Last week I was at a church which hosted the first-ever Cultivate San Diego conference, which I helped to design and lead. As I hauled conference gear out to my car, I reviewed the many scenes of engaged participants, practitioner-speakers, moving worship, and deep conversation. During my last trip back and forth, a homeless man sat down against the wall—right next to the door I was going in and out of. He didn’t make eye contact but simply arranged his just-bought groceries next to him. It felt awkward to not say something, at least hello. But I was also on a schedule, crossing off my to-do list efficiently, hoping to beat the San Diego traffic that starts building as early as 2 pm or so. And what good does just saying “hi” really do anyway? I felt a familiar distance of not having a clue what this man’s life was like, sadness for him and the many like him I saw daily.
But then I saw a common point: Honey Nut Cheerios. There, next to the homeless stranger, was that unmistakable box, the iconic font, the colors I knew. A house guest a mere week before had bought the same cereal and shared some with me. I love the stuff! It’s more like candy than a meal, and it made me smile to see it again. I stopped. I motioned to the box and said, “Wow, they sure didn’t have Honey Nut Cheerios when I was growing up, just the plain ones. Now there’s all kinds of flavors.” His face lit up and he responded right back, “Yeah, I know! Me too.” And we were off on a lively conversation about where we each grew up, how easy it was for the kids in our families to empty a box of cereal in one Saturday morning during cartoons, even if “we got a whuppin’ if we ate the whole thing but we still did!” We both had fond memories of Honeycombs cereal, and Cap’n Crunch (“Didn’t they make one with berries?”), and not liking the options left after the weekend sugar fest was over: Corn flakes. Raisin bran. Hmmph.
Somewhere in there I plunked down on the cement to be at the same level. I saw that he had an expressive face, sparkling eyes when he described growing up on a farm and getting a quarter horse when he was 16. I love horses too. I learned that he had a name: Aubrey. I told him mine: Angelie. It didn’t matter that he repeated himself or that some phrases didn’t always make sense together. He was generously sharing himself with me.
He told me he likes the church we were sitting in front of, because they make him feel welcome, like everyone belongs there no matter what. He said he enjoys the sermons. He became so animated he got up and started walking around, which made me a tad nervous, but needlessly so. Aubrey said it was “his church.” I prayed fiercely for that connection—that his church would feel the same kinship toward him.
As I headed to my car I turned and confirmed his name, “Aubrey, right?” Yes, that’s right. I waved, took a few steps toward my car, then heard him call out, “You’re Angelie!” Yes! Connection sealed.
I didn’t think of my choice to stop for this conversation as a spiritual discipline at the time. I have been trying to be more flexible, to add margin to my schedule so that I can spontaneously pause for strangers and friends. I want to hold the importance I assign productivity more lightly. (As a recovering workaholic and achievement addict it’s been a bumpy road. I’m still not good at adding “chat time” as I scramble out the door to my car, usually cutting it close already.)
I often box the disciplines into something more or less scheduled, private, interior, vaguely manicured. Morning prayer, silent retreats, fasting. Most seem like spiritual calisthenics: not necessarily easy but pretty clear what I’m getting into. To be frank, some practices are seen as prescriptions to produce results: to become more ___, do ____ for the next three months. I’m not knocking that approach, but the seeming certainty drifts toward the mechanical over the spiritual. Disciplines can’t require God to show up any more than setting the dinner table obliges guests to appear.
More than improved character, the best thing that any practice invites is intimacy with God.
I remember years ago as a newbie to Centering Prayer that holy snuggles-with-Jesus was the last thing I felt—as every ridiculous thought I’d ever had poked through my attempts at mental stillness. It took a mentor to teach me that often any good effect comes after, not during, a practice; even then, it is over time and often subtle: Frustration melts more often toward compassion. Self-control replaces impulsivity. And although a disquieting effect of spiritual practices can be a deeper hunger—a greater awareness of our disconnection from the Lover of our Souls—even the pang has a sweeter taste than before. Our faithful God promises to quench it: blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled (Matt. 5:6). Our God loves to be invited in.
Back to Aubrey. I did enjoy my unplanned chat with a stranger; I did remind myself that the world didn’t end because I got home later than planned. But a spiritual practice….? Nah.
It was not until that evening that a profound notion slipped in unbeckoned: that was Jesus.
…Aubrey? No. Wait.
Yes. Aubrey. An elderly homeless African American man with a few canned goods not expecting to be noticed, might have, in fact, been the Creator of the Universe in very convincing disguise. It appears the Lamb of God has a sweet tooth when it comes to cereal options!
If that seems like a stretch, in Matt. 25 Jesus gave us his home address, told us exactly where to find him: “…whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
How has that become a safely distant metaphor when his words are quite clear? How did I not put it together until the Spirit whispered in my ear? I guess I’m in good company; I felt the same stunned “Aha!” as the road to Emmaus travelers who burbled to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us?” It reminds me of occasional times of looking into the eyes of street corner sign-holders while slipping them a bill and seeing a deeper spark shine back into mine, a momentary flame ignite between us. I remember a particular gnarled woman, street-grimed and stooped, but she said, “Thank you,” and smiled with such disarming presence, her eyes like beacons, it made me gasp. Surely that too was Jesus.
As a spiritual director, I do still suggest the classic disciplines to my directees as essential to their formation. These practices have the backing of tradition, and often a goldmine of inspired writings from honored saints across centuries. But I have also learned to help them craft practices off the beaten trail that invite them to encounter the Sacred in unexpected people, to discover that the Spirit is not limited to our notions of orthodoxy. Our Jesus of Bethlehem’s manger, who touched lepers, who was himself homeless, can surely be found in surprising, unsettling places, and indeed, waits for us there.
- Pray. Ask Jesus to open your eyes for where he already dwells, hidden in plain sight. Ask for trust and courage to stay in that unsettling moment when it happens.
- Slow down. Noticing Jesus, and pausing to say hi, takes time. You’ll rush right past him if you don’t intentionally decelerate and look around for him. Be interruptible for parts of your day.
- Be normal. Jesus-in-disguise likes to talk about the weather, sports, work, family, food, breakfast cereal… just like you. Start out simple and let him guide the conversation.
- Practice. Like any new discipline, do it regularly for a while. Be patient with the awkwardness; gently notice your questions. Journal. Find a spiritual director or wise friend to process your experiences with.