Sunday, January 24, 2010
Meeting God at the Coffee Shop
I saw him at the coffee shop. I'd just placed my order and was waiting, when I turned and there he was, sitting at a table, staring out the window at the buses on the gray, rain-splattered street.
He was dressed like many of the street people in the neighborhood: a tattered shirt and jacket piled on in rumpled layers, gloves full of holes, a slouchy hat. He sat quietly, one arm resting on the table, a cup of coffee near his elbow.
I couldn't see his face, as his back was turned to me, but I was mesmerized by the unhurried sense broadcast by his slouched shoulders. His posture communicated a clear message: he had nowhere to go and nothing much to do, in sharp contrast to the other people in the shop, bustling office workers in search of their morning coffee.
I wondered about his family, whether his parents or siblings knew he was sitting there, alone and apparently homeless. I thought about my own children, both young adults and, at that moment, both unemployed and facing uncertain futures. It was December, 2008, and all over the world the economy had left lives and businesses in tatters. I wondered if my own children would, one day, be sitting at a table in a bleak coffee shop, a cold cup at their elbow, with no work and no home.
My thoughts were rather desperate: I would have to intervene, I needed to go to them, now, save them from the possibility of a life on the streets. I was overwhelmed at the magnitude of the troubles in the world, but I knew my compassion was not enough. I didn't really know how to protect my children from all the dangers in the world, and I certainly didn't know how to help the man sitting at that table.
The unease stirred up by this cascade of despair aroused something else, and the truth hit me so hard I momentarily forgot who I was. I was flooded with a strange and sudden insight, a sense of knowledge deeper than any I've ever received from a book or lecture: this man whose face I could not see, was, indeed, somebody's child. And he was loved.
In that moment, I knew this man was loved as surely as I know that I love my own children. I had heard, for years, people saying, "God loves you," and I'd nodded along, perhaps because I wanted it to be true - but until that moment, I never really knew it. The kind of faith I achieved that day in the coffee shop was not the result of a decision on my part - I had been grasped by truth, accosted by it, actually, and the source of my sudden and intense faith was the homeless man at the table.
I can now say with the kind of faith that Paul Tillich describes when he writes: "Faith is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern," that we -- all of us -- are intensely loved by God.
In that moment of deep vision, I knew that this man had been launched into his life by a source that had never intended the pain and suffering which had marked the man's short life. The only intention had been to give him the pleasure of experiencing life, and the source of this man's life loved the man the way I love my own children - as adults, capable of making choices and deserving of my trust in their abilities, but always and forever loved, simply because they are my children.
I think a lot these days of our brothers and sisters in Haiti, and others around the world, who suffer and are in despair and I remember that man in the coffee shop. Sometimes terrible things happen, and sometimes those terrible things are the result of poor choices, our own or other people's -- but at other times they happen for no reason at all. This does not mean that we are not loved, nor does it mean that the one who gave us life does not suffer along with us in our despair.
Like the man in the coffee shop, we were all given, at our birth, the ultimate gift of life and part of that gift includes the chance to experience all the pain and suffering that is part of being alive. The man in the coffee shop showed me, just by sitting at his table, what it means to be a child of God. And what I learned was this: nothing is required of us, not even that we accept or know this truth. The love is always there, even, or especially, in those moments when we cannot feel it.