Heeding Jofy’s Ears

Despite good intentions, my life seldom – if ever – directly mirrors my Christian faith. I believe, for example, that God speaks constantly in and through the ordinary circumstances of life. So, in God’s order, every breeze has its purpose. Every sound has its deeper meaning. Every leaf, every barking dog, and every passer-by manifests unique and mysterious theological lessons to comprehend. Genuinely holding that perspective, it is beyond frustrating that I so often find myself wallowing in life’s mundane distractions and deaf to God’s actual voice.

With a little help, though, I can sometimes experience a breakthrough.

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One day, when our grandson “Jofy” (i.e., Joseph) was two years old, he wandered into our family room where I was watching a baseball game. Since his parents, our son and daughter-in-law, wisely limit his exposure to television, he was quickly fascinated by the images on the screen. I began to chat casually with my son, Stephen, just as the inning was ending, and neither of us paid much attention to the commercials that immediately followed. Jofy, however, was riveted.

At the time, the Nicholas Cage movie Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance was being heavily promoted. An ad for the film came on the television showing a (literally) hellish image of a demonic motorcycle rider shrouded in fire. Jofy immediately began to scream in absolute terror. As quickly as I could, I turned off the television. Then, my son and I tried to console our little guy and to explain the inexplainable. I was furious at the violation of his innocence and felt terrible that it had happened under my watch.

I see a bit of myself in Jofy, now five years old. He is a sensitive child, who – like his Buppa – obviously feels things quite deeply. When someone reads him a story, for example, if he finds any part of the tale troubling, he’ll cover his ears with his hands until the offending portion has passed. I find that trait especially endearing.

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My wife and I are often blessed to be joined at Sunday Mass by Stephen and his family. Such was the case on Palm Sunday this year; and, as usual, Jofy positioned himself between Marianne and me in the pew. (His younger sister, Katerina, typically prefers to remain close to her Momma, Mikayla.)

Like every small child, Jofy has his fidgety moments, including at Mass. He is never a nuisance, but he often engages himself in quiet play while we worship. Honestly, I enjoy watching him exercise his creativity, whether directing an imaginary jet plane with his hand or deftly swinging Paul Bunyan’s double-bladed ax to fell an invisible tree. He can seem detached from the solemn proceedings around him; yet, there is a deeper truth.

Of course, Palm Sunday Mass is busier than the typical Sunday liturgy. There are palm branches, an extra Gospel reading, a procession, and a dramatic (and lengthy) reading of the Lord’s Passion wherein the congregation assumes the generic role of the crowd. “Crucify him,” we are expected to demand loudly, for example, when Pilate asks those assembled what he should do with this troublesome Jesus of Nazareth.

With script in hand and anxious not to miss my cues, I followed the text carefully as the priest and two lectors read their respective parts; but, my focus, I’m sorry to say, was misdirected. Mindful of the performance, I failed to listen attentively to the great story itself. Meanwhile, Jofy played by my side.

The details of Jesus’ betrayal and death are well known; and, maybe familiarity risks dulling their impact, especially after so many retellings. That particular day, though, as we read about our Lord being brutalized and murdered for loving perfectly in an imperfect world, I happened to glance at Jofy, who had ceased playing and was now carefully covering his ears with his hands. The story had become too terrible for our sensitive little guy to hear. His reaction awakened my spirit.

Marianne saw it too. We both smiled, nodded at each other, forgot about the script, and listened anew to the awesome story of our faith.

“Listening” by Steve Dalton

Preface:

Of late, I’ve had precious little time to write, but I have been doing a lot of thinking… often with pain in my heart over the divisions in our broken world.

I’m re-posting this essay (below) for two reasons: 1.) because it’s important to me, and I feel that it speaks to the pain I’ve been experiencing of late; and, 2.) Although more that 260 people subscribe to this blog, only 29 – according to the WordPress stats – have actually read it.

I hope you’ll take the time. And, I hope this blesses you in some small way.

