Typically, I spend much time alone, whether sitting at home or out and about. An academic and contemplative life demands frequent isolation, and the person so "geared" would be frustrated indeed without the solace of silence. But I must look to Jesus as my example here who, despite His need for sacred hours of devout aloneness, almost daily subjected Himself to the whirling vortex of social engagement. The vita contemplativa without the vita activa cannot be the calling of a dutiful Christian. Since "no man liveth unto himself," Providence frequently thrusts me from Elijah's cave into Jezebel's domain if only to go to the grocery store, which I did yesterday.
I don't think "the Christmas spirit" motivates these musings, for I know my habits, but I have no doubt that the lonely bell ringer standing by the cold red bucket outside Kroger heightened my spiritual sensitivities, especially as I noticed several special shoppers. One proceeded me in the parking lot, a young woman with a walker, legs mangled and shuffling and sliding across the gritty asphalt. Was she injured? Did she suffer from sickness? Was there a congenital malady or a birth defect? Anyone with the slightest streak of human integrity and dignity would be moved with compassion at such a sight, but when coupled with Christ's own tender heart beating in our bosoms, how profusely should our hearts brim with the tender mercies of God at such a sight! So I prayed,
"God bless her . . . "
Once inside, I beheld something even more stirring, the mother pushing the stroller, not a baby stroller but a stroller designed for an adult. I don't know what malady besieged the young woman whose contorted body was strapped in the rolling device, perhaps Lou Gherig's disease or an advanced case of some other neuro-muscular disorder, but her spasmodic and contorted gestures witnessed to serious and heart-rending illness. But what a mother she had! A handsome woman elegantly arrayed whose calling in life was to love and care for this very delicate and beautiful child. The mother's devotion to her sickly child was so powerfully obvious in the swaddling clothes with which she had enwrapped her precious child in that rickety, aluminum manger . . . pink pants and blouse, pink coat, pink hat and, perhaps most touching, the perfectly coiffured white poodle with a pink bow atop its curly head, nestled comfortably in the daughter's frail lap. The child was the recipient of her mother's gold, frankincense, and myrrh. What must have been the mother's emotions when the sickly child was born, or when the healthy child was diagnosed with the devastating disease? What hours spent in bathing and feeding, comforting and consoling, and loving as only a mother can love! What a deep and wide stretching of a mother's soul had Providence wrought! I prayed again,
"God bless them."
As I exited the store, the bell rung rhythmically, "Ding . . .ding . . . ding," and the bell ringer's voice spoke to all passers-by,
"God bless you."
Encounters with strangers, whether strangers sick and sorrowful, healthy and happy, or wealthy and wicked, such encounters are never random, for although we think that our hearts devise our paths, it is the Lord who sovereignly directs our paths to crossroads where others, especially strangers, traverse life's hard highways and crooked byways. What can we do? What can we say? We can pray.
"God bless him. . . . God bless her. . . . God bless them. . . . God help them."
My prayer life is not and never has been what it should be. I don't wrestle hard enough with the angel, and my hands are too weak upon the horns of the altar. I'm sure others would testify the same. I confess that fault not to feign humility, much less to admonish other Christians similarly at fault, but rather to encourage them with perhaps a new context and practice of prayer that has been a great blessing to me and, I hope, to those others for whom I pray.
Who knows what God will do on behalf of those, even strangers, for whom we pray?
"God bless them."
That little prayer, spontaneously but sincerely sprung from a compassionate heart, may not be heard upon earth except quietly within the intercessor's breast, but such a prayer at least touches the hem of heaven's garment, and may even loudly ring the golden bells woven therein.