A couple of years ago, I was walked from the Marriott Marquis in Atlanta to Georgia State University to attend stations of the cross during Lent. My walk earned me some chastisement from the good Father in charge of the college chaplaincy, as doing so requires transiting a slightly sketchy part of town. Perhaps he is right, as on my way, a scruffy fellow—tattered clothes, long and unkempt beard, odiferous, and a little wild-eyed but with a broad smile-- approached me, grabbed my arm and pressed a scrap of paper in my hand.
“Gift,” he said and hurried on before I could become alarmed by his familiarity, let alone respond to it.
It was the bottom half of an old flyer on which he had written in blue ballpoint, legible and surprisingly neat, a series of pithy little thoughts. I read them right there on the sidewalk. Somehow I have managed to keep track of that bit of paper for more than two years. It’s Lent again and I’ve been spending a great deal of time thinking about God and how I encounter Him.
How too often I miss Him because He surprises me, showing up, like Alan Funt, where and when I least expect Him. But isn’t that His way? A God who acts through history is a God who continues to do so and a God who turns expectations upside down in the beginning will upset the applecart still. The King is still found in the manger and on the cross, not in the palace.
And this surprising God speaks to me in my own history through those to whom I am related, however briefly. I am made different by every relationship; my life, the one God is making for me whether I acknowledge it or not, whether I particularly like it or not, is both changed and created by those with whom I am in relationship. I cannot even exist without relationship, creature that I am; and I cannot know who I am except against the mirror of others. Relationship is of God, whose very life is relationship in the mystery of the Trinity.
This business of relationship is something quite different than mere interaction. Interaction is a sterile, impersonal term, transactional and commercial. Relating, on the other hand, implies that the encounter leaves something of me with the other and something of the other with me. It is certainly, true for this evanescent and random encounter: I’ve picked up that paper over and over in the past two years and when I do, the moment comes back and I smile. Surely, that man left more with me than a bit of paper with a few lines written on it.
In this case, I am related by a that walk, that street, that day, that time, to a perfect stranger on a sunny street in Atlanta in almost springtime. I’ve come to think of that little encounter as something of a living fortune cookie, with that scrap the paper filling that God sent playfully my way that morning. Here’s what He said to me on that particular day; tiny thoughts that make me smile and make me think…
A hero is a man who does what he can.
Rule your desires lest your desires rule you.
Any song that moves you to joy or tears has greatness.
The most difficult meal for a wife to get is breakfast in bed.
The more laws the less justice.
Jealousy is the fear we have no value.
Beauty is a lover’s gift. Exuberance is beauty.
And the best of all:
Freedom is a universal license to be good.
Except for the comment about breakfast in bed (which I can no longer endorse, given that my groom brings me coffee every morning), that list contains a pretty good summary of the things I—maybe most of us- struggle with most.
And what strikes me is that it was pressed in my hand with the assurance that the paper, the thoughts, the realities that underlie them, the relationship that reminded me of them, even the struggles I have with them--are gift.