The Means of Grace
Warmest wishes for the holidays! Peace on Earth.
God answers sharp and sudden on some prayers,
And thrusts the thing we have prayed for in our face,
A gauntlet with a gift in it.
-Elizabeth Barrett Browning
The bitterly cold Saturday morning temperatures are hovering just below zero as I search for street parking in downtown Chicago. I am anxious to get to a medical meeting and worry that I will be late.
After circling the block a couple of times, I spot an empty space near the corner. I pull in, turn off the car, bundle up, and open the door. The cold rips through my clothes. I tuck my head into my collar and walk stiffly to the middle of the block where the electronic parking meter will print the receipt I will need to prop on my dashboard. As I try to read the instructions, I pull off my gloves, fish several quarters from my pocket, and feed them into the machine. This approach is pointless as each quarter buys only five minutes of parking time and I am not carrying nearly enough change for my three-hour meeting. I pull out my wallet, balance it on top of my gloves, and fumble for my credit card in the frigid wind.
I hear a voice over my right shoulder. I look up only long enough to see an older man wearing a worn overcoat, a thin stocking cap, and a several-day growth of white beard. I focus intently on my challenge, trying to ignore him. He is quietly talking to me, but my cap is firmly clamped over my own ears as the wind whistles around us. I do not hear him.
I speak firmly. Finally, I grasp the credit card between my fingers and extract it. I slide it through the magnetic reader in the machine. Nothing happens. I look at the diagram and realize I have inserted the card backwards. My wallet balances precariously and vulnerably in front of me. I redouble my effort.
I sense his presence as he waits patiently just out of my line of sight. It has been a long time since I have given money to a panhandler, and for all of the correct reasons. “Social service agencies are in place to help” … ”the money only goes for alcohol” … ”it does nothing to reverse the cycle of dependency” … ”our family contributes in many other ways.”
“How you doin’?”
My fingers are stiffening. As the electronic information on the credit card finally registers, my quarters drop and clatter in the coin return. The man stands patiently. He says nothing more. I actually know someone who carries a few coins specifically for use in these situations. What of grace? What of justice? The weather is brutal.
I fish the quarters out of the machine; it is about $2. I look at the change. I see my breath as I exhale. Spontaneously and without looking up, I extend my right hand towards the man.
“Will this help?”
“Oh, yes, sir. I’m hungry.”
He speaks without emotion. Out of the corner of my eye, I see that he is not wearing any gloves. My fingertips push the quarters into his bare hand, skin against skin. His palm is disturbingly thickened and hard. Why are his hands so heavily calloused? Does he have some skin disease? Is it a result of exposure? I press the gift into his grasp and then pull away.
He takes the money and moves on. I complete my task and finally retrieve my parking receipt. When I look up, he has disappeared.
The next morning, Sunday, I am back home and get pressed into service helping to distribute communion at church; my task today is to distribute the bread. For as long as I can remember, lay assistants were assigned the tray with wine; “This is the blood of Christ, shed for you.” This day, however, I have been asked to distribute the bread, a task for which I still feel somehow unqualified.
Standing in front of the line of waiting congregants, my left hand holds the bread partially wrapped in a linen napkin. I tear off a small piece as the first person approaches with hands cupped. I look up, trying to engage his eyes; I have been in his home, I know his family, I know some of the challenges he faces. I watch as our hands meet. “This is the body of Christ, broken for you.” I press the bread firmly into his palm — flesh against flesh — my fingertips into his soft, warm skin. His fingers close around the gift and I pull my hand away, preparing for the next in line.
“Thank you.” He moves on.
“You’re welcome,” I think to myself. I feel a twinge of recognition, and hours later, I realize why.
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You are one of the bloggers I hope to meet someday. We do think alike. Christ came for those people, and sees us as you saw him - I know you know that.
Thanks for the moving story.
God bless you for this post, at this time of year. Earlier this year, our church and my children's school prepared shoe boxes to distribute to eastern European orphans at Christmas. Each box cost me £25 to fill with things they don't have and will love: a comb, hairbrush, face cloth, soap, sweets, etc. Other mothers at the school complained that £25 was a lot of money when you've got presents of your own to buy as well. I remember thinking at the time that £50 was a pale shadow compared with the money I was going to spend on my daughter's Wii and my son's Scalextric. And tonight I stood in the supermarket, among the throng of people hurtling their gargantuan trolleys of "need" up and down aisles, buying last minute bits I needed. Now I am reminded: how much stuff did Jesus "need" to be born? Thank you your story.
Thank you for this moving story. Are you an elder in a church? If only every elder/deacon (session members) in my church knew each member of the congregation as well as you do. I feel this is important in dispensing the elements of Holy communion.
I read your story several times.
I am like your friend- I carry money with me to give to people who ask. I also give my mittens or gloves to the person if they have none. A gift is just that- a gift. If someone spends the money I give them on something "inappropriate", it's not my money anymore, but theirs. Whatever they do with it is their decision. God bless us all our failings as human beings- as well as blessing our gifts.
Posted 9:57 AM