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Like you, I have a lens through which I view and interpret the world. It is a lens forged by the entirety of my life — my religious formation, for sure, but also my upbringing, my relationships, my education, my opportunities, my inclinations, my struggles and losses, and my many mistakes. I make no claim that mine is a perfect lens. In fact, when I go to prayer each morning, I do so with the stark awareness of my need to see more clearly.

My vocation, at least in part, is to consent to the gradual sharpening of my vision by God’s own hand, which will happen as I do a disciple’s work, namely, as I listen with an open heart to the countless words of God spoken – sometimes as a whisper – into my life each day.

On a continuum, be it religious or political, my lens (or worldview) falls somewhere between far left and far right. From my vantage point, when I look in either direction, I see friends whom I love and value, who are themselves words of God infused with profound meaning and deserving of my utmost consideration.

If I speak from my worldview, my place along the continuum, and express a perspective at odds with yours, I hope you will be patient with me. And, I hope you will recognize that I have arrived at my position after careful soul-searching… and often with an anguish born of love.

Most individuals, I believe, follow a similarly thoughtful path of discernment on important issues. In our politically-volatile culture, however, even good, sensitive people seem prone to lose sight of this.

The world may indeed have its share of small-minded people, spouting bigotries and reacting in knee-jerk fashion to the issues of the day. Nonetheless, to presume such a disposition in another, especially on the sole basis of a conflicting worldview, seems a grave offense against that person’s dignity. Further, presuming such a disposition of an entire group or community of people (e.g., “traditionalist” or “progressive” Catholics; or, members of the “Tea Party” or the “Occupy Movement”) represents, in my opinion, a genuine flirtation with evil.

We are quick these days to demonize. It is so much easier, after all, to brand and dismiss someone than it is to listen thoughtfully to the circumstances that have shaped that person’s perspective. Such is the carelessness of our age; and, we collectively suffer as a result. The chasms between us are sometimes shockingly wide and deep. But love and respect are a marvelous bridge and a reason for hope.

I am pro-life. I say that with no intent to confront or accuse, though some may hear it as such. I say it though painfully aware of the exploitative, abusive, and terribly irresponsible behavior so often manifest in those of my gender. I say it with shame for the ways in which such behavior has been manifest in me. I am truly sorry! And, I am pro-life!

Perhaps it will help if I explain that I see all life as proceeding from the mind of a loving God. When I see you, regardless of your worldview, I see one who has been intended for all eternity, who has been “spoken” into existence purposefully, and who has a worth well beyond my comprehension. God does not waste words!

For us, however, language is often a big problem. Civil discourse has all but evaporated because of, what I call, a “contraceptive mentality” (i.e., an automatic tendency to close our minds and dig in our heels the moment certain buzz words or phrases are uttered, such as “pro-life,” “pro-choice,” “gay marriage,” “traditional marriage,” etc.). Such barriers – or shields, to borrow an image from Star Trek – prevent the life-generating sharing of our human stories and prohibit discovery of what we hold in common, including our shared beliefs and frailties.

For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Mt 18:20)

Do we believe this in practice? What if, for example, one of two is a so-called “American Catholic” and the other an unapologetic “Papist?” Before considering the possible tenor of their conversation, perhaps we should wonder if they ever would “gather” in the first place… in the name of the Lord they both profess.

It seems nearly irresistible to mock the “left-wing loon” or the “right-wing bigot,” as though the entirety of that person’s life, the complex circumstances that have forged her/his worldview, has no validity. How can we miss this injustice in ourselves?

It hurts terribly to be branded! And, make no mistake; we are diminished profoundly by branding others!

So, we remain a polarized people, living in fear and anger, suspicious of each other, and yet craving to be understood and accepted.

We are wary of the absolutists, who seem to be all around us (sometimes, I’ve discovered, even hiding in my mirror); still, we thirst for the Absolute!

There is a creed that I profess. In faith, I embrace the elements of that creed as “objectively true” in the fullest sense of that phrase. My understanding of these truths, however, remains a work-in-progress, especially regarding their practical and pastoral application. I am reminded here of the traditional definition of theology as “faith seeking understanding.” As a person of faith, my life’s work is to strive for a deeper understanding of all of God’s wonderful words — the ones printed on pages in holy books that I treasure… and, the ones who will pass by me, some on my left and some on my right, as I live this day.

