The winter started out gently but became progressively more discourteous. At least this Sunday’s forecast didn’t threaten snow. After church, the sun greeted us as if trying to distract us from the lacerating cold.
Not wanting to linger outside, I squeezed into my car and drove away, waiting for the car’s heater to puff out some warmth. I had gone just far enough to feel the first breath of warm air when I saw a panhandler standing by the road. Holding up a sign, he had positioned himself near a traffic light, hoping for spare change from drivers detained there. I stopped, fourth or fifth in line, and noted with relief that the snow was deep enough to prevent him from walking up alongside the row of cars. It’s not that I had never offered anything to roadside panhandlers. I was ambivalent about such drive-by charity, though. Better not to be regarded as a potential source of hope.
The light turned green. Driving past, I glanced in the man’s direction. He had a decent winter coat, but his hands, ungloved, looked raw and red. I felt a pang of empathy. How cold his fingers must be! I thought fleetingly of giving him my gloves but quickly concluded I wasn’t that kind of saint. Then I remembered—I had extra gloves with me! Months earlier I had stuck them in, of all places, the glove compartment, thinking they might come in handy sometime. Now here was someone who desperately needed them.
I parked in the first spot I could find, about a block away, and located the gloves. Walking back to where the man was standing, I pulled out a few dollars to go with my gift. I thought I would say something spiritual like “God bless you” just so he would know he was being assisted by a believer. It seemed like the Christian thing to do. I anticipated that he would be appreciative, and that made me happy.
I handed him the money and said, “I have some extra gloves. Why don’t you see if these fit?” He pulled them on, exclaiming, “Yes, they fit perfectly!” Then, before I could pronounce my benediction, he turned to me and said, “God bless you!”
That didn’t quite follow my script. I stammered something like, “And may God bless you too,” and we parted. I thought about our exchange later that afternoon. Why was I so startled by his blessing? Perhaps because he said the words I had planned to say but with a sincerity that I lacked. During the course of a block, after I grabbed the gloves and exited my car, I had constructed a little skit in which I was the pious Christian helping the needy beggar. I wasn’t going to bless him so much as bask in the acclaim I imagined the heavenly host and God himself would express toward my act of charity. The warm glow I felt wasn’t love; it was sanctimony.
So this man got a pair of gloves, and I got a blessing. I think I came out ahead. His words of grace reminded me that God speaks his grace to me when I do the right thing with the wrong motive, when I do the wrong thing for the right motive, and even when I do the wrong thing for the wrong motive. They reminded me that I too am a beggar alongside the road. God comes along and offers me not just gloves, but every blessing I need, now and forever.
What wondrous love is this!