It’s fairly common that about the time I’m starting to think I’m something, the world, my faith or my children conspire to make sure I know how unimportant I truly am in the cosmic scheme of things. Recently, I’ve been traveling the country speaking and teaching, copy-editing manuscripts of books about to be published, and conspiring with publicists on how those books are going to launch me into bookstores and across the airwaves.
It would be heady stuff – and is, I think, for many people. But I’m reminded over and over again, as I said, how all of that is simply in service of what really matters. And folks, be assured I know it ain’t me.
My son, Chandler, has a phrase he likes to insert into prayers, a request that God bless “those who have none.” I know it’s not grammatical, but it also expresses a child’s understanding of what Jesus, in the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew called “the least of these.” A lot of people in the world have real needs; a lot of people suffer. We are called to offer a cool glass of water or a helping hand to them.
The night before I set off on my recent swing across the American South, Jimmy was waiting on my front porch. Jimmy is my adopted one of “those,” a man with some serious problems, not the least of which are financial.
Jimmy is not like some of the homeless or needy I encounter. He is well-mannered, good-natured and understands the importance of privacy. He prides himself on not asking me for help often. (This is also a good thing pragmatically because I don’t have the resources to help him often.) If sad, his demeanor is something like a dog that’s been abused. He’s constantly fearful that something he says or does might offend.
Our meetings, like the one the other night, typically begin in this way: Jimmy will greet me warmly, shake my hand, and make some comments about my appearance or how long it’s been since we met or ask about my recent travels. And then, eventually, he’ll get to the purpose for his visit: “I know you don’t have to help me, I’m not looking to you to solve my problems, but I don’t know what else to do.”
Jimmy’s needs are simple. Sometimes it’s money for the meds that keep him stable and mostly functional. Sometimes it’s food or some money for food. On this particular evening, he needed money for a haircut. A Texaco station in South Austin had given him some kind of a job cleaning up and taking out trash (he proudly showed me his new Texaco shirt) but had asked him to trim his unruly locks.
So these visits always proceed in this way: I listen to Jimmy’s wish list and listen to him talk about all the people he’s gone to looking for help, and listen to him talk about his faith. I help him if I can, in whatever way I can.
Then, at the end of our time together, I pray for him, a practice we fell into years ago. Sometimes I’ve had nothing more to offer him than my prayers, and he has always seemed grateful to depart with some sort of blessing.
So, in this last visit, I gave Jimmy some money toward his haircut, and managed to get him focused on the idea that I was getting ready to go in and pack for my trip, and, as always, I told him I wanted to pray with him. He took my hand across my patio table, and then just as I was about to start praying, he spoke.
Although Jimmy had prayed quietly before as I prayed for him, he had never prayed out loud, and certainly never taken the initiative like this: Jimmy thanked God for watching over him and for giving him a job. He asked God to protect me as I traveled, to bless me for the things I had done for him, and to help me do the work I was called to do.
I am familiar with all the arguments that we shouldn’t help the homeless financially, that they’re all drunks or addicts, and I have seen my own hard-earned money poured down some homeless guy’s throat more than once.
But I have also seen the gifts that I made, sometimes suspiciously, sometimes grudgingly, turn into blessings.
I sat down with Jimmy expecting to be the one giving. I got up, having been the one who received a blessing.
As my dear friend the Rev. Bill Adams would say, Isn’t that just like God?
Greg Garrett is professor of English at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He blogs at The Other Jesus.