The gift that is this day!

Wakes

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I am an associative thinker and tend to rely on analogies to help me interpret my world, particularly its more painful aspects.  And so, as I stood alone in the aft, transfixed by the cruise ship’s turbulent wake, a different wake, my father’s from three months prior, came readily to mind.

Close by the ship’s propeller, the water churned fiercely.  Yet, as the vessel moved on, I was consoled to see order and serenity gradually restored to the sea.  Perhaps the emotional aftermath of my father’s death will follow a similar pattern.  Time is essential, of course.  Time… and very much grace!

I have written elsewhere about my father (most notably in “The Red Sweater” http://wp.me/p3OG1U-3C), testifying to the healing work that God has already accomplished in me.  Tragically though, forgiveness does not always translate to reconciliation.  So, by my father’s choice, which I honored, for the past twenty-three years – his final twenty-three years – we were estranged.

Considering the painful distance between us in life, and now, that ultimate separation in death, I’m amazed by the significant space my father still occupies in my psyche.  Such is a son’s need, I guess, even as the son himself grows old.

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A few years ago, I was called for jury duty.  At the courthouse, while waiting to go through security, I struck up a conversation with the man immediately ahead of me in line.  He was an African-American Protestant minister, who explained that his “calling” was to help broken-hearted men, of which there were many in his congregation.  He referenced the story of the Baptism of Jesus in Matthew 3 and made special note of verse 17, wherein God the Father’s voice is heard saying:

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

“That verse,” the good man observed, “is something every boy – and every man – aches to hear from his father.”

Quite unexpectedly, while inching toward courthouse security, I felt laid bare.  Fighting back tears, I desperately hoped that my vulnerability, my wound, went unnoticed by my new acquaintance… that healer of broken-hearted men.

—–

When a loved one dies, memories sometimes come in a torrent.  In the wake of my father’s death, an all too familiar memory came yet again to me.

When I was a young boy of perhaps eight or nine years, my father made me a special promise.  “This Saturday,” he said, “will be our day. We’ll spend the whole day together, and we’ll do whatever you want to do.”

I was ecstatic!  Time alone with my Dad!?  Even as a child, or perhaps especially then, I had sensed the disconnect between us; but, maybe things could be different.

The days of that week could not pass quickly enough.

When Saturday came, I bolted out of bed and into the kitchen, where I found my mother, with a knowing smile on her face, already making breakfast for my father and me.  As we ate together, my father told me that he had a quick errand to run but thereafter the day would be mine. In fact, I could even accompany him on his errand.  It didn’t matter to me.  We’d be together.

While on the errand, my father ran into a co-worker, who told him that a number of their mutual friends were getting together to play golf that morning.  Then, he asked my father if he’d like to join the group.

Even now, it’s difficult to explain my feelings as I was dropped back at home that morning.  Rejection?  Embarrassment?  Confusion?  Yes to all those things.  But maybe shame comes the closest to telling the story.  Even as my mother tried to console me, I just wanted to disappear.

Through the years, I’ve often wondered if my father enjoyed that round of golf, which was surely the most costly round he ever played.

—–

“The Red Sweater,” was a story I’d told a number of times, but I’d never felt free to write it down.  It always seemed like something that should wait until my father’s passing.  Then, in late September of last year, I unmistakably sensed that the time had come.  The writing proved cathartic as I relived that blessed experience.

My work was completed on October 6th.  I then sat staring at the “Publish Post” button on my blog site.  “Should this wait?” I briefly anguished again.  Then, feeling a surprising sense of peace, I really knew the time had arrived.  I clicked the button without regret.

The next day, I received a characteristically kind phone call from my dear, life-long friend, Paul.  “Steve, I’m so sorry about your father’s passing…” he began, but I quickly lost track of his words.  You see, no one close to my father had informed me of his death. Paul had unknowingly broken the news.  He had died the previous morning… just a few short hours before I posted “The Red Sweater.”

