The cold woman on the street corner

Sign

The woman on the street corner held a cardboard sign asking for money. Her face was weather-beaten after hours of being buffeted by the harsh winter wind. Her knit mittens had holes that left her fingertips exposed.

I felt an urge to help. All I had was a $10 bill. I lowered the car window and handed it to her.

Her eyes flushed with gratitude. She said “Thank you, God bless you!” and grabbed my hand and squeezed. And then she did something that has stuck with me.

The woman kneeled, looked up, made the sign of the cross and mouthed the words “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” She had prayed for someone to help. Without realizing it, I was the answer to her prayer.

Lesson learned.

That’s how the whole prayer thing works, isn’t it? We pray for something, and our answer usually comes in the form of another person’s help. And if we truly believe this whole prayer thing, we must make ourselves available to be the answer to others’ needs.

As Pope Francis puts it, we pray for the hungry and then we feed them. That’s how prayer works.

I know that homelessness is a complicated issue. Some people have mental illness or addictions. Some have just been knocked down by life and need a hand getting up – or, at least, a meal for now. Some have lost all hope and resigned themselves to living on the streets, and they’re hungry.

They need their daily bread, and those of us who have enough are the ones who can share it with them.

That’s how it works

Francis addressed this recently in a magazine interview. He said giving to a person in need is “always right,” and it’s only the start. Francis has spent his life among the poor, and he says we should spend a little time getting to know the person on the street. Look into their eyes. Touch their hand. Give them affirmation of their human dignity.

Remind them that they are loved and lovable children of God.

There’s nothing surprising about Francis’ remarks. He tries to live in the spirit of a Jewish rabbi who said we should be compassionate the way God is compassionate, giving to all who ask, and sharing without judgment or condition.

Which is the opposite of what we hear so often.

A while back, Fox News personality John Stossel dressed as a homeless person and collected donations for an hour. He got $11. And then he shamed those who gave to him.

Stossel put one of the kind people on camera and asked why he responded with compassion. The man said: You looked pretty needy. Stossel portrayed him as a fool, someone who had been duped by the dishonest cable TV person.

He shamed those who gave to him

Stossel then suggested that most homeless people really aren’t needy, but are dishonest like him and should be ignored. And he said we can’t really trust charities, either.

You don’t know how your gift will be used, so don’t give it.

Really?!?! I found his comments abhorrent and sanctimonious.

Let’s be honest: Each of us wastes the greatest and most precious gifts we receive from the Creator. We do it all the time, and then we wish for more.

We waste the gift of time on things that don’t really matter. We waste our money on stuff we don’t really need — all of us. Worst of all, we waste our daily opportunities to grow and bring more love and healing into the world.

And then what happens? God gives us more!

I mean, that’s totally crazy, right? Thank God for that!

The story of the prodigal son takes direct aim on Stossel’s attitude. The younger son totally wastes all that he’s given, yet when he comes home the father neither judges nor punishes him but instead gives him more. The wasteful son gets a huge party. The older son objects: You’re being played for a generous, compassionate fool! This younger son is dishonest. You can’t trust him.

Thank God for that

But none of that matters to the father. The older son doesn’t understand the father’s nature, which is portrayed as God’s nature.

It’s a nature we’re called to live in, too. We’re meant to be kind and generous and compassionate to all, even if the one asking for our help is a dishonest cable TV person wearing a phony beard.

Especially then.

We do it because that’s how God treats you and me every day. We keep wasting, and we keep getting more. More to be shared with everyone.