The Very Strange Gift

This is what happened to Jacob on a dark night as he prepared to meet his estranged brother Esau in the desert:

22) The same night [Jacob] arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23) He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. 24) And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 25) When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26) Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27) And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28) Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 29) Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30) So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” 31) The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. (Genesis 32)

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I have this gift. It’s hard to explain, and I’ve not really done so previously, because I’ve never been sure how to. I also don’t want to come off as conceited either. I’ll try and describe it to the best of my ability. Because it’s not the kind of thing that makes much sense. Even to me.

(And I’m not purposefully trying to tug at heart strings with this and the previous blog entry. It’s just where I am right now. Cavanaugh and Kim Jong Un can wait.)

I listen. I listen well. I am extremely tolerant of the very odd. And the very marginal, especially the homeless. Homeless African American men seem to get this. Perhaps it is my physical size, and they assume I will not be afraid. But whatever the reason, I often find the homeless talking to me. On occasion, I will get whole life stories — that happened once at the 55th St. Green line station, a man in the bus kiosk sat down next to me and just started telling me his life story. And we talked — well, he did most of the talking, telling me how he was homeless but got off the streets into subsidized housing and how grateful he was for that, and then about his family life grown up in Chicago, and his mama, and all sorts of things. I get that a lot, life stories. For some reason, strangers seem to know that I can be trusted to listen. And I do listen.

I even listen to the mentally ill. In fact, I try to especially listen to the mentally ill. When I was working for The Oil Daily in Washington, there was a homeless woman who would arrive (or was deposited) at the corner of 14th St. and New York Ave. Time and the elements had not been kind to her, and it was impossible to tell how old she was. But she always had nice clothes, and three very fat suitcases in very good condition. Wherever she slept, it appeared she was safe and warm. But she couldn’t stay there. And so, she wandered the corners of 14th and New York, chain-smoking, having animated conversations with people who were not there, loud conversations about laser-beam eyeballs, the theft of souls, the Central Intelligence Agency and federal prison. (It was like listening in to one side of a phone conversation.) It was fascinating watching this woman function. She rarely stopped talking, and never seemed to engage in conversation in the “real” world. And yet, she was fully cognizant of the world around her — she could get out of the way of things, navigate around people, handle coffee and lunch. She never begged, at least for nothing more than cigarettes.

But always talking loudly about eyeballs and souls. And going to prison.

Mental illness fascinates me. I think it says something interesting about God in whose image we are made. My wife Jennifer is dyslexic, quite severely. That is how God made her. It is not a disorder to be fixed. Her dyslexia, and what is very likely very mild Asperger’s, are who she is. And this tells me something of the God in whose image she is made. Because she is whole. Complete. And so, the schizophrenic is whole and complete too. And in the image of God. So, our task is not to “fix” those who are “broken,” but to make room for them with us in God’s world. Because they too are created in the very image of God, and how they are made tells us something of the God whose image we are all made in.

So, because I think because I am open to the encounter, in particular, with the mentally ill — because I am not frightened by them — I have been the recipient of a great deal of grace. Of life stories. It’s only increased as I have done my seminary studies, learned what this being a pastor thing is really all about. Wear a clergy collar on the streets of some Chicago neighborhoods, and it’s as if you are wearing a big blinking, neon advertisement for this kind of thing. Yeah, people will ask you for money. I take seriously Peter Maurin’s admonition that meeting a beggar is meeting Jesus, and I always try to have something — even a small blessing, even a silent prayer — for someone who begs.

But some will ask for more — your time, your attention, your effort. And they may even give you something in return.

I have received a lot of grace in these encounters. I have had to accept that they happen when I least expect them, when they are least convenient, when I am sometimes least prepared. And so, I have learned to be prepared.

The oddest of these happened about a week-and-a-half ago, on a cold Monday evening. My friend, Sean Foley, was on an extended layover in town on his way to academic conference in Beirut (yes, THAT Beirut). We met to have coffee downtown, in the loop, and I put him back on the Blue Line to O’Hare. I had a Metra Electric train 10-trip ticket with one trip left on it, so rather than take the Green Line “L” back to Hyde Park, I decided to take the Metra. Which meant walking up Michigan Ave. to the underground station at Randolph and Michigan.

So, as I was walking, a homeless African-American man came up to met just as I crossed Washington St. and asked me:

“Will you pray for me and give me a blessing?”

Now, he may have been asking passersby that question all afternoon. And who knows, maybe more than a few people prayed for him. But in all the years I have wandered streets and been accosted by the homeless, I’m usually asked for “spare change” or a hot meal. And not a prayer and a blessing.

(Once, in Minneapolis, a drunken Indian thought I was John Candy…)

Jennifer and I have been worshiping the last several years at an African-American Lutheran church on the West Side, Bethel Evangelical. And slowly, thanks largely to Pastor Albert Starr, Jr., I have been learning how to pray publicly. And so, I asked the man’s name — Philip — and I took his hands, and I prayed. For a warm place to sleep. For a hot meal. For all those on the streets of Chicago, and everywhere else, who need those things. I prayed for bread from heaven, for the saving power of God, and I prayed for these “in the mighty name of Jesus.”

All the while, Philip would echo “amen!” and “yes, Jesus!”

And then I blessed him. I made the sign of the cross on his forehead, blessing him in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Telling him he was forever God’s beloved child. And then I did so for his friend, and African-American woman in wheelchair whose name I wish I could remember but don’t.

He then asked me for $20. (Well, yeah, so what?) He smelled of cheap wine and swore whatever money I gave him was only for a place to stay. I gave him what I had, $5. And blessed him again. I long ago gave up worrying what people in need or who beg do with the money I give them. That’s between them and God.

Again, it could be that he’d asked everyone who passed by for a prayer and a blessing. Perhaps it was how he tried to get $20 out of people. But I don’t think so. It’s strikes me as a really bad ploy. Not many people walking about downtown Chicago have the time or energy for eye contact, much less an active prayer and blessing.

So, maybe there is something about me. This kind of thing happens enough that I need to consider the possibility. As strange as it may be.

But I have to admit, every time something like this happens to me, I am overwhelmed. It is overwhelming, this giving of God’s grace in the world, this bearing the blessing of God to the world. I never quite know what to make of it all. Who am I that some people seem to see this in me? To ask — no, demand — a prayer and a blessing? Who am I that someone would ask this? And what is this gift I have that some people see this in me?

Who am I?