All things considered, I am truly grateful to have learned the news the way I did, from a loving friend.  God is good!

—–

I didn’t attend the formal wake or funeral.  After all, his second family had shared his life far more closely and deserved their private time of grief.  Instead, my wife, our children, and I went to pay our respects the night before, alone.

My father was eighty-eight years old when he passed.  In death, his body looked so small and frail… so unthreatening.

In the funeral parlor, my family gave me some private time.  Time alone for just me and my Dad.

I knelt, prayed, and said “good-bye.”  The next day, after the graveside service had concluded and everyone from his second family had gone home, I paid my final respects just before the cemetery workers filled in his grave.

May God rest his soul!

And, at a time known to God alone, may we finally have that special day together… father and son… on a day that will never end.

In the meantime… healing, as the waters gradually settle.

Forever in My Heart

When I was a little boy, I forced myself to stay awake one night after being convinced by my big sister that a spaceship would soon be coming to pick me up. Apparently, a monumental intergalactic war was taking place, and my help was desperately needed if the good guys were to prevail. In the morning, Christine had quite a chuckle.

And then, there was the “May Procession” incident.

In the 1960s, our (Catholic) parish held an event every May honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary. There was always band music, a parade through the nearby streets of the town, and a crowning of Mary’s statue with a wreath of flowers.

“O Mary, we crown Thee with blossoms today, Queen of the angels, Queen of the May…”

I remember it well.

Now, I look back on those events with great fondness and admiration; however, on one unusually hot “May Procession” day, this diminutive (yet stubborn) parochial school student didn’t want to march. My mother’s pleas fell on deaf ears; so, her secret weapon – Christine – was deployed.

My big sister took me aside, saying that she had something really special to show me. In the palm of her hand, she displayed two thick, but otherwise ordinary, rubber bands.

“Do you know what these are, Stephen?” she asked, before answering her own question. “These are very special rubber bands, the kind that baseball players like Mickey Mantle use to hold up their socks. I’ll give them to you if you march in the procession.”

Resistance was futile. Of course, I marched. Christine could always convince me.

When I was seven, my parents purchased our first dog, a smart, frisky miniature poodle. One morning, the front door was accidentally left ajar and our new puppy ran outside. Christine, still in her pajamas, bolted out the door to catch her. I watched out the window as passers-by laughed at the sight. I teased her about that for years… and, I wish I could tease her still.

In prayer this morning, I suddenly became aware that I’ve now lived longer without my big sister than with her. With that realization came tears, surprisingly ferocious tears, like those I cried on January 27th, 1985.

I’m not sure why the particular memories mentioned above came to mind today, but I treasure them all.

Christine was beautiful in every sense of the word. Phony space adventures aside, I’ve never known a kinder, more thoughtful, more faithful human being in all my years, and I’ve known a great many wonderful people.

I loved her so. And, you would have too. Everyone did.

—–

P.S. I’ve written previously about my sister in the essay Hearts and Treasures. If you’ve never done so, you might check out this entry: http://musingsamidthethorns.com/2013/08/21/hearts-and-treasures/. It speaks to the depth of her character.

 

 

Re-Birth: An Instruction Manual?

Upon the birth of a first child, someone among the new parents’ family and friends will most likely – and with the best of intentions – observe (about the baby): “It’s too bad they don’t come with an instruction manual.”

Parenting is indeed a learn-as-you-go proposition; however, looking back on our own steep learning curve, I wonder how Marianne and I may have benefitted from just such a handy tool.

When our youngest grandchild, Benjamin, was baptized, the administering priest, Fr. Raymond, used the opportunity to provide all in attendance with a strikingly beautiful catechesis on that foundational Sacrament. I remember leaving the church with the very clear conviction that Benjamin had just been “re-born” in Christ.

Thinking back to that joyful day, I’ve been doing a bit of prayerful reflection on what a post-Baptism “re-birth” instruction manual might contain.

If an instruction manual were to accompany a first baby, it would be written specifically for the new parents. A “re-birth” instruction manual, however, would be primarily for the baptized. Of course, if the “new creation” in Christ could not yet read or comprehend the manual, the instructions could temporarily be implemented by the parents and god-parents, but with the clear understanding that the new Christian must assume personal responsibility for implementation upon reaching maturity.

Please bear in mind that what follows is not intended to be comprehensive. These are just some of my “musings.”

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Congratulations! You are a “new creation” in Christ. In order to experience fully the benefits of your transformation, please do the following, and repeat each step as necessary:

  • Appreciate that, in all circumstances, you are loved by God beyond the furthest limits of your imagination.
  • Know that you have always been in the mind, heart, and plan of God. And, at just the right moment in history, God purposely “spoke” you into the world.
  • Recognize that God intends community among people and has deliberately woven us together so intricately that everything we do impacts the broader human family. You yourself are a communal being. Always keep this in mind.
  • Confront, with humility and faith, the tragic reality of sin and its implications for you personally and for the world.
  • Understand that, if you were able to conquer sin within yourself, you would have no need for a Savior.
  • Always rejoice in the great Savior you have been given.
  • Be grateful that God has gifted you with authentic power, significance, and freedom; but, also recognize that, because of these gifts – and the divinely-ordained communal nature of the human family – you must always act with discernment and love.
  • Because all are sinners, you and your neighbors alike will often fail to perfectly carry out the instruction immediately above. Consequently, you will wound, and be wounded by, others. Never despair!
  • Seek and dispense forgiveness liberally.
  • Trust that God can bring good from even the greatest tragedy.
  • Know beyond a doubt, however, that God never causes a tragedy to bring about a good purpose.
  • At times, you may be tempted to see yourself as ugly, unlovable, a mistake, an inconvenience, a burden, a failure, a disappointment, etc. Recognize and absolutely reject these lies, which are designed to steal the truth of your identity and dignity in Christ.
  • Cherish that God knows you intimately; and, rejoice that God wishes to be intimately known by you.
  • Seek God constantly in prayer. And, when prayer is dry, persevere. And, when prayer is drier still, persevere further.
  • Study God’s revealed truth.
  • Recognize that God chooses to speak revealed truth through human agents; so, it is vitally important to discern the voice of God from the voice of God’s agents. Trust the Church’s guidance, as well as the noble work of scholars and theologians in these matters.
  • Humbly seek a spiritual director to guide your journey in Christ.
  • Appreciate that the created world is holy. So, when you observe the majesty of the mountains, the raw power of the ocean, the beauty of the night sky, or the miracle of a tiny wildflower, see God as their Creator, and know that God has perfected their beauty precisely for you.
  • Richly and gratefully partake of the Sacraments of the Church, which heal, feed, and ennoble your interior life.
  • Become an active member of a faith community. You will quickly discover that your gifts complement those of your brothers and sisters; and, you will experience life more completely.
  • Be gentle and patient with your neighbors, who may be bearing a greater burden than you realize.
  • Use your words to build up, but never to tear down.
  • Make sure that your life of faith never deteriorates into an ideology that will set you at odds with your brothers and sisters.
  • Learn to live serenely with things beyond your control, always trusting in God’s ultimate goodness and sovereignty.
  • Share your time, treasure, and talent with great generosity.
  • Be patient.
  • Treasure innocence.
  • Listen, always, for the voice of God.

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Thoughts?

Ripples, Tares, and Bedford Falls (Part One)

I have always enjoyed watching the ripples caused by the dropping of a stone, even a small stone, into still water. There is, I think, a valuable life lesson to be learned from those concentric waves gently moving whatever floats in their path.

It’s a Wonderful Life, my favorite Christmas film, teaches a similar lesson. George Bailey’s small acts of kindness ripple through the lives of his Bedford Falls neighbors in subtle yet utterly transformative ways. “Strange, isn’t it?” says Clarence, his guardian angel. “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

Even after viewing the film countless times, I find it impossible to hold back tears when George’s loved ones and friends rally to save him in his moment of need.

Ah, the human family!

Recently, I was privileged to attend a presentation delivered by Fr. Michael Himes, a professor/theologian at Boston College. Fr. Himes is a brilliant speaker, and I always enjoy hearing his perspective; but, that evening, I found his subject especially captivating. He spoke of how God has deliberately and intricately interwoven our lives such that even the smallest of actions can have wide-ranging significance. He then logically concluded that, “There are no small actions.”

It’s true! We ripple each other’s lives in countless, meaningful ways. In a sense, we are all George Baileys… or, under the right circumstances, Mr. Potters.

In Matthew 13:24-30, Jesus tells what we have come to know as the “Parable of the Wheat and the Tares/Weeds.” In the story, a man sows good seed in his field, but weeds grow up alongside the wheat. The man’s servants ask if he would like them to pull up the weeds; but, he wisely concludes that both wheat and weeds should be allowed to coexist lest the wheat accidentally be uprooted during the weeding.

I find that man’s decision strangely comforting, perhaps because I know that my life – and, frankly, every human life – manifests both wheat and weeds. (Even good George Bailey unjustly railed against Mrs. Welch, Zuzu’s teacher, while under particular duress.)

As Christmas draws near, I’ll be praying especially for two things: 1.) insight into the various ripples emanating from my life; and, 2.) the grace to remember that the child born in Bethlehem so long ago came to save not only the George Bailey in me… but especially the Mr. Potter.

Merry Christmas!

Bridging the Chasm

Dear Friends:

Once recognized, few things weigh more heavily on the human heart than a missed opportunity. Likewise, the related and unanswerable “what if?” is counted among our most perplexing questions.

​In the winter of 1995, I committed to speak at Chapel Talks, an adult faith-formation program being offered at the time in my parish. My topic was to be the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31), a well-known and tragic example of habitually missed opportunities.

​Shortly after agreeing to speak, I was scheduled to travel to Philadelphia for a professional conference. Being a homebody at heart, such trips were often an occasion of loneliness for me. This time, however, I was actually looking forward to the time away. While my days in Philly promised to be quite busy with meetings of one kind or another, my evenings would largely be my own; thus, I anticipated having ample time to immerse myself in the story of Lazarus and the rich man as I prepared for my upcoming talk.

​When the time came to travel, I brought two books with me – my Bible (of course) and Be Not Afraid, a short but intensely challenging book written by Jean Vanier, a living saint, who was the founder of L’Arche.

In the book, Vanier specifically speaks of Lazarus and the rich man; but, he also elaborates, more generally, about the “two worlds” they symbolize – the worlds of misery and comfort, respectively. Further, he describes a “huge wall” that keeps the two worlds safely separated and explains that the comfortable often “throw money or things over the wall” but carefully avoid any direct contact. “The last thing they want,” Vanier explains, “is to see and touch.”

Hmmm.

Holding winter meetings in northern locations is always a risky proposition. On Saturday, my second full day in Philly, a 9-inch snowstorm blanketed the city. After the storm passed, temperatures plummeted such that Sunday’s high never made it out of the teens, and the evening and overnight hours saw temperatures drop into the single digits. It was brutally cold!

Early on Sunday morning, I asked the concierge about Catholic churches within walking distance of the hotel. My intention was to attend Mass prior to the day’s slate of meetings. He told me that there was indeed a Catholic church within a few blocks and advised me to leave by the hotel’s side door as that would be the exit closest to my route.

​Clinging awkwardly to a street map with my gloved hands, I left by the hotel’s side door and turned right toward the church. I quickly noticed two things – the biting wind that brought tears to my eyes and made viewing the map a challenge and the Uno’s restaurant situated right next door to the hotel. Since I’ve always been an Uno’s fan, I made an on-the-spot decision about dinner. When the day’s business was done, I’d have pizza in my room with Lazarus and the rich man.

​That evening, I returned to the hotel, readied a work space on the desk in my room, and called Uno’s to order a large pizza and two soft drinks. (If inspiration came, I wanted sufficient fuel for a long and productive night.) A few minutes later, bundled against the cold, I headed once more for the side door of my fine hotel, totally unaware that I was about to enter a living parable.

​Walking out the door, I glanced briefly to my left and noticed a man huddled on the sidewalk grates adjacent to the hotel. The heat rising from the grates must have offered him some relief from the cold… but I’m sure it was nowhere near enough. I quickly turned away and marched in the opposite direction to pick up my dinner.

​On the way back, the man on the grates was directly in my view. A knapsack, likely containing all of his possessions, was by his side. And, I noticed him periodically stepping in place, left-right-left-right, no doubt attempting to bring feeling back to his frozen feet. As I turned to enter the hotel with my food, our eyes briefly met, and I gave a slight nod in his direction.

Back inside – safely behind the “huge walls” of my luxurious hotel – there was blessed heat, but it offered little relief from what now seemed an interior chill. As I ate my pizza and tried to read and think about Lazarus and the rich man, I felt an unmistakable conviction in my heart. Lazarus was right outside.

​Have you ever debated with God? I did that night. God’s intention that I share my food with the man on the grates could not have been clearer, but I resisted in a variety of selfish, petulant ways.

​“I’ve worked hard all day and deserve some uninterrupted time. Further, I have work to do – Your work, in fact – so I need to stay focused on the task at hand. And, by the way, how can I even be certain that the man on the grates is homeless? Maybe he was on his way home and decided to warm himself for just a few minutes. I might actually insult him by offering him food. Are You trying to embarrass me… and him?”

At that moment, the man on the grates was inconvenient… but, I knew the call of love.

Finally yielding, I closed the pizza box, put the unopened can of Pepsi back in its bag, grabbed my room key, and headed outside.

​The man knowingly watched my approach. As I drew near, he returned my earlier nod and then waited for me to initiate conversation.

​“Have you had dinner?” I asked.

​“No sir, I haven’t.” he replied respectfully.

​Shivering, for I’d not worn my coat, I handed him the pizza box and the bag. “It’s not much,” I said, “just half a pizza and a drink, but you’re welcome to it.”

​“Thank you, sir!” he said, immediately reaching for a slice.

​“You’re welcome! And, God bless you!” I offered, and then went inside.

​Any self-congratulatory impulse quickly receded. In fact, by the time I arrived back at my room, I knew without question that my response had fallen well short of God’s intention. God wanted human contact, communion. In Vanier’s words, God wanted me “to see and touch.” Instead, I had “thrown a pizza over the wall.”

I prayed with urgency. To my shame, I had to admit to myself and to God that leaving the hotel without a jacket had been intentional. How could I stay to talk when I wasn’t dressed for the savage cold?

​I definitely experienced God urging me to return to the man on the grates, this time, wearing my coat, hat, and gloves. I neither hesitated nor debated. Rather, I dressed quickly and headed for the elevator.

​Before venturing outside, I stopped at the coffee shop in the hotel lobby to buy two cups of coffee. One I left black and, to the other, I added just a bit of cream; he could have his choice. I stuffed a couple of sugar packets and a stirrer in my coat pocket, took a deep cleansing breath, and exited by the side door, the door near the grates, for the fourth and final time that day.

​And he was gone…

​I stood there in silence for quite some time, suddenly oblivious to the cold. Then, chastened, I returned to my room… and to my task. Later that same month, I introduced my Chapel Talks audience to the man on the grates, my personal Lazarus, and to the “rich man” standing at their podium.

“What if?”

I have no idea what might have happened if we’d had a chance to talk that night. I am, however, keenly aware of the lesson I learned from his absence, which is also the lesson, I believe, of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. As long as we live, there is no chasm too wide or too deep to be bridged, no “huge wall” too steep to be scaled, if only we can love without prejudice or fear.

​Lest, in your kindness, you be tempted to console me, please know that I no longer bear a burden of guilt over this matter. In a strange way, the missed opportunity proved to be its very own opportunity, which (hopefully) I have seized, by the grace of God.

As I write this note, I am especially conscious of the countless acts of kindness you have shown to me in the time we’ve been acquainted – the ways you have bridged the chasm. This is my opportunity to thank you and to say that I genuinely treasure our friendship.

I hope you had a grate Thanksgiving,

Steve