“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (1 John 4:10-11)
I should have been able to tell from the ragged black and white garbage bags clenched in his fists and the rusted hack-saw hanging down from his backpack. I watched him pass by the window, disappear into the dark of an early evening rain, and then fell back to the book I was reading about homelessness and poverty. In the next moment, the tinkling entrance bell rang at the storefront and I looked up to recognize that it was him again, gently closing the wooden door behind, several dirty flannel layers clinging to his stooped frame. With eccentric arm motions he meandered to the espresso counter and proceeded to engage “Billy,” the college-age attendant who would momentarily go by this name, in an energetic conversation.
“Well, this is a fine establishment you’ve got here – some nice, light advertising. A nice spread of sandwiches and good sanitization.” From his exaggerated speech and grimy hands and fingernails, I could tell clearly now, that this man was an itinerant drifter of sorts. Captivated, I scribbled down his every word. He turned addressing the entire Magpie coffee house: “Please support the food bank; it’s a good place, down at First Lutheran. I was down there before, spent the day at the Library. Walked thirty-five miles.” He went on.
From over my shoulder my friend Danny spoke up: “Can I get you a cup of coffee sir?” At that moment it finally registered that I had been sitting in the middle of all of this, copying the homeless man’s words and characterizing on paper, his very real life for the past ten minutes. It hadn’t even occurred to me who this person was, or that I hadn’t offered him anything, but that I was in fact stealing his words, likely the only possessions he had.
“Hi, I’m Brian Fischer and I am drug-free, he said. “Oh, why sure fine man, I’ll take some coffee.” I dropped my pen and slunk lower in my booth, feeling the weight of either my selfishness or ignorance. I couldn’t tell which was heavier.
To this day, I am embarrassed by the irony my reading a book about homelessness and my apparent oblivion to real-life poor persons. I am embarrassed by the fact that my agnostic friend had more spiritual generosity to offer Brian a cup of coffee than I, the Christian social-activist. On the way out, another friend Lora, not particularly religious from the contexts of any previous conversations or encounters we’d shared, listened to Brian ramble in the cold, for nearly forty-five minutes. Needless to say, as a supposed follower of Christ, I was pretty appalled with my lack of heart-felt response.
The apostle John in one of the most eloquent letters ever penned about love writes: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:17-18).
As Brian Fischer left Magpie, he turned to the boy behind the counter and said “You’re a good kid, Billy. Thank you for being so kind.” Thank you for being so kind, those words still sting my ears as a haunting reminder to be alert and to break out of the selfish-bubbles we oftentimes find ourselves caught in.
The beauty of Christ’s love however, is that it is shared in community. If Brian Fischer would have been solely reliant upon me, the selfish writer, he would have been one cold, hungry chap. It was the community present at that coffee shop which welcomed Brian in, offered him something warm to drink, and several sets of ears to listen to his stories.
My dear friends, “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and “Love is made complete among us.” Because of God’s grace we have all been lifted-up ourselves and set free from earthly bondage; we are called to do the same. Let us move beyond charity and beyond servanthood – toward self-sacrificing love and genuine relationships with one another. Let us unite as one body and recognize the gift of community through which God sustains us all, even when individual parts may lack.