beggar-handsHow do beggars feel at dawn? To a person who spends every night outside in the cold, is there any joy in the bright, fresh warmth of a new day? I inadvertently found out on my last trip to Athens, Greece, and it taught me something about making a difference for God.

I was there for a week of meetings and during breaks I walked around the ancient city. That’s where I encountered a very desperate homeless man. His cloths were tattered and he dragged a collection of shopping bags full of scraps. But what made him hard to miss was he stood in the middle of the sidewalk shouting a stream of consciousness rant to anyone who would listen. No one did. I thought, “How awful to be surrounded by people and yet completely alone.”

Early each morning I’d leave my hotel and climb to the top of Mars Hill, the spot in Athens where the Apostle Paul delivered his famous apologetic speech (Acts 17:16-34). It was so inspiring to have my quiet time and watch the sun rise in such a significant place.

On my last walk back from Mars Hill I passed the ranting beggar again, but this time he was silent. It was so early the shops weren’t open and the tourists were still in bed. With no audience the beggar quietly pawed through trash cans looking for food. That gave me an opportunity to carefully observe him. What I saw was a tired Greek man about my age searching for his daily bread.

Suddenly I had a strong impression, “Don’t walk away.” Was it me, or from the Lord? Before I had time for second thoughts I stopped, turned around and began walking towards the beggar. He noticed me coming and seemed afraid. Maybe he’s going to beat me!

To show my good intentions I pulled some coins from my pocket and held them up in front me, like a priest holding out the wafer. The beggar extended both hands, like a worshipper during communion. I placed the coins in his palm and he closed his grimy fingers around them. For a moment, a very brief moment, his ranting persona was gone; we were just two unlikely brothers at the foot of Mars Hill.

Having administered “the sacrament,” I stepped back and gave him a soft pat on the back. Perhaps it was the first loving touch he’d experienced in…how long? He said nothing, but as I turned to leave, his now calm spirit communicated, Thank you, sir. Thank you. I realized I had given him something more valuable than a few coins.

I have no illusions that my random act of kindness solved all that man’s problems. No doubt the next night was as dark and cold as the one before. But here’s the point: in order to make a difference for God, we must first be willing to stop, turn around and walk in love towards a world in need. That’s what I learned from the beggar at dawn.

The Beggar at Dawn

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