day changed.

Every one of us carries God within our souls. Perhaps it is hard to see, but whose fault is that? The eye of the beholder! God is no less present just because we ourselves fail to apprehend him. If only we could be acutely aware, all the time, of this fact! How differently might we treat one another!

Because God isn’t just one guest at the party. God is all of the guests. It’s about time I acted like it.

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Have a Mary Little Christmas

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