Today I was at a coffee shop with my kids. While they ate their breakfast bagels, I watched a man with dirty clothes and scruffy hair count coins on his table. He had a small coffee and he kept sorting out his change, occasionally looking up at the menu board. He counted again, looked up once more, and finally stopped. Then he put the money in his pocket and slumped over his coffee again, a tired look in his eyes.
I grew up in a large city and spent time working with the poor, so I am no stranger to people down on their luck and no stranger to the multitude of arguments people have on whether you should ever give money. What surprised me today was how hard it was for me to even look at the man because when I did I had to bite back tears.
This week at work we had a conference for the students with Dr. Gideon Strauss and the theme was “Wonder, Heartbreak, and Hope.” Part of the talk was modeled on Walter Brueggemann’s Spirituality of the Psalms in which he describes movement among the psalms through orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. Brueggemann re-configured an earlier work on the psalms for this version, which came out in response to September 11: “these tragic events suggest how urgent the descent into disorientation is for the practice of faith” (xv). It is difficult and yet necessary to reach for God in moments of disorientation. And yet so often we put all our energy into convincing others we are fine, keep ourselves so busy that we can’t hear the heartbreaking questions rolling around in our minds.
The question I most want to answer, and likewise the one I most like to ask is this: How did you survive? And sometimes I have to ask it of myself, so I remember that reorientation is not always where I live. We are all of us pilgrims in a land of darkness and sooner or later we will find ourselves in the storms of disorientation. What we need is to tell each other the stories of how we found our way back, to tell those stories loudly and with hope so we can believe.
For the man in the coffee shop, I paused slightly on my way out the door to drop a toonie on his table. Before I was even close enough, he put his hand out—a response he made automatically and without hesitation. And he said “thank you” to me as I dropped the coin in his hand and kept walking. Part of me criticized myself for giving money, something I had so often been warned against, and part of me wanted to pat myself on the back for enacting some kind of biblical parable of lost coins found and the gift of unexpected grace. Instead I found myself once again biting back tears. For all the times I want to deny my own descent into disorientation and the weakness I find there, I saw in this man what I have not yet learned: the simple act of being broken and ready to receive.