"Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me." Psalm 51:10

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A London Encounter

Crowded with people scurrying to catch a train, tube or trek into the city, London’s Victoria Station is a hub bub of activity. Suits speeding to their offices, confused travelers with eyes glued to maps (that’s us), shoppers browsing the stores, they are like ants on a mission. When we arrived via London Heathrow Airport, disoriented Americans dragging heavy pieces of luggage through the mob, we couldn’t conceive the God encounter that would transform us the final night of our journey.
Irish sheep-Ring of Kerry

To celebrate my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary, the four of us spent a week in Ireland with its 40 shades of green, rolling hills dotted with sheep and cows and lovely people with harmonious accents I could listen to for the rest of my days. We traded the calm and serene for crowds and chaos when we transported to London, circling four days in a whirlwind across the city. Hitting the must see sights, we toured St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tower of London, Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace. A bit consumed with British history and obsessed with kings, queens and castles, I’m slightly disappointed I wasn’t born a royal. Still, the defining moment of this trip brought home to me what is truly valuable. It’s not palaces and princesses, crown jewels or coronations, royalty or robes.

Wall to wall people in London

The night before we were scheduled to fly back home again to Indiana, my dad and mom, Tony and I dined at a restaurant on the third floor of Victoria Station. In honor of our last night in London, Mom ordered the traditional English fish and chips with mashed peas. Mashed peas paired with fish and chips makes as much sense to me as tennis shoes with a black cocktail dress. For me, peas of any sort belong with the tea thrown overboard in Boston Harbor. The rest of us chose to eat more appetizing fare—pizza!  As we were finishing our meal, a British man interrupted our conversation through the booth’s window cutout open to the mall. His clothes were worn and all he carried was a small bag containing a few items. “Excuse me. I don’t mean to interrupt you, but could you spare any change?” he said.
Mom, an extrovert on steroids, responded, “What do you need money for?”
“Ma’am, I’d like to get something sweet.”
Mom asked, “Are you hungry?”
Stunned by a question the stranger has likely never been asked, he paused and then answered. “Why, yes, I am.”
Blasting the bewildered man with questions about what he’d like to order, mom took charge of the situation while the rest of us remained silent watching this interchange.  He settled on the pizza and a coke. Smart to skip the mashed peas, like us. Mom then asked the man if he’d rather eat his food in the restaurant or take it to go.
 “I’ll take it with me, ma’am.”
“Well, why don’t you come in and sit in one of the booths, and we’ll talk to the waitress about your food.”
The homeless man plodded into the restaurant and plopped down into one of the booths. He wore weariness. No sigh escaped his lips, but I could sense it. Tired, hungry and all he asked for was a few pence for something sweet, as if that would satisfy the hunger pains. His head hung low as if some invisible weight were holding it down. Awkward silence reigned at our table. It seemed sacrilegious to continue casual conversation. A man hungered while we feasted—while I spurned mashed peas.  My eyes blurred as I blinked back tears threatening as I watched this worn out creature. And yet, here we sat, part of a divine interaction, our resources covering this man’s need.
After the waitress brought his to-go food, the man slowly rose and plodded back to the window cutout. “I don’t mean to bother you again, but thank you.”
Mom said, “God bless you.” The man replied the same and disappeared into the mall to fill his stomach. 
I confess that had my parents been absent, my response would’ve been different. This homeless man would’ve been an inconvenience on my vacation. Perhaps I might’ve thrown a few pence his way in hopes of hurrying him along.  I doubt I would’ve have offered him food or drink.  And yet, Jesus said, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in…” (Matthew 25:35)  
Too often, I am quick to judge, criticize, and wonder whether my gift to someone in need will be misused. I ignore the prompting to offer what I have because I am too busy sizing up the situation. Is this person worth it? How many opportunities to be God’s hands and feet have I missed because of the huge log in my eye?  I’m like the Pharisees, focusing on the outside of the cup instead of the inside of my heart.  When I am compelled to give, I should act quickly without censure, condemnation or calculation of a person’s need or value. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40) What happens to my gift offered with love and grace is not my concern. Ignoring the call to give, however, is not only disobedience but also a missed opportunity to be part of someone’s transformation.
I don’t know the far-reaching effects of this London encounter. Perhaps the meal offered this homeless London man gave him renewed hope that someone cared. Maybe this event witnessed by the waitress sparked an attitude of love and giving. If each told their friends, how might they be changed because of one meal given in Jesus’ name? I only know that I don’t want to remain complacent, stay blinded or become calloused to those in need around me. I ask not only for God to open my eyes but also to instill in me a willingness to give without strings. A meal, a $20 bill, a shirt, a cup of coffee has the power to change a life. After all, a meal in London changed mine